Robert K Meya on Opera and Optimism

What the future looks like for the Santa Fe Opera after the cancellation of its 2020 season

On Monday,  the Santa Fe Opera announced that, for the first time since it was founded in 1956, it would cancel its entire 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic (even when a fire destroyed the theater mid-season in 1967, performances continued at an alternate venue and a theater was built for use in 1968). No one is taking such a massive blow to Santa Fe's cultural scene lightly, and the way forward looks difficult but not impossible.

SFR caught up with SFO General Director Robert K Meya to discuss what the opera is doing to keep itself afloat—and what it's doing for communities around New Mexico, too.

SFR: After they’re done being sad about missing the incredible productions that were to happen this year, most folks’ first thought goes to funding. How is the opera doing, financially? What funding sources will be used to get through this year?

RKM: The good news is, when all of this started to hit in late February-early March, we had already accomplished the majority of our fundraising for the year. We were at about 80% of our $10 million goal. Our fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, so we were at the midway point of our fiscal year, but we had accomplished the majority of our fundraising activity for the entire year. So that put us in a pretty strong position in terms of our financial resources that come from contributed income, which generally represents about 40% of our operating budget.

Now that we are facing the cancellation of the season, we've…[spoken] with our major production underwriters who support the specific productions that were going to be on our stage, and we've asked them to release the restrictions, if you will. … We've now had those conversations with all the major production sponsors … and so far, everyone we've asked to release the designation of their gift has agreed to do so.

They've also allowed us to pool $3 million of those gifts together as a matching challenge campaign, which we rolled out simultaneously with our cancellation announcement. Our biggest liability at this point is that we've sold $5 million in tickets. … [In early March], we were in a very strong position with our ticket sales. We had sold a record amount in a year-to-date comparison. In the absence of having a season, we are offering our ticket buyers three options: One is to consider donating back their tickets to the opera, one is to request a credit for a future season, and lastly, to offer a refund. … We're very hopeful that a majority of our ticket purchasers will agree to donate their tickets back, and that allows us to achieve those matching funds.

How has the response been so far?

It's been very strong. We just rolled it out [Monday], and so far, I think we've realized—I don't want to give you a number, because I don't have the latest report—but it's already a couple hundred thousand dollars that have been donated back.

Have any drastic measures been taken yet? Layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs, et cetera?

Nothing drastic. We're not anticipating any layoffs in the near term.

We're trying to offer some level of compensation to all our seasonal staff members who were offered employment, so of course that includes all our singers and all our musicians in our orchestra. … We just think that it's the right thing to do. We value our relationships with those individuals so much. We've got so many incredible singers who come back year after year who are really like family, we have an extraordinary group of musicians in our orchestra who are a tenured group who come year after year, so we certainly want to take care of them to the best of our abilities.

And also, all the seasonal staff members; a lot of people don't realize we have several hundred seasonal staff members who work in our scene shop, in our props shop and our costume shop, various areas of the backstage crew, and that includes 70 technical apprentices who were all supposed to start arriving this month. These are individuals we value like family, and we want to be able to do something for them.

Is there yet a sense what that compensation will look like?

We're working on it. I'm not prepared to disclose amounts or percentages, but I can say we're doing our best to be generous.

Is there a way for folks to donate directly to the fund that will pay employees?

[On our website,] if you go to the 'Donate Now' page, it defaults to a category of giving called 'Santa Fe Opera in Time of Need,' and that money will all be designated to that purpose, to helping us provide some compensation.

No one wants to think about the second and third waves of this, but we have to. Is there a contingency plan in place in case 2021 sees the same or similar levels of shutdown?

That's a great question, and exactly what's on everyone's mind. You know, the performing arts are particularly vulnerable, as is tourism; but in the performing arts, we rely on a creative process that involves people being in very close proximity. … To socially distance the creative process is a very difficult thing to do, so that's foremost in our thinking.

I think with regard to measures that can be implemented in the theater to provide a greater degree of safety, first of all we will take guidance from our governor and our elected officials, in terms of what they think would be a safe number of people gathering together. There are models we're looking at around the world, where theaters are contemplating reopening and how they might be spacing patrons apart from each other, what they're doing in term of sanitation measures, whether they're providing or requiring masks, some theaters are even taking temperature scans.

We went through a lot of that process as we were contemplating doing an abbreviated season, which was one of our contingency plans. We thought we could maybe do a shorter season of three productions, 15 performances in August, so we began exploring all those measures.

But you raise a bigger question: Will people psychologically feel safe and want to gather together? I think the performing arts will be the last of the types of businesses and industries that recover from this pandemic, thanks to the very nature of gathering together, both from a creative process point of view and the audience in the auditorium.

I am praying that there's a vaccine in the early part of the new year … and hopefully we will see mass vaccinations in place before the summer season. … The last three years, where we saw record attendance figures—we saw about 90% of our total capacity, on average, was sold—and it would be prudent to assume that it will take some time, several years, to get back to those levels.

Has SFO been working with other opera companies in brainstorming how to connect with patrons, how to fund a shutdown, etc?

