SANTA FE, N.M. — While Santa Fe's visual-arts scene is just entering the threshold of the international contemporary art world, the same cannot be said for this striking Southwestern city's performing-arts leader, the Santa Fe Opera. Entering its 38th season, Santa Fe Opera has long embraced the contemporary forces shaping opera's future.
For the past several years, John Crosby, the company's director, has placed at least one and sometimes two dramatically contemporary works into the Santa Fe Opera's summer-season repertory. He's introduced Francesca Zambello, one of the opera world's most controversial young directors, to Southwestern opera audiences through her stagings of "Blond Eckbert" and "The Sorrows of Young Werther," and he's commissioned a trio of operas by American composers for the 1995, '96 and '97 opera seasons.
The first of these commissioned pieces, "Modern Painters," premieres July 29 at Santa Fe Opera's 1,889-seat outdoor amphitheater in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Composer David Lang, a co-founder of Lincoln Center's "Bang on a Can" festival, has collaborated with Zambello, winner of 1994's Laurence Olivier Award in Britain, and Manuela Hoelterhoff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic of the Wall Street Journal, in assembling this new work based on the life of 19th-century British art critic and preservationist John Ruskin.
"My problem was in how to activate a man of words," says "Modern Painters" librettist Hoelterhoff during an interview at her rented Santa Fe home. "I had to take a Victorian man of letters who spent most of his life sitting down and somehow bring him to life, on a stage.
"The way we solved that was to examine the variety of problems in Ruskin's life. He was both an artist and a social activist, someone dedicated to the amelioration of the working poor's hardships, someone who believed that the lives of those who work with their hands and the lives of those who work with their minds are equally important."
But had it not been for the influence of Lang, the subject matter of Ruskin's personally and professionally troubled life wouldn't have become the target of Hoelterhoff's pen. It was Lang who, as a Stanford undergrad, happened across a copy of Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" while prowling a used bookstore. And it was Lang who recognized the connection between Ruskin's seven theories on the values of worthy art and the structure required in creating powerful musical compositions.
"Ruskin's attempt to solve an artistic problem by reducing the solution to a scheme was totally ridiculous," says Lang, "but also very attractive.
"We've avoided making Ruskin's life into a doctoral dissertation and instead have made a drama that has a theatrical life about it. I've really tried to write an opera here, and not a piece that's so rigorous it would drive people away. All the traditional elements are here, but atop it there's a modern structure that captures a very modern type of music."
With another premiere ahead of her (Alexander Goehr's "Arianna" in September at Covent Garden), and many in her past, Zambello seems particularly well-suited to the task of integrating Ruskin's oft-tormented persona with the contemporized stylings of Lang and Hoelterhoff.
"This piece began cooking two years ago," Zambello says. "Because I was the only one who had done something like this before, I worked with the two others on the libretto. David's score is episodic ... it uses the standard orchestra approach with lots of vocals, but the rhythms aren't too difficult. There are certain anthems in the piece and a beautiful, lovely theme.
"I'm dedicated to contemporary, modern opera because that's where I think the future of this art form is ... but it's difficult to take an original idea and to make an original story out of it."
As for Hoelterhoff's dramatic change of position from the person doing the critiquing to the artist being critiqued, she dismissed any worries about other critics' opinions with a wave of her hand.
"If you say you don't read your reviews, you're perceived as arrogant, but if you say you do read them, then people think of you as a masochist," she says. "I've never assumed I was writing reviews for the benefit of the people I was reviewing, and I've never had the audacity to think that what I wrote was important to the people I wrote about.
"The only thing that discomforts me about it all is to think that for some reason I may be required to read what's being written about me. I'll tell you one thing, though. I'll never make fun of a librettist again ... life's too short."