It's hard times for the opera business these days. Schedules are being pruned and contracts renegotiated everywhere, from the Met on down. The Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy this spring. The LA Opera's budget is down by a quarter. New York City Opera's future looks grim.

But Charles MacKay, now in his first season as the Santa Fe Opera's general director, remains cautiously optimistic about his company's financial condition. "We're basically on a sound footing," he commented recently. "SFO has maintained a tradition of fiscal responsibility from the beginning."

MacKay's no Pollyanna about the issues. As a result of the financial crisis, endowment plunged from $45 million to $33 million. "I've never known opera people to be watching the market this closely," he says. But the company managed to trim $1.2 to $1.3 million from its budget without reducing staff, repertory or artistic standards. "We're in good shape compared to other companies in similar situations," MacKay says.

Still, he's quick to point out that there aren't many other comparable situations. "We're working on a $16-$18 million annual budget. That's in a small city. We're not in a big town with plenty of generous corporate and other business sponsors, so we have to play a different ball game."

So far the SFO, despite tough odds, plays a pretty good game. Its $30 million capital campaign stands at $25 million in hand or pledged. An immediate goal is to get $450,000 by the end of September to meet a Kresge Foundation grant. Another significant statistic is the roughly $200 million the SFO contributes to the local and regional economy. MacKay suspects it's higher and would like a conclusive economic-impact study to prove it.

One reason Charles MacKay takes an interest in the local economy is he's a local boy, a graduate of Santa Fe High and a member of a musical family, including a sister who sang in the SFO chorus during its first season in 1957. His first opera, at age 9, was SFO's 1959 Die Fledermaus, and after that there was no turning back. MacKay's curriculum vitae looks like he was headed for the general directorship all along, but he claims, candidly, "It was never a fixed goal."

As a teenager, he worked at the SFO, helping in the pit, playing the horn and making himself useful. General Director John Crosby saw potential and guided him toward the business end of operations. MacKay did an apprenticeship at a local bank as preparation for working full-time with the company's money side. Good with numbers and personally engaging, at age 24 he became SFO's business manager and what he calls "the public face" of SFO during those winter months when his bosses were away.

In 1978 he signed up with impresario Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto festivals in Charleston, SC and in Italy to handle financial and arts management. Spoleto's opera, ballet, symphonic and chamber concerts and its avant-garde performances on an international scale all provided MacKay with a range of experiences practically unique in the arts world. He stayed on with Spoleto for six years.

Then the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, in the person of its founder and General Director Richard Gaddes, came calling. Ready to move on to new things, Gaddes was looking for a successor. The SFO, where Gaddes had worked for years in a variety of important administrative positions, had served as model and "spiritual ancestor" (MacKay's words) for St. Louis, a flourishing young company with a similar character, repertory and "feel" to Santa Fe. MacKay took the job, serving with distinction for 23 years as OTSL's general director, with the result that it's one of the two or three most successful regional companies in the country. Among his accomplishments there, MacKay increased endowment from $682,000 to $18 million and built a new opera center that opened in 2006.

Then, two years ago, Gaddes, planning to retire from the SFO's general directorship, came calling again. MacKay, happy in St. Louis, had thought about eventually returning home to New Mexico and finding a mountain retreat here. But then, as he puts it, "Richard started to work on me." MacKay signed on as Gaddes' successor in 2007 and assumed leadership of the company last October.

Much of the 2009 season, opening July 3, was set in place long ago by Gaddes, but making it happen is MacKay's affair. Plus, in addition to dealing with the company's current fiscal condition, he has to keep an eye on the future. Next year's repertory, largely an all-MacKay initiative, was announced in April.

The appointment of music director, a position held in past years by Alan Gilbert and, briefly, Edo de Waart, is on the agenda. MacKay says, "That's very much on my mind. It has to be someone who knows the SFO, who has conducted here. It needs to be the right fit for us. We should have an announcement within the year and probably much sooner."

Gaddes, early in his tenure as general director, lamented that his predecessor, John Crosby, was inclined to "hover," and vowed he'd never do the same. MacKay laughs, "Sometimes I wish Richard would hover more."
But no need. The company and its personable, meticulous newbie look like they're on track for '09. As opera folks say to wish their colleagues well: "Toi-Toi-Toi."

Santa Fe Opera 2009 Season
La Traviata, The Elixir of Love, Don Giovanni, The Letter and Alceste

July 3-Aug. 29

Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285

The original text of this story contained an error stating that Opera Baltimore folded in spring of 2009. The Baltimore Opera Company declared bankruptcy in spring of 2009, whereas OperaBaltimore is a new company with plans to produce in late 2010 or early 2011. SFR regrets the error.