Above: Santa Fe Opera. Photograph by Free ABQ Images.

What happens when hundreds of opera buffs are challenged to turn their pre-performance tailgate parties into a competition? A little bit of glam, lots of good-natured upstaging, and one big game changer.

The second annual tailgate contest takes place opening night on June 27. Registration begins June 1 at santafeopera.org/tailgatecontest.

“Carmen is the opening opera,” says spokesperson Joyce Idema. “I expect to see lots of Carmen costumes.” Five other operas round out the season. The most beloved of Rossini’s comic operas, Don Pasquale, was performed only once before by the Santa Fe Opera, in 1983. Beethoven’s Fidelio, “one of the greatest operas ever,” Idema avers, will be conducted by new chief conductor Harry Bickett. Two short operas, Mozart’s The Impresario and Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, will be presented as a double bill, with the same cast. The American premiere of Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen focuses on the revolutionary’s opera-worthy romantic personal affairs, and is sung in Mandarin. (800) 280-4654, (505) 986-5900; santafeopera.org

I am not a sports fan, so tailgating had never been on my radar. I do, however, like preparing a hotly competitive Super Bowl buffet, and the Bananas Foster vendor is my favorite thing about Isotopes Park. In other words, I love to cook and enjoy delicious food in festive situations.

And I also love opera—the big emotions, the epic arias, the high production values, the dressing up. So I guess I must be precisely the kind of person they had in mind when tailgating became a pregame ritual at the Santa Fe Opera. It turns a spectator sport into a participatory one.

Over 10 years of tailgating at the opera, I’d developed a comfortable level of experience with what to bring, including what foods travel well and taste good for at least an hour after they come off the stove, or out of the fridge. It’s always a challenge, albeit a welcome one. Last summer, when I found out that, on opening night, the opera would be launching its first-ever tailgate contest—with costumes and prizes!—I knew I had to bring my “A” game.

In the few hours before performances, the vast, pebbly parking lot outside Santa Fe’s beautiful swooping opera house fairly erupts with patrons enjoying a pre-theater meal in duos and larger groups (some organized by local hotels for their guests). Half the fun is enjoying the meal you bring, whether you make it yourself or pick it up from a restaurant or a grocery store’s prepared foods section. The other half is having a stroll around the lot to people-watch. In a decidedly casual town, getting dressed up is extra special, and my eyes do drink in the finery. I also like to see what people bring to eat, and how they decorate their little pieces of real estate. From the forty-something couple in dressy denim, eating cheese and crackers and drinking Gruet bubbly on their Subaru Outback’s tailgate; to the raucous party of gourmet-minded women, all wearing straw hats and Eileen Fisher garb, dining beside a classic 1949 Oldsmobile woody station wagon; to the soigné, silver-haired, catered party of 12 in tuxes, evening gowns, and estate jewelry, candelabra crowning a formal table adorned with fine china, silver, and flowers; to a foursome of spiffed-up parents and their teen daughters getting another wear out of their prom dresses, it’s an absorbing scene. Everything is made all the more dramatic by coloratura Sangre de Cristo mountain sunsets. There’s the buzz of conversation and the hush of anticipation. There’s the easy camaraderie that simply does not exist in big city opera houses’ pre-performance throngs. Once the opera starts, we become unified into one rapt blob, The Audience. But before that, during the tailgating, we’re all a bit on  stage. Since many of us are there, in part, because we were once high school theater geeks, it amps up the fun.

Bringing my “A” game meant assembling my team. My first call went to my friend Peter Shoemaker, a passionate cook and innate bon vivant. “Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s on.” We decided that our theme should include references to the opening night production, Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, and also connect to New Mexico’s history. The opera centers around “a sexy, spoiled aristocrat” woman of a certain age “with an eye for a young cadet at the local military academy.” This particular production was set in the 1920s. We decided that our theme would be “1920s flapper,” and the setting a New Mexico military fort during a wedding. The fare: haute chuckwagon. The attire: flapper dresses/suits with military accents such as sashes and medals.

My wife, Laura, a Web designer, was put in charge of designing the flags and other paper accents for the table. Robbi Firestone and David Lamb, a couple new to town and bubbling over with enthusiasm about all Santa Fe had to offer, were a natural add. Robbi, an artist, would advise about attire and David was in charge of bringing the Champagne. They told two friends, and they told two friends … and it was suddenly an event that would involve the local party rental store. Stakes: raised. Me: stoked.

Weeks in advance, Peter and I drilled down on the menu. What exactly would constitute a New Mexico haute chuckwagon meal with military associations? There is the much bemoaned mess-hall meal that consists of a piece of white bread topped with chipped beef in brown gravy, commonly known as “sh$% on a shingle.” We decided to upgrade it to “short ribs on a shingle,” meat braised for hours in wine, cream, wild mushrooms, and green chile, and then dolloped onto slabs of brioche. We invented Potatoes Gerolstein: a rustic approach to gratin, made up of rough-chopped spuds sautéed in duck fat, then doused in cheese, more cream, and herbs, plus foraged greens. The official aperitif: prickly pear syrup-kissed Gruet Blanc de Noirs. And my personal contribution: a towering lavender wedding cake, covered in lemon-zested white-chocolate cream-cheese frosting.

We borrowed candelabra and camp stoves, and rented flapper costumes and military bling. I decided to play the part of the dowager diva with an eye for the cadets, and Robbi was well-suited to be the wide-eyed ingénue. Peter took on the role of a gruff chuckwagon Cookie—not a part in the opera, but definitely a main character in our conceit.

We thought about trying to find a big military-style tent, but it seemed like overkill, even for us. We thought about making business cards to hand out to the judges; they would be emblazoned with the Gerolstein crest, and our names and party details. As the day of preparation went on, they went by the wayside.

A happy wedding concludes the opera, and the day of the tailgate competition had that kind of impending-nuptials energy. I baked the cake layers in the morning; Peter arrived at our house at 1 p.m., loaded with food and fixings, and continued his feast prep. Relaxed banter shifted into terse overdrive as the time flew by. My cake layers shed chunks as I iced them, and the rental company delivered the wrong kind of chairs. I put the last dab of frosting on the crumbly cake, and ran off to change into my emerald-green velvet flapper gown with peacock feather headband, comforting myself with the notion that a  homely-looking cake fit in with our haute chuckwagon theme. I’d watched a Pinterest tutorial on how to apply flapper makeup and style hair, and dutifully gave myself Cleopatra eyes, a Clara Bow mouth, and a faux bob.

Like a troop of troupers swarming out from a fort, we loaded the cars and drove up to the opera parking lot, so early that wewere the first ones there, arriving with the opera’s makeup and wardrobe support staff.

After we set up the table and chairs, Peter, in his Cookie costume of a droopy toque, army green T-shirt, apron, and Levi’s, got the camp stove going and Laura set up the flags. I set the table with white china plates, wineglasses, silverware, and cloth napkins, and stuck the candles into the candelabra. The wedding cake looked fine enough in the middle of the table, if you didn’t look too closely. Thinking big had to count for something. The smell of braised short ribs began to fill the air. Cars filed in and parked on either side of us, but we were done. We looked at each other, lifted a Champagne glass, and exhaled. And then one of us felt the first rain drop.

Sometimes the phrase “the best laid plans” has to