The Santa Fe Opera enters its 2019 season on a couple high notes. First, it was the Grammy for Best Opera Recording presented to 2017's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs on Feb. 10—and then some indirect accolades when, on Feb. 24, the Best Costume Design Oscar went to former apprentice Ruth E Carter for her work on Black Panther. Beyond big-time awards, recently appointed General Director Robert Meya is eager to do some deserved bragging.
Meya, 45, young in age but experienced in opera and arts administration, took over from Charles MacKay in 2018 after seven years as SFO's director of external affairs (not to mention a SFO internship in 1999). His favorite things to point out in the upcoming season are young artists making their SFO debuts and women in production roles.
On the coattails of last year's citywide participation in Doctor Atomic, Meya emphasizes the importance of community involvement. "We see ourselves very much as partners in developing the cultural landscape," Meya says. "The more that we can partner, the broader our reach, and the richer the experience for the audience member."
Also watch for the new Opera for All Voices program, which sees new operas presented at the Lensic, then sent on tours around the country. The inaugural production, to debut in October 2019, is the 70-minute Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, commissioned from writer Augusta Read Thomas by SFO and a consortium of other opera companies. The titular Sweet Potato (you guessed it) kicks the sun out of the galaxy, and woodland creatures, cosmic guides and vocalist/beatboxer Nicole Paris figure out what to do next.
What we're going to do next, of course, is head to SFO for a few balmy summer nights. Here's what's in store; see dates and get tickets at santafeopera.org, or call 800-280-4654.
Never too much of a good thing
Even the biggest fan of chocolate cake may roll their eyes when the 100th chocolate cake of their lifetime is placed in front of them—but they'll still eat it with gusto. So it is that Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is presented at SFO for the 12th time.
The story of starving artists trying to survive in 1800s Paris is often called the most beautiful opera in existence and was unofficially dubbed the best-selling opera ever at the Met in New York.
Not content to be average, though, rather than feature a bunch of drunken male artists and their perfunctory girlfriends (as has prevailed for nearly 200 years), director Mary Birnbaum brings a fresh perspective to the show's archetypes, symbolism, and how they all interact.
The syrup flows heavy in this one, especially in the tragic love story between destitute Rodolfo and flashy Mimì. There is not a soul alive who won't swoon during its most famous aria, "Che Gelida Manina," and Rodolfo's sublime appeal: "Who am I? I am a poet. What do I do? I write. How do I live? I live."
La Bohème opens SFO's 63rd season on June 28 and will probably sell all 12 performances well, so get your tickets soon. Bring the tissues—and someone you have a crush on. You'll probably get laid.
Bros before priestesses
French composer Georges Bizet wrote The Pearl Fishers in his early 20s; the opera made its premiere in 1863, just over a decade before Bizet's better-known Carmen took the stage. The Pearl Fishers, set in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), introduces best friends Nadir and Zurga, two young fishermen. Years ago they both fell in love with a beautiful priestess named Leila, but they reaffirm their friendship as stronger than that infatuation.
That vow only lasts until Leila appears once again on the shore. She and Nadir fall in love, meeting in secret. When Zurga finds out, he demands they both die—but, in a climactic scene, Zurga forgives his friend and frees them to live in happiness, standing alone as he watches them leave.
"In terms of atmosphere, it's one of the most incredible experiences," Meya tells SFR of the lush staging. In addition to a largely open set, providing sweeping panoramic sunset views, "there are flames onstage, there's a rain scene with actual water falling; it's musically dramatic. … It's a beautiful production."
The Pearl Fishers shares opening weekend with La Bohème, opening on June 29, and runs for six performances in total.
Why you gotta be like that?
The first word that pops out of any modern writing about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's popular 1789 opera buffa Così fan tutte (rough translation: "women are like that") is "misogynistic." Truthfully, though, an alternate translation of the title is "people are like that," and it can be considered a cynical satire that equally mocks both men and women. SFO chooses the latter interpretation.
The comedy features Ferrando and Guglielmo, happily engaged to Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively. When the wily Don Alfonso hypothesizes that all women are disloyal and that the fiancees would easily cheat, Ferrando and Gugliemo dress in disguise and set off to seduce each other's lovers. Dorabella and Fiordiligi fall for it, because—as previously established—women are like that.
The director, 32-year-old Upstate New York native RB Schlather, is flanked by other young designers for a production that Meya calls "quite radical." The massive, stark set extends a vast raked prism out beyond the back of the opera house, inspired by ultra-modern artists—who all happen to have connections to SITE Santa Fe, if that gives you an idea of the aesthetic. Schlather "intends to infuse the action into the stage direction," Meya says; "he has been able to cast this with singers who are also extremely talented actors."
Così opens July 13 and runs for seven performances.
Everything old is new again
Jenůfa, by Czech librettist and composer Leoš Janáček, which premiered in 1904, is a grim love triangle between the titular character, her fiance Števa and Števa's half-brother Laca. When Laca cuts Jenůfa's face in jealousy, Števa loses interest and refuses to claim Jenůfa's baby as his own. After no small amount of tragedy, love prevails, but we have a hell of a time getting there.
This staging by David Alden is "set in a vaguely Cold War setting," Meya says. SFO considers "the threat of nuclear proliferation; … it's relevant once more to have this idea of what the Cold War means. … We know today that it never ended—and is perhaps fiercer today, if you look at relations between Russia and the US, than it's ever been. So it's important to be mindful of how these pieces are staged, and what they can represent."
This company premiere opens July 20 and runs for five performances.
Lucky Number 13
In SFO's 16th world premiere, a fantastical feat by the composer of the in-demand opera version of The Handmaid's Tale, the titular 13th child is Lyra. Her paranoid father has banished her 12 older brothers from his kingdom; in a journey to rival even the most epic of fairy tales, Lyra sets out to find them, encountering all manner of magical demons and helpers along the way.
Stage director Darko Tresnjak's track record includes more jaunty productions on Broadway and Connecticut's Hartford Stage, and he brings a pop art eye to SFO. "There are elements of this that might feel like Alfred Hitchcock," Meya says, referencing the famously disorienting shot of a spiral staircase in Vertigo; the set recalls that image, featuring projections of castles and forests, calling to mind the glorious discomfort of MC Escher mind games.
In true fairy tale fashion, this story is not without its share of darkness. Composer Poul Ruders says that while he thinks it's appropriate for all ages, he hopes kids "will find it kind of scary." Because from Harry Potter to The Neverending Story, being slightly spooked builds character, right?
The Thirteenth Child makes its debut on July 27 and runs for five performances. Despite being untested, to a degree, SFO's world premieres are often highly popular—so get tickets soon.