"Only in New Mexico." That's the motto emblazoned on the cover of the Santa Fe Opera's 2011 season brochure. And while three of the five operas in the just-past season are available elsewhere in the world, if you wanted to see Menotti's The Last Savage or Vivaldi's Griselda, you had but one choice: to drive a few miles north of town to the Crosby Theatre and be among the happy few to witness these rarities.

Don't take the SFO's pro-local motto for granted, though, especially since the company's general director, Charles MacKay, a born and bred New Mexican, wears Levi's (never in the office), hikes in the Pecos and stays in touch with classmates from Santa Fe High School. He's a Westerner, as his two predecessors in office were not, and it's apparent in his frank and open manner.

When I ask for a standout memory of the 2011 season, MacKay doesn't hesitate: "Our tense opening night, Faust on July 1, complicated by smoke from the fires here and in Arizona," he says. "I never want to go through that again." Hostile atmospherics had forced rehearsals indoors to spare singers and instrumentalists from particulate fallout. At the end of June, Tesuque was blanketed in a layer of stagnant smoke, and on July 1, MacKay had a nightmare decision to make. Could the show go on, given the physical risks to the artists?

"We had an emergency backup plan—a concert performance of the opera in Buffalo Thunder's 2,000-seat ballroom. I had to decide by 10 am: theater or ballroom," MacKay recalls. "The weather people were predicting a northeasterly wind later in the morning, so, fingers crossed, we went with that. Faust made it onstage, after a difficult, difficult day."

Chalk it up as an "only in New Mexico" moment, along with the rambunctious electrical storm at the season's last Griselda on Aug. 19. Despite the storm, SFO enjoyed its best paid-admissions night, MacKay says, with 100 percent of seats sold. Though he hadn't yet received the final financial reports when I spoke with him, MacKay sounded confident: "It looks like a good year, certainly the best of my tenure so far. We're not back to prerecession levels yet, and the endowment—now around $40 million plus—bounces around. But that's to be expected, given the current financial climate."

He agreed that, on every level, Wozzeck had made the most powerful impression of the season, and Griselda the most controversial, especially under Peter Sellars' direction. "It just shows that sometimes the oldest is the newest," MacKay says. "A bit edgy, yes, and when one of our productions sparks debate and discussion, that's all to the good. We've never been afraid of controversy or risks."

So stay tuned for the 2012 season. Each of the five operas on the agenda appears in a new production—including Tosca, unseen here since 1994; and, after a five-year hiatus, another Strauss offering, Arabella. Three less familiar works fill the bill, all of them new to the SFO: Bizet's youthful Pearl Fishers; the world premiere of a new critical edition of Rossini's much-adapted, grandest-of-grand operas, Maometto II; and Karol Szymanowski's long-neglected King Roger with Mariusz Kwiecien eager to return to Santa Fe in the title role.

After three years in the job, what does MacKay find unique about his administration? "We can't forget the company's traditions, imprinted on our work for 55 seasons now," he says. "Advance planning will always be a major issue. What with huge increases in costs, we want more co-productions with other companies, for example. And the more long-term we go with fundraising and new commissions, the better. Never fear, the company won't be standing still on my watch."