The Santa Fe Opera returns on Friday, June 28, with the comfortably familiar, the visionary offbeat, and a lot that’s brand new in Season 63. Of the five upcoming productions, one is a world premiere, three are new stagings (including a first-time offering), and one is a fully rebuilt revival. Behind the scenes stands a quartet of administrative and artistic leaders who are all making their official summer debuts — collectively representing an impressive and wide-ranging body of operatic experience in Santa Fe and elsewhere.
Last October, general director Robert Meya and artistic director Alexander Neef assumed their administrative posts, following the decade-long leadership of Charles MacKay, who retired as company general director in 2018. “Charles was so generous in making a seamless transition,” Neef said. MacKay was Meya’s mentor for seven years when Meya served as Santa Fe Opera’s director of external affairs. “Charles was so outspoken in his kind words about me,” Neef said, recalling the February board meeting that decided on MacKay’s successor.
The debut quartet of Neef, Meya, music director Harry Bicket, and Cori Ellison (named to the newly created job of dramaturg) are now turning MacKay’s outline for the 2019 season into reality. “This year is a reflection of Charles,” Neef stressed.
The wealth of new productions this summer is not unusual, Meya said. “You look at Charles’ tenure, and there were seasons we did five new productions. As an opera-goer, you want to experience the new.” Even a warhorse such as Puccini’s La bohème — not seen here since 2011 — has been given an intriguing facelift. Mary Birnbaum, a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, directs. “The production team is all women,” Neef pointed out. “They’ll be telling the story of the women in Bohème. We’re used to getting it mostly from the men’s side.”
Another operatic staple getting a fresh look will be Mozart’s Così fan tutte, directed by R.B. Schlather, who was hailed by The New York Times as “one of our more ambitious and effective younger directors.” This is no traditional reading, Neef promised. “It will be extremely minimalist in look, with bare walls. In a subtle way, we want to capture the landscape of the Southwest.”
That viewpoint is shared by Ellison, Santa Fe Opera’s first dramaturg, a literary advisor or editor in theater, opera, and other forms of art. She said, that Schlather’s take on Così reveals a bold director with an artist’s eye. “He has a strong background in the visual arts. His productions become almost like [art] installations. Schlather’s been inspired by the Southwest, and he’s saying, ‘Well, why can’t this [story] take place here?’ ”
Music director Bicket has experienced a slow and steady march up the ladder with SFO. He’s risen from guest conductor (of Handel’s Agrippina in 2004) to chief conductor (in 2013) to music director (in 2018). In his current position, the Englishman sees his role as “a conduit between the orchestra and conductor, to encourage a sense of community. I’m there as much as I can, for the players, but particularly for the guest conductors. Theirs is a lonely job.”
When Bicket arrived in October, the conductors for three of the upcoming productions were yet to be named: Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, Poul Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child, and Così. The latter was easy to fill: Bicket took that one. “How could I not? It’s one of Mozart’s most glorious scores, and we have an amazing cast.” Ruders’ work, receiving its world premiere as a co-commission by Santa Fe Opera and the Danish Odense Symfoniorkester, was assigned to Paul Daniel, former music director of English National Opera.
For the Janáček, staged here for the first time, Bicket enlisted Johannes Debus, who serves as music director of Neef’s Canadian Opera Company. Handing off that one was tough for Bicket. “I would have loved to conduct Jenůfa. It’s not done that often. But it’s nice to offer a conductor such a long, juicy piece.” Hiring new guest conductors is actually not an easy task, he said. “They’re here for so long, and they’re not paid that much. But once they’re here, Santa Fe becomes an easy place to come back to.”
As music director, Bicket does more than lure conductors. “I’m not an arm-twister or a clever negotiator,” he admitted. But he finds success in his own way. Bicket pointed to bringing on board David Pountney, who directs the 2020 staging of Dvořák’s Rusalka. “I was having lunch with David in England and brought up his Rusalka, which I’d quite admired. I asked if he’d like to direct it in Santa Fe, and he said, ‘Why not?’ Simple as that.”
Given the long-held international reputation of SFO as a presenter of new works, anticipation is expected to build around the world-premiere staging of Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child, the first of three such unveilings over three consecutive summers (including Huang Ruo’s M. Butterfly in 2020 and John Corigliano’s The Lord of Cries in 2021). Ellison has been heavily involved, even though the work arrives as “a finished product.”
“My role is to give support, to do any necessary research on the staging, but mostly to ensure clear storytelling,” she said. The opera had already been recorded on the Bridge label, managed by librettists Becky and David Starobin. In her research, Ellison said she began with the source material: “The 12 Brothers,” a Grimms’ fairytale. Though she wasn’t in on the creation of the opera, Ellison did spend time with the 70-year-old Danish composer when he was in New York recently. He’ll be in Santa Fe once rehearsals begin. Ellison worked closely with Thirteenth Child director Darko Tresnjak and the technical crew. “This production is going to be nothing short of spectacular,” said Ellison, who has been an opera-goer here for 10 years. (“I had a pipe dream that the company would hire a dramaturg,” she recalled.) “We’ll be using state-of-the-art projections.”
Though the Ruders has occupied much of her time, Ellison remains involved with all of the operas — even the rebuilt revival of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers from 2012. The addition of a dramaturg (an in-house writer who works with the company to adapt the works to suit the productions) to SFO’s ranks was long overdue, she said. “I think every company needs one, though not many realize it.” Major opera companies in New York, Boston, and Chicago are among those now staffing dramaturges.
Conversations with the new leadership team at SFO revealed that all four maintained close connections as the work unfolded. “This is a highly collaborative group,” Meya said — including MacKay along with the current staff. “We’re in regular communication. I just saw him when he received the Mayor’s Award.”
What is also common to Santa Fe Opera’s new leaders is their shared fondness for the region. “I love how the opera takes up a lot of space in the community, and how it’s become part of many people’s lives,” Neef said. “You can do new works here because folks here get excited about them. There’s no place like it for opera anywhere in the world.” ◀