Absolutely. There's an industry group called Opera America … [that] brings all the heads of opera companies together in conversation. At the very onset of the pandemic, they convened weekly calls in which I participated. We have been sharing thoughts, sharing information, sharing ideas together very intensively and it's been extremely helpful. …

Other opera companies have a lot of really incredible archival material that they're making available online. … Our ability to release video footage is limited, [because] we're an outdoor venue. And that's what makes the Santa Fe Opera experience so wonderful and so unique, but from the point of view of video and audio capture, presents a lot of challenges. You have the elements, and even wind interferes tremendously with audio recording .. and makes capturing high-quality video and audio challenging. So we don't have the same archival treasure trove that we'd be able to offer our patrons. I wish we did. We'll certainly, in the future, be looking at doing high-quality audio and video capture.

But one of the things we are doing is looking at how to pivot our education programs, which have been so strong in the last few years, and how we can do those on a virtual platform. If you look at other opera companies, we have always distinguished ourselves because we have never faltered in our commitment to education and community engagement. We've always allocated significant human and financial resources to those programs, and it's been a real point of pride for the Santa Fe Opera as a way we can give back to our community.

Why did you have to cancel the 2020 season? Why couldn’t you just postpone it to 2021 and push everything back a year?

The opera planning process, generally speaking, looks out about three to four years. We are in the process right now—we were, rather, before all this—of formalizing plans for our 2024 season. When it comes to contracting, 2021 was basically already fully contracted. We've engaged our singers, we've engaged our designers, we've already received all the design presentations for what those productions will look like, we've seen costume sketches. … It would be virtually impossible to simply cut the 2020 season and paste it into 2021, for that reason; all the work that's gone into it and all the contracts, and with that, all the financial obligations are firmly in place.

But what we're looking at right now is to take some of the projects from this year and look at opportunities to put them into future season beyond '21. … We've already built three productions [The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute and M Butterfly] for this season, at least in terms of the scenery. … They're here, they're in our scene shop, and we intend to bring them out in future seasons.

Also, near and dear to my heart has been the Tristan und Isolde project, and I am absolutely committed to making sure that Tristan und Isolde will be featured in a future season at the Santa Fe Opera. It won't be 2021, but it will be as soon as possible thereafter.

I, personally, really had my heart set on M Butterfly.

We commissioned that four years ago. A lot of work has gone into it; when you commission a new work, one of the most important things is that you have the opportunity to workshop it. We committed significant resources over the last three years to that workshopping process. We did a couple presentations in New York, we had the opportunity to hear the music and suggest changes, to review the libretto … and there was a very, very intensive process that took place with the composer and the librettist to bring that work to a place where it would be optimally prepared for its world premiere this summer. … It's a project that I absolutely am committed to seeing on our stage in the future.

What’s going on on campus right now, and what will happen this summer?

[Acting in accordance with guidance from the governor,] we hope we will be able to resume some operations at the Santa Fe Opera [this summer]. We'd love to not only finish building some of the productions that were slated for this season so we can bring them back in future years, but we can get a head start on plans for our 2021 season. As I mentioned earlier, we have those drawings, we have the designs, we have the costume sketches—we have a lot that we could already start to do. It would be wonderful for us if we could spread out that work over the course of the next 12 months. … Our production staff is really excited about the prospect of coming back to work, but we're waiting for guidance, and we'd only want to do so with the guarantee of the utmost safety of our employees. …

We have a few people on site like security and maintenance staff members, keeping an eye on the property making sure everything is functional. I can tell you that the flowers are starting to blossom, the leaves are on the trees, and the great lawn is looking beautiful. So I'm beginning to wonder if we can have some kind of small, socially distanced gatherings for some kind of musical events or opportunities that we could provide to the community later this summer.

There’s also the human end of this, beyond just our businesses and our organizations. How are you? How are your colleagues?

We're holding up pretty well. We feel very fortunate to be where we are, in Santa Fe, in New Mexico; we have great admiration for our political leadership. For example, the Santa Fe Opera has a couple staff members that are based in New York … and it's been hardest on them, what they have had to endure being in a city like New York, which is in many ways the epicenter of the pandemic in this country. It's been extremely difficult for them, and our hearts go out to those individuals.

Those of us that are here in Santa Fe, we count our blessings, we look at the beautiful blue sky above us, and the beautiful spring that us now upon us, and we're so grateful for where we are and how fortunate we've been.

That's not to say that there haven't been challenges in the state of New Mexico, and we're very aware of the outbreaks on the Navajo Nation and in other communities in northwestern New Mexico. And actually, our costume shop has been busy making PPE and masks for the Navajo Nation; we were part of a group that made about 1,000 gowns for St. Vincent Hospital, and I think about 200 of those have now been shipped up to the Navajo Nation.

Our concern is for those people who have been most effected by this pandemic. We take some small consolation and some small solace in knowing we've been able to help. We are optimistic and remain hopeful that we'll be able to get past all this; we're just praying that science and medical advances are moving forward and on our side.

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