Charles MacKay, the general director of Santa Fe Opera since 2008, will step down following the 2018 summer season, ending a decadelong tenure marked by artistic and financial successes in an era of shrinking audiences at other opera companies. He informed the company’s board of directors of his decision during a board meeting on Friday afternoon, and shared the news with the company’s full staff in a gathering convened immediately afterward.
“It seems like a magic confluence of milestones,” he told The New Mexican in an interview. “At that point, I will have completed 10 years as Santa Fe Opera’s general director, and 20 years of cumulative service with the company, since I spent 10 years working here early in my career. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of my first season with Santa Fe Opera.”
A graduate of Santa Fe High School, he began his career in 1968, at the age of 18, playing French horn in an offstage ensemble for a Santa Fe Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier and serving as orchestra assistant. It was the company’s first season at the new theater that had been built following a devastating fire that destroyed the original opera house the previous year.
“The concrete still smelled wet,” he recalled. It was not the last he would smell of wet concrete. Over the past three years, the opera house underwent a major expansion that vastly enlarged its facilities for constructing sets, costumes, and props and effected significant improvements in audience and patron amenities.
Following his first summer, MacKay gradually worked his way up through a series of jobs, finding encouragement from the company’s founding general director, John Crosby. During his second summer, he was given a spot in the orchestra’s horn section.
“I don’t know this for sure,” he said, “but I may be the youngest player ever to play in the orchestra of Santa Fe Opera.”
He got involved in all manner of backstage activities, including painting sets and operating spotlights, and started working concurrently as a part-time bookkeeper in the business office. In 1971, Crosby named him “administrative assistant and fund drive clerk” — which in turn led to positions as box-office manager and then development and sales manager, in which capacity he oversaw fundraising and marketing.
“Here I was, this local kid,” he said. “I really had no experience except at the Santa Fe Opera, and he was giving me opportunities. That’s why in my career I’ve tried to advance the best and the brightest young people I encounter, whether they be professional staff or interns or administrative assistants. There’s a pretty good track record of people I have advanced who’ve gone on to have responsible positions.”
Following his early decade at Santa Fe Opera, MacKay went on to work at the Spoleto Festival USA (1978-84) and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where he became executive director in 1984 and general director the following year. He was named general director of Santa Fe Opera in November 2007 — the third person to hold that post, following Crosby and Richard Gaddes — and began his tenure on October 1, 2008. Two days earlier, the stock market had suffered its largest point drop ever.
“The market started sliding and kept going downhill really until March,” he said, “and then it started to stabilize a little bit. But it meant some very big drops in contributed income, and many of the endowment funds were underwater at that point. Their market values had fallen below the amount of the original gift, so we could not take any distribution from those funds. I kept having biweekly meetings with the senior staff and spent long, late hours here poring through the budget to figure out how to get it to balance. And we did achieve a balanced budget in fiscal 2009, ending Sept. 30. I think it was $1,627 in the black on about a $16 million budget, so it was very, very down-to-the-wire. But happily, we’ve remained in the black all years.”
MacKay’s tenure has been a success by all financial measures. The company’s annual operating budget has now increased to $24 million, with no accumulation of debt. Net assets have practically doubled from $61 million when he arrived to $118 million today. The endowment hovers at about $50 million. Even as classical-music organizations nationwide voice concerns over diminishing audiences, Santa Fe Opera sold more than 75,000 tickets last summer, representing 91 percent of the house’s capacity. A five-year capital campaign to cover the expenses of the opera house’s recent expansion and renovation is within hailing distance of its $45 million goal, which is expected to be met within the coming year.
The artistic achievements of the MacKay years have also been impressive. By the time he leaves, he will have offered audiences 51 productions of 48 different operas, including 43 new productions. Twelve were mounted as co-productions with other companies, an approach he has strongly advocated as a way to defray the escalating costs of theatrical presentation. Five of the works presented on his watch have been world premieres, with two of them — Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain (from 2015) and Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (running this summer) — being recorded live for commercial CD releases.
He was also responsible for bringing Harry Bicket to the company as chief conductor, an appointment made in 2013. “In his own bearing and mien,” Bicket told The New Mexican, “he is an incredibly cool-headed person, with gentle charm and an easy smile. And he’s tough as nails. He’s very clear-headed, but he believes in achieving results without hysteria or tantrums.”
Susan G. Marineau, president of the board of directors, said the company has selected an executive search firm to help with the succession process. At its meeting on Friday, she said, the board chose members to serve on the selection committee and another group to be a transition committee designed to “help set up the next general director for success.”
“We would love to have this all wrapped up by the end of the year,” she said. “Ten years is a nice long run and I think his desire was to go out on top and to feel like he had done everything he wanted to do.”
Recent theater upgrades will be a lasting legacy of the MacKay era. “I feel like things are in relatively good shape for the next 50 years,” he said. “Just two more things we need that are on the list, and I hope to make some headway with at least one if not both.” One is an additional large rehearsal hall. The other is a proper storage facility for scenery and props, increasingly necessary given the focus on co-productions, which may require the company to manage and maintain the physical parts of a production long after the run here has ended.
A more immediate enhancement will be a replacement of the seat-back titling system, a project that is already well along in its planning and may be in place for the 2018 season. “It was installed in 1998,” said MacKay, “and a 20-year life span for technology like that is pretty good. It’s time to do something that would be the next generation for that system.”
“I’m really proud of the record artistically,” he said. “I think we’ve done very, very well, and the exploration of repertory has kept to John Crosby’s basic tenets: mixing standard and traditional works with rarely performed and new operas.”
While acknowledging that a few titles on his wish list didn’t make it to the Santa Fe stage, MacKay happily recalls some particular productions that did. “Faust was a big favorite for me,” he said. “The Last Savage was, too. Part of that was a sort of personal crusade. I believed so much in that opera and felt it had really had a bum rap up to that point, and it just thrilled me to see how the audience reacted. I loved that Wozzeck, too. I thought The Pearl Fishers was so magical. I’ll never forget that opening-night performance when we had the most spectacular sunset, looking through the set to this perfect night in Santa Fe and hearing this gorgeous music — it was just off the charts. Gosh, I start going through the list and there are just so many.”
Contact James M. Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.