“Salzburg is beautiful, Aix-en-Provence is beautiful—but no other opera company sits on a mesa and overlooks two mountain ranges,” says Joyce Idema, spokesperson for The Santa Fe Opera. The opera’s iconic amphitheater is architecturally striking, to be sure, but it would be just another building if the 56-year-old company’s founding principles didn’t so sturdily undergird it.

A key one of those principles is to include a new or new-to-SFO opera each summer. This year, the world premiere of Oscar ticks that box. Co-commissioned by The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia, it was composed by Theodore Morrison specifically for countertenor David Daniels. This debut, about flamboyant 19th-century Irish writer Oscar Wilde and his time spent in prison for “gross indecency,” aka same-sex relations, is hotly anticipated by opera fans, Wilde fans, and those who like to catch history in the making. Many of the lines were pulled directly from Wilde’s own writings, including “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The lyrical opera also contains the personage of Walt Whitman, who serves as narrator, addressing observations to the audience. This isn’t as random as it seems; Whitman and Wilde met and became friends during the latter’s popular lecture tour of the United States in 1882, and Whitman was a great supporter of Wilde’s. This debut is one in a long line of new operas presented on the stage just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Santa Fe Plaza.

The Santa Fe Opera was founded by John Crosby, who died in 2002. Crosby’s formula for repertory is faithfully adhered to: along with a new work, each season should include a rarely performed work along with crowd-pleasing, well-known operas. “And so this year we are doing The Marriage of Figaro andLa Traviata,” says Idema, “plus Oscar and Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, which is hardly ever done. We have always stayed with this principle of a mix. He’s still up there,” Idema says merrily of Crosby, gesturing toward the heavens. “When we don’t do something right, something crashes down.”

The ghost of Crosby is wise to suggest course corrections from the ethers; his formula has proved a financially savvy one (last year’s season averaged 90 percent capacity). The popular operas draw a bankable crowd of aficionados, and people new to opera who feel reassured by the familiar titles. The rarely performed operas by major composers, such as La Donna del Lago, bring out “the tried and true operagoers, who say, ‘I’ve heard a recording of this, but never had a chance to see it.’ People really come out of the woodwork,” says Charles MacKay, General Director. And the new operas are an investment in connecting this historic genre to the present and future.

This kind of agility within the repertory serves the singular audience well. Because Santa Fe is such a tourist destination, a good half of any given audience is made up of visitors entirely new to opera. The other half comprises locals and opera fans who travel to Santa Fe primarily to attend SFO performances. “We have relatively few subscribers,” Idema says. That’s a blessing in disguise, as traditional opera houses have many long-term subscribers but find it a challenge to attract new and younger attendees. Just as the SFO apprentices of today are often the stars of tomorrow, many of these hundreds of first-time operagoers become lifelong opera fans.

The second principle of Crosby’s that endures? “He wanted a company that would stay together all summer,” says Idema. “Susan Graham [the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano] will be here for the first opera performance this summer, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, all the way through the last performance of the season. We’re not a company, to use a silly example, that hires Plácido Domingo to come sing two performances. You come for the whole time—all the rehearsals and all the performances.” Why? “Crosby wanted the young to learn from the old, for all to work together in harmony.”

This second principle leads to many a success story, including that of Joyce DiDonato, who was once an apprentice at The Santa Fe Opera. Now a major star—a world-famous mezzo-soprano whom the New York Times called “the perfect 21st century diva”—DiDonato will play the lead in La Donna del Lago this summer, and serve as a role model and mentor to the 2013 apprentices.

This kind of intimate “opera summer camp” experience is attractive not only to apprentices, who of course appreciate the career-enriching aspects and opportunities for exposure and mentorship, but also to established stars who appreciate Santa Fe’s beautiful weather, culture, and landscape. It’s a great gig for opera singers with young children—kind of a working family vacation.

This doesn’t apply only to the singers. Harry Bicket, the newly appointed Chief Conductor of The Santa Fe Opera, has conducted productions at the Met, Covent Garden, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and can likely take his pick of gigs, but chose to wave his baton here. Bicket will begin conducting at the beginning of the 2014 season (see next year’s lineup at right). At a recent press conference, he said, “Santa Fe has always seemed to me to be an oasis of artistic excellence. It was a job I couldn’t turn down.” He also shared that a German colleague quipped, “Once you’ve been to Santa Fe, why ever would you want to go to Glyndebourne?” referring to the hallowed annual opera festival in the English countryside.

During performance nights, operagoers—sitting so close to the stage, with the stars above, plangent voices stirring the air, and warm throws snuggled over knees—would likely agree.

The 2013 Season

New Kid on the Block

Oscar stars acclaimed countertenor David Daniels, fresh from singing the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Composer Theo Morrison specifically wrote the opera for Daniels. The singer “wanted the opera to have some edge, to have relevance to the 21st century,” says PR director Joyce Idema, referring to Wilde’s imprisonment for his romantic involvement with Lord Alfred Douglas as it relates to this year’s debate over same-sex marriage. “But it’s not a gloomy tome about gay rights. It’s a full-blown opera that’s got humor, satire, everything an opera should have.” General director Charles MacKay says, “It is lyrical. It is not atonal and dissonant, but it is not warmed-over 19th- or 20th-century music, either. It has a piquant modern quality to it: the 19th-century character of Oscar Wilde’s time put through the prism of the 21st century.”July 27, 31; August 9, 12, 17.

The Original Cougar

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, by Jacques Offenbach, stars world-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as a sexy, middle-aged duchess with an eye for younger men. “She’s the original cougar,” says MacKay. “To have Susan Graham doing this role for the first time will be a great gift to us.” The set is reinvented at SFO with a 1920s military academy. “I think it will really be one of those operas perfect for a first-timer. It’s light, melodic, fun, and will be a memorable experience,” adds MacKay. Dialogue will spoken in English, the music sung in French. The backs of SFO’s seats feature LED screens with libretto translations. June 28; July 3, 6, 12, 19, 30; August 7, 15, 21, 24

Reviving Elena

Rossini is best-known for his comedic operas;
La Donna del Lago is a seldom-performed drama that will spring to life powered by the voices of celebrated Rossini specialist Joyce DiDonato and tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Why has it been so neglected? “In the middle of the 20th century, these big dramatic Verdian voices dominated the field,” confides MacKay. “Fortunately, in the latter part of the 20th century through the present, there are now singers who can perform this florid, taxing coloratura music. They have more flexible voices, very appropriate for bel canto repertory.” July 13, 17, 26; August 1, 6, 14

Something Old, Something New

This revival of SFO’s Fabergé-rococo 2008 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro has an all-new cast, including Zachary Nelson (who played Angelotti in Tosca last summer) as Figaro. Susanna and Figaro, young servants in love, attempt to get married despite the interferences of their employers, Count and Countess Almaviva. (Just one subplot: the Count has his sights on Susanna.) “It’s one of the most perfect operas ever written,” enthuses MacKay. “The cast that we’ve assembled will bring a youthful vigor. This time, the Count and Countess are young. The Count is a very attractive, sexy guy, and it makes it more plausible that he is both a womanizer and utterly charming. Sometimes you don’t have that sense of electricity running through the opera.” June 29; July 5, 10; August 3, 8, 13, 20, 23

Fallen in Love Again

Giuseppe Verdi’s inspiration to write La Traviata (The Fallen Woman), based on Alexandre Dumas’s play about a courtesan, La Dame aux Camélias, was powerfully fueled by his own love for Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano of note who had serial lovers, and children out of wedlock, before meeting and marrying Verdi. This revival of the SFO’s 2009 production will feature Brenda Rae and Michael Fabiano, and is again helmed by director-designer Laurent Pelly. July 20, 24, 29; August 2, 5, 10, 16, 22

New to Opera?

“Opera is an experience that you are meant to receive emotionally. If you’re trying to figure out the story, that intellectual exercise can get in the way,” says opera lecturer Desirée Mays, who travels all over the country to give talks but lives in Santa Fe. She’s the author of the annual SFO book series Opera Unveiled, which shares engaging synopses and backstories about each year’s repertory. She advises, “If you’re going to an opera, get the CD beforehand. Follow through the libretto in both English and the language it’s in. And listen to it while in your car. That will help you to get the sounds of the music into your head, and know the story.” It’s also helpful to catch one of her engaging talks, and to pick up Opera Unveiled 2013, available at santafeopera.org, the SFO gift shop, and Collected Works Bookstore and Garcia Street Books, in Santa Fe.

Managing editor Candace Walsh is the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press).