KEEPING New Mexico's high desert hills alive with the sound of music, the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) has built a prestigious reputation among the world's great summer festivals. During its 33-year history, it has evolved into perhaps the most important summer festival in the United States. What initially seemed an unlikely spot for a world-class opera festival has proven quite capable of attracting critical praise and sell-out crowds again and again.
At the center of festival's artistic success is John Crosby, founder and artistic director. Mr. Crosby opened his first season in 1957 with a modest budget in a 780-seat house. When that house burned down in 1967, he replaced it with a soaring outdoor theater, world-renowned for its fine acoustics and sight lines, nestled elegantly into the hills.
Certainly part of the joy of the SFO experience are those near nightly lightning displays - brilliant fluorescent-colored skyworks that trip over the nearby Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains. It is somewhat less enthralling if it happens to rain on the theater itself, since the vaulted roof does not cover all the seating and the wind can drive wetness in through the open sides.
But whether it rains or no, the repertory performances go on. Crosby's original commitment to risky new work as well as rarely produced classics balances the crowd-pleasers demanded of any company. He is nearing his goal of producing all of Richard Strauss's operas, and the company has hosted numerous world and American premi`eres of notable new works.
Crosby has taken plenty of chances with his adventurous repertoire - not always successfully. But he has proven himself a fabulous judge of young talent. Many young designers, directors, costumers, and administrators have gone on to establish world-class credentials.
Great singers in opera's small, select world have found opportunity knocking here even before their reputations were established: Barbara Hendricks, Neil Shicoff, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leona Mitchell, Sherill Milnes, Benita Valente, Maria Ewing, Alan Titus, Frederica von Stade.
Rising stars grace the stage nightly. Still newer singers join Crosby's apprentice program, which diva Marilyn Horne characterizes as outstanding.
``It is really such a fine program - excellent,'' said Ms. Horne, here to play Orfeo in Gluck's ``Orfeo ed Euridice.'' ``The young people are given hours of training with the best coaches,'' she said, ``and the experience young singers are offered in the chorus as understudies for the main roles, and in their own programs [presented twice in August] is fantastic.''
HORNE found herself drafted by a young singer who wanted help with a role for which Horne is famous. There is an easy interaction here among the singers, experienced and beginning.
``It feels more relaxed here,'' Horne said. ``You work just as hard, but we're outdoors, we wear summer sports clothes, the scenery is great, and we have a lot of fun - there's a great sense of humor generally. It's an extraordinary place.'' The working conditions are wonderful and everyone is so helpful.''
Soprano Nova Thomas and mezzo soprano Susan Graham, young singers who play Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively, in ``Cosi Fan Tutte,'' bubbled over with enthusiasm.
``It's a wonderful place to work,'' said Ms. Thomas. ``It's such a nurturing environment. They're real caretakers of the art here. They give you the luxury of long rehearsal time. The production values are exceptional - the costumes, sets, the quality of the voices, everything. And they really take care of the singers.''
``Yes, we never walk off the stage without someone greeting us,'' Ms. Graham added. ``Once you've been here a while, you can't imagine not coming back.'' Graham has been singing professionally less than three years, so the coaching she has received in ``Cosi'' and as the Composer in ``Ariadne auf Naxos'' has been invaluable to her.
Singing at 7,000 feet above sea level, however, has its drawbacks.
``It takes a good three weeks to acclimate oneself to the altitude,'' said Graham. ``It's so dry here you have to drink gallons of water every time you run off stage. And you run out of breath where you never expect to.''
``When I return to sea level,'' added Thomas, ``I'll take a breath at 9:00 and won't let it out until 11:30.''
For most if not all of the singers, a primary attraction of the festival lies with Santa Fe itself. Mild temperatures, year-round sunshine, relatively clean air, and a reputation as an artists' colony have drawn artists working in every medium.
Horne is considering buying a home in Santa Fe. ``I've found so many of my old friends have moved here. And I'm in love with it.''
``It's so beautiful here, and if you don't like the weather in Santa Fe, wait a minute,'' joked Thomas.
Santa Fe appeals largely because it is so different from any other United States city. Its dominant architectural styles mimic Indian and early Hispanic adobe dwellings. Three cultural traditions - Pueblo Indian, Hispanic colonial, and Anglo pioneer - intertwine and vie for attention. Even as the town bulges at the seams with tourists spilling out of buildings and into the streets where there are neither enough sidewalks nor enough parking lots to hold them all, history is palpably present here. Santa Fe was first settled in 1609, eleven years before Plymouth Colony. The main industries today are arts, crafts, entertainment, and service. And only Los Angeles and New York have more art galleries.
IN such an environment the opera, an emphatically European art form, prospers. This year's productions have offered several surprises, a revelation or two, as well as a few disappointments. Crosby's solid version of Giacomo Puccini's ``La Boh`eme'' advances no new vision of this popular opera. Staging stagnates from time to time, and the sets are unimaginative and awkward in the changing. But Richard Drews as Rodolfo the poet in love with the sickly seamstress and Miriam Gauci as his Mimi whip up a splendid duet or two together, and the ensemble acting/singing of the other cast members vaguely satisfies one's expectations.
Gluck's exquisite ``Orfeo ed Euridice,'' conducted by Lawrence Foster, stars Horne in her Santa Fe debut as Orfeo with Benita Valente as Euridice. In every way beautifully conceived, this staging of the classic tale of love stronger than death ignites the modern imagination. Calculated simplicity in stage and costume design incorporates shadow puppets and the complex use of shadow-as-design. Because the story harks back to Greek myth with the story of the poet Orpheus who loved his wife so much that when she died he pursued her to the underworld (the world of shades as it was called) the shadows used in the design magnificently capture the story's otherworldliness.
Positively luminous are Horne and Valente together. The majesty of the music and their intricate characterizations produced the most complete of the musical experiences I had at Santa Fe.
Mozart's ``Cosi Fan Tutte,'' a charming and intimate ensemble piece, seems a bit lost on the enormous stage. Though the scene design allows graceful changes of scenery, and the 17th-century costumes are large enough to sweep up space, the humor of the piece (even in English) has to be lost to the back rows.
Thomas and Graham knit up a sisterly intimacy at the core of the story, which, together with their marvelous young voices, form the chief pleasures of the evening. But the direction never penetrates through to Mozart's darkest themes nor does it stir up enough of the froth in this tale of fickle womanhood, humiliation, and forgiveness.
The most amazing moment of the festival arrived in the person of soprano Alessandra Marc, who sings the title role in Richard Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos.'' Hers is a voice to listen and wish for in the future. The last 20 minutes of the opera with Ms. Marc and heroic tenor Ben Heppner as Bacchus are so extraordinary, that the imperfections of the production fade away. The season also includes the US premiere of `Judith,' by contemporary East German composer Siegfried Matthus.