My goodness, what doesn't call itself a festival nowadays? Even delicious celebrations of green chile and barbecue are among my favorite feasts, to be sure, but not necessarily festivals in the, ahem, traditional sense of the word.

Generally, for us purists, three criteria need to intersect for the real thing to happen: the right time, place and appropriate level of riskiness. Time? Sunny weather preferred. Place? Somewhere that you have to go to—say, Bayreuth's Festspielhaus or hyper-civilized Glyndebourne. Closer to home, the sacred woods and hills of Tanglewood or Marlboro or Santa Fe beckon.

Above all, festival geeks look for high-risk offerings, whether they be little-known artists or unexpected festival programming. Ho-hum complacency equals stone-dead festivals. Happily, there's much to surprise in three of several Santa Fe festivals this summer: the Santa Fe Opera's 56th season, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's 40th season and Santa Fe New Music's inaugural Southwest Festival of New Music.

Opera has always been a dodgy business. Sir Andrew Davis, conducting the SFO’s upcoming production of Richard Strauss’ Arabella, says flatly, “More things can go wrong in opera than in about any human endeavor.” Summer after summer, the SFO has embraced the unexpected. Unconventional repertory choices and impressive debuts have marked every season since 1957.

This includes 2012, which opens June 29 with Puccini’s Tosca, featuring the American debut of soprano Amanda Echalaz as Rome’s prima donna assoluta. In Arabella, opening July 28, Erin Wall returns to the SFO, bringing warm memories of her Daphne in 2007. But the biggest news concerns three additions to the SFO’s repertory that, riskily, may be unfamiliar to audiences. Bizet’s tuneful score for The Pearl Fishers, to be heard June 30, isn’t exactly a repertory staple, but offers exotic, orientalist lyricism and lush orchestration that can bewitch listeners despite a preposterous libretto.

Red meat arrives on July 14 with Rossini’s Maometto II, a boldly innovative piece that, at its 1820 premiere in Naples, flaunted operatic convention and was subsequently revised, re-revised, and largely forgotten. Until now, that is, with the premiere of a critical edition restoring the opera to Rossini’s original intentions. You want blood-and-thunder Grand Opera? Maometto’s your tyrant.

Another ruler takes the stage on July 21: King Roger, Karol Szymanovski’s iridescent 1926 music-drama of conflicting spiritual, sexual and cultural angsts. Part opera, part oratorio, part mystery-play, the work takes the listener on a super-sensuous sonic trip. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien returns to the SFO in the title role, and the Desert Chorale augments the SFO chorus.

For its 40th birthday party, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, cranking up on July 15, lets all the stock out of the barn: four premieres/commissions, a symposium on "Music, The Brain, Medicine and Wellness," three string quartets (Miró, Orion, Tokyo) and 40-plus concerts over five weeks including four large-scale modernist chamber works.

Three of these chamber pieces (Schoenberg and R Strauss) will be led by a guest star familiar to Santa Fe audiences: Alan Gilbert, former music director for the SFO and now heading up the New York Philharmonic. Among new faces this summer is Gilmore Award-winning pianist Kirill Gerstein, performing in one of the SFCMF's usually sold-out Tuesday noon recitals. Two other fine keyboard recitalists return: Jon Kimura Parker and Inon Barnatan, one of the festival's gifted younger pianists.

I'd been noticing festival programs making a slow creep from heavy reliance upon 19th-century chamber repertory toward newer musical pastures, and that's definitely the case this season. We'll still hear lashings of Bach and gratifying quantities of Beethoven and Schubert, but 34 programmed works come from the 20th and 21st centuries—probably a record. For example, note the tribute to the late Peter Lieberson on July 27, featuring music by Lieberson, Oliver Knussen and Magnus Lindberg.

Among many free events this summer, circle the July 24 "Creative Dialogue" program with more from Lindberg and students selected from top-flight conservatories. Other festival highlights include SFO artists performing the Stravinsky "Octet," four Bach keyboard concertos with Barnatan, Joyce Yang in both Mozart Piano Quartets, Bach solo cantatas and Schubert songs from the versatile bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni.

Lest we forget, the festival concludes on Aug. 20 with Schubert's String Quintet, D. 956. Is this the most sublime chamber work ever written? You won't get an argument from me.

Nor one about the importance of Santa Fe New Music's fledgling festival, June 21-23, with four programs focusing on "Music as Environmental Consciousness." It's built around a centennial homage to John Cage who, in the words of musical director John Kennedy, "opened our ears and minds to the possibility of hearing all the world as music."

In addition to Cage's compositions and those of like-minded younger composers, Santa Fe New Music's has commissioned four new works to be premiered at the festival. An evolving piece by composer and acoustic ecologist David Dunn, "Thresholds and Fragile States," will be developed over the three days of performances. All concerts take place at eco-friendly CCA.

Festivals risking international music look summer that print