Oct. 22, 1883: You’re at the Metropolitan Opera House. It’s opening night of the Met’s inaugural season, with Gounod’s hugely popular grand opera Faust as its premiere production. Flash forward to July 1, 2011: You’re at the Santa Fe Opera. It’s opening night of SFO’s 55th season and the company’s premiere production of—Faust! Well, SFO, what took you so long?
A couple of reasons: French opera, with major exceptions, has never ranked high among SFO’s repertory choices. Grand opera, demanding a ballet, huge chorus and spectacular scenic effects, has never been SFO’s cuppa. Besides, for jaded audiences, the melodramatic Faust carries a slightly moldy reputation. Is the tune-packed piece just too easy to like? Can we be weary of diabolical bargains?
Well, the Met is dusting Faust off with a new production next season. And with new Musical Director Frédéric Chaslin on board, SFO is moving into a more Gallic mode with a new take on the Gounod chestnut—one definitely without whiskers. Expect acrobats, stilt-walkers, corpses and Ferris wheels.
Last season’s Madama Butterfly pumped new life into that repertory staple. For this year’s Faust, we’ll see. In any event, as is typical of SFO, a lively season beckons. Besides Faust and a revival of La Bohme, the repertory includes Vivaldi’s seldom-heard 1735 serious opera Griselda, Gian Carlo Menotti’s seldom-heard 1963 comic opera The Last Savage, and a revival of Berg’s Wozzeck, that stunning production from 2001.
I asked Charles MacKay, SFO’s general director, about the up-coming season, especially its two unconventional offerings. He was clear: “Our repertory has never shied away from unfamiliar or new works. It’s been in our DNA since the beginning. We’ll never pile on the warhorses just to fill the house. Our reputation for quality and innovation means everything.”
That reputation for high vocal and production standards is central to MacKay’s vision as well. This includes, famously, finding and nurturing singers on their way up, plus bringing internationally acclaimed artists to Santa Fe. There’ll be eight important company debuts in Faust, six in The Last Savage and nine in Wozzeck.
MacKay’s excitement about the two unfamiliar operas is palpable. “Vivaldi’s music for Griselda astonishes: brilliant vocal writing for our capable cast. And with Peter Sellars in the director’s seat, the production should really click. There’s been much exploration of Handel’s operas for some time now. It’s time to discover the neglected pleasures of Vivaldi’s operatic output as well,” he says.
“And then, for me, The Last Savage has a special appeal,” MacKay adds. “This year marks Menotti’s 100th birthday, and I’d worked closely with him at his Spoleto festivals in Italy and Charleston. We needed a comic piece to balance the season’s generally serious tone—hence The Last Savage. I’d loved the opera when Menotti staged it in Italy—it’s absolutely zany, fast-paced, fun and a perfect first-timer’s opera. So here we are.”
On a less comic note, when I asked MacKay about broader company concerns, he was frank. “We’re facing a new paradigm. Arts organizations everywhere are suffering. The economy has not been good to us, and habits are changing,” he says. “Many of our patrons prefer to buy tickets at the last minute. Still, sales are about where they were last year at this time, and contributions are strong.”
As well as being an impresario and an administrator, MacKay has to be an idea man, always thinking of the future of the company. What’s next? More commissioned operas, improvements to the plant, scouting for new talent. When I asked how he’d describe his job, now in its third year, he didn’t pause: “It’s a balancing act.”