A Google search for "opera tailgate" yields only one result: the Santa Fe Opera.
There, in the Crosby Theatre's two-tiered parking lot, Santa Fe's most
peculiar rite of conspicuous consumption kicked off last Friday night. A few hours before the season opener of La Bohème, card tables sported linens and charcuterie, candelabras sat atop Hondas, and a tuxedo-clad crew strolled the rows of cars with "walkin'-around wine." For the umpteenth year in a row—about the sum longtime tailgaters agree upon—the only-in-Santa-Fe ostentation of the pre-opera picnic was in fine form.
The exact origins are unwritten. Neither newspaper archives, nor founder John Crosby's biography, nor any other histories of the Santa Fe Opera reveal how a pre-concert repast became a parking lot performance. Its history is largely oral—a fitting medium for a tale that boils down to a meal.
By some accounts, the tradition of tailgating at the 62-year-old Santa Fe
Opera probably dates back as far as the late 1950s, when patrons began to bring dinners to eat in their cars in the early evening. Attendees headed to the original El Nido in Tesuque beforehand, but restaurants were scarce near the opera, and folks needed to lay down a firm foundation of food before a three-hour performance.
Scottie Dunshee and Frank Rolla date their parking lot patronage to the 1970s, when they'd arrive to picnic and jockey for position in the unruly line for standing-room tickets. They agree the setups grew more extravagant over time, perhaps along the lines of the exhibitionistic '80s; after years of pre-opera picnicking at the White Rock Overlook, opera-goer Winnie Gido says she brought her moveable feast to the then-dirt parking lot around then.
"It was really better to be at the parking lot because we always had Champagne," she admits. "I remember reading about it in the newspaper, and I guess that's why we decided to go down, because it just sounded like everyone went way out to make their tables beautiful."
That they do. A 19th-century iron reading stand showcases the lavishly printed multiple-course menu and wine pairings of John Berkenfield's friends on opening night. Berkenfield upholds the tradition with a group of couples that was already going strong when he joined more than 20 years ago.
"At our table, we really go for the looks," he says. "[My friend] Tom breaks out the fine china and the fine flatware, we're all linen, and we have table decorations that are really beautiful. And we dress. We love the look of a very, very
Berkenfield, the former executive director of El Rancho de las Golondrinas, says his group has introduced new traditions over the years. They now invite a local artist to join them on opening night (painter Francisco Benitez last Friday). And, so as not to interfere with their leisurely jaunt around the lot with Berkenfield's wines, they hire a server to help set up, serve and break down the elaborate tableau.
Other seasoned tailgaters became hooked by the challenge of customizing menus to particular operas. Gido, who over the years has pared down her guest list from as many as 40 to this year's more reasonable 10, served a Gallic feast on opening night that began with a fish terrine and green salad, moved onto stuffed chicken breasts and finished with a burnt-orange Bavarian cream with brown sugar and chocolate cookies. Syndii McCreary, who began hosting her own tailgates when her son debuted in the Opera's children's choir in 2005, fondly remembers her Russian peasant-themed menu for 2017's The Golden Cockerel.
"One of the recipes called for this specific kind of Russian cheese that we don't have access to. So I went to Cheesemongers and they helped research what this cheese was like and found something that was comparable," she says before waxing sentimental over that year's dessert: an apricot mousse served with a shot of chocolate-infused vodka.
Longtime tailgaters maintain that fashion sets the tone. Carnival masks, beaded gowns, wigs, top hats, tails and, for Norman Doggett, a truly spectacular hat. From 2004 to 2011, Doggett and his wife bestowed a handmade themed chapeau upon Doggett's visiting father-in-law, Eric Yost. These included a 10-pound tropical fruit-laden Carmen Miranda number for Carmen in 2006, and a 3-foot-tall balsa wood Eiffel Tower atop a hard hat for 2007's production of La Bohème. The 2012 hat was constructed in remembrance of Yost, who had passed away the previous year.
Otherwise, most of the old guard agrees the volume of over-the-top tailgating seems to have died down in recent years. But the sheer novelty of dining with opera-loving friends, neighbors and strangers in a parking lot keeps them coming back—come rain, hail or wind that once caused one couple's large salmon fillet to take flight.
Berkenfield recalls one year when, despite meticulous planning, an essential was forgotten: the table. He asked a nearby man in a buckskin shirt and jeans if his friends could join them, whereupon he made a discovery.
"We get some guy to let us join his family at a table, and it turns out that his brother and I were very close friends for years working for IBM in Paris,"
On that panoramic hill overlooking the Sangre de Cristos, world-class opera can make for a very small world.