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Charles MacKay Weathering the Storm

Charles MacKay, General Director of the Santa Fe Opera,
in the Crosby Theater (photo by Ken Howard)
In a sense Charles MacKay has always been with the Santa Fe Opera, working as a parking lot attendant, working his way into the company's pit orchestra as a French horn player, and being mentored by the only two general directors the company had known until last year, founder John Crosby and his chosen successor, Richard Gaddes. He tried his hand at opera administration, first at the Spoleto Festival, then at the invitation of Richard Gaddes taking over the leadership of Opera Theater of St. Louis, where he was General Director for over twenty years, until himself succeeding Gaddes at Santa Fe. MacKay took time from his busy schedule during press week, when all five of Santa Fe Opera's productions begin to run in repertory, to speak with me.

"I officially took up the position on October 1, which was badly timed," MacKay noted grimly in response to my question about the company's finances since the world economy collapsed. "Week by week, we watched as the endowment spiraled downward and ticket sales ground to a halt. The endowment actually went underwater, as they say, meaning that it sank below its original value and we could not draw upon it. For a while, things looked pretty bleak, but fortunately Santa Fe Opera went into the crisis financially strong and with a reliable base of supporters. The endowment came back above water, although it continues to be diminished in value, and ticket sales have been strong, but still reflecting a general downturn in tourism to Santa Fe."

Clearly, with a loss of revenue MacKay estimates at between 5% and 8%, some cost-cutting measures were needed to save the company from a looming deficit. Salary increases were frozen, and the staff needed to make some sacrifices so that the artistic budget would not be affected. In a show of the family-like unity for which the company is known, the staff wanted to avoid the possibility of widespread layoffs and agreed instead to significant cuts in benefits, including suspending their pension plan and taking on part of the cost of their medical coverage, and the elimination of some summer internship positions. These measures added up to over $1 million in savings, not insignificant considering that the company's annual budget is around $18 million. A small deficit, between $200,000 and $400,000, may still be in the cards, but not if ticket sales and contributions continue to improve.

The Crosby Theater, Santa Fe Opera (photo by Robert Reck)
Will the precarious financial situation affect programming? "It would be a mistake to risk changing our identity as a company willing to sponsor new and rare operas: a section of our audience would lose interest, and major contributors are most interested in sponsoring premieres and unusual works because of the critical and media attention," MacKay said. The one area of ticket sales that has really suffered is the casual tourist market, people who come to Santa Fe for some other reason and decide to go to the opera because it is one of the things visitors do here. "Tourists like that tend to gravitate toward familiar titles, and truth be told, we could have probably sold three or four more performances of La Traviata, but it would be a mistake to cater only to that market, especially now when the whole tourist industry in Santa Fe is down."

In fact, Mackay made quite clear the programming goals for his tenure as General Director: "One of my goals as General Director is to continue to add new titles to the Santa Fe Opera repertory." So, will the unspoken Santa Fe formula -- two chestnuts, a world or American premiere, an unusual 20th-century work, and a wild card opera -- still be the model for MacKay? "Yes, that has been an important tradition at Santa Fe Opera, and it has worked very well. Clearly, we need to have at least one of the top six or seven most popular operas each season. Those great works are so prominent in the repertory for good reason, and they are important ways to attract leading singers to debut new roles and to feature our best young singers."

"At the same time, I think it is wrong to produce new operas only because they fill that slot for a new work. One of the first things I had to do was to plan the 2010 season," which was left completely unplanned by Richard Gaddes, whose last season was the current one. "After a thorough review of what new works might fit with our needs -- a smaller cast, a minimal use of the chorus, a moderately sized orchestra -- I hit on Lewis Spratlan's Life Is a Dream, which was composed in 1978 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2000 but strangely has never been produced in full. This piece is going to take the Santa Fe Opera back to its roots in a way, varying the musical diet next season with a more atonal work. This was a major part of the company's early history, with its focus on works by composers like Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze, and Alban Berg, all favorites of mine." The libretto is an adaptation of Calderón's La vida es sueño, a masterwork from the Spanish Golden Age, also tying in nicely with the Spanish roots of Santa Fe, which will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year.

John Crosby and Igor Stravinsky
in the old theater at Santa Fe Opera
Other than the new work, how did he put together the 2010 season? "It is, in a sense, an homage to my two predecessors, my mentors in opera. Without them, I probably would have ended up working at a bank somewhere. John Crosby conducted Madama Butterfly in the company's first season in 1957, again in 1968 when the new theater rose out of the ashes of the fire, and again in 1998 to inaugurate the existing theater. It will receive its first new production since 1996. Richard Gaddes put on Albert Herring in the first season when he founded Opera Theater of St. Louis in 1976, and it will be another Britten company debut here." The other two productions include a revival of the 2006 Magic Flute and the company's first production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.

Unwilling to be too specific about plans farther in the future, MacKay did drop a few hints of what might be around the corner for Santa Fe Opera: "More French opera is on the horizon, some unusual early 20th-century pieces, and more experiments with Baroque opera." Even Richard Strauss will put in an appearance, "returning in perhaps two or three years." Dare we hope that these general remarks could mean that, for example, Natalie Dessay will bring her recently acquired Mélisande to Santa Fe, where it was last mounted in the 1970s? Could there be Monteverdi on the way, after only one production of Poppea in the 1980s? Will Santa Fe Opera try to collaborate with a major historically informed performance ensemble -- Les Arts Florissants, Les Talens Lyriques, Concerto Italiano? -- to produce Baroque operas? Is the company's long awaited first production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in the works, hopefully with Christine Brewer as the Färberin? For now, we can only wait.

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