To mildly misquote the rapper Lil Wayne and the late senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen: “A million here, a million there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money.” That’s where my annual pre-season chinwag with the Santa Fe Opera’s genial general director, Charles MacKay, commenced last week. With dollar signs.
These be precarious financial times for most US opera companies. The SFO can be seriously proud that since its 1956 founding, the company has never run a deficit. Ever. MacKay is quick to attribute this happy state of affairs to the acumen of founding father, John Crosby: "We're always mindful of his vision and foresight."
When MacKay arrived as general director in October 2008, his unpleasant task was whittling $1.5 million out of a projected budget, bringing it down to $16.5 million without compromising the company's artistic integrity. Despite the Great Recession, he succeeded in showing a munificent end-of-season surplus of $1,017.
The current budget runs to $23 million, and MacKay is optimistic about meeting it. Ticket sales account for 40 percent of the total, a solid figure since some companies collect as little as 25 percent. Sales this year already compare to last season's "off-the-charts" (MacKay's term) record. Donations, stable so far, contribute another 40 percent, with the balance coming from grants and endowment income.
MacKay spoke frankly about hard times elsewhere in the opera world, especially the shutdown of the New York City Opera. "Money's always a major factor, but not necessarily the sole cause" of that company's messy demise, he says. "There's a cautionary tale there. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The board had divisive elements. There was a disconnect with management." And it all went bust.
As was almost the case with the San Diego Opera this year. Despite sharply falling ticket sales, a stormy decision to close it down and the resignation of half the board, the company will survive for another, much reduced, season. What went wrong? "Many things, including way-out-of-scale productions, too much reliance upon traditional offerings, and again, board versus management issues."
MacKay went on to mention the tremors now being felt by the Metropolitan Opera. Management, seemingly pressed for funds, is calling for sharp reductions in union contracts. Opening talks have proved contentious so far, with the strong possibility of a lockout later in the summer. Says MacKay, "I wouldn't want [general manager] Peter Gelb's job for anything."
But meanwhile, back at sprawling San Juan Ranch, SFO's administrative headquarters, MacKay expresses confidence in his board, his management staff, his artists and especially his carefully cultivated audience. The 2014 season lineup features six new productions commencing on June 27 with Bizet's crowd-pleasing sex-fest, Carmen.
MacKay promises "a very cinematic take" for the show, featuring extensive use of film and video. Director Stephen Lawless sets the scene in Mexico some 60 years ago, so expect border fences, mojados y saguaros, and some very unpleasant coyotes. Conductor Rory Macdonald makes his company debut along with mezzo Daniela Mack as the smoldering man-killer. Ana Maria Martínez assumes the position from July 28.
If anyone needs reminding that the course of true love never did run smooth, Donizetti's sly, tuneful human comedy, Don Pasquale, will do the trick, beginning June 28. Laura Tatulescu and Alek Shrader sing the thwarted lovers, Andrew Shore's pantaloonish Pasquale learns a lesson, and Zachary Nelson's Dr. Malatesta helps to prove that, indeed, love conquers all. Corrado Rovaris conducts, with comic-opera genius Laurent Pelly staging the giddy pseudo-neo-realist action. Poodle skirts, anyone?
It's about time, SFO. After 57 seasons, Beethoven's lone opera, Fidelio, finally makes it into the repertory on July 12. Granted, the vocal demands are heroic, but so is the intensity of its thematic materials: the triumph of loving perseverance and personal freedom transformed into a blazing affirmation of universal love. There could be no more timely recognition—given today's headlines—of the transcendent human spirit. Harry Bicket, SFO's chief conductor, is in the pit; Alex Penda sings Leonore/Fidelio and Paul Groves is the imprisoned Florestan in Stephen Wadsworth's staging.
An at-first-sight improbable double bill opens July 19. MacKay confesses that "it was actually my idea" to pair Mozart's frothy satire on dueling sopranos, The Impresario, with Stravinsky's touching fairy-tale fable, Le Rossignol. The latter renews SFO's long-standing association with Stravinsky. And a season senza Mozart? Impossible. Kenneth Montgomery leads the starry cast; Michael Gieleta debuts as stage director.
An American premiere completes the repertory on July 26: Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, sung in Mandarin with a Western orchestra augmented by Asian instruments. Like Fidelio, it's grounded in history—Sun's troubled courtship of Soong Ching-Ling. Lyric rather than epic in scale, the sound palette often recalls Chinese folk music. In her SFO debut, Carolyn Kuan conducts with James Robinson directing.
But alas, a hasty overview like this reveals a shocking 2014 repertorial omission: six operas, just one corpse. Better luck next year, SFO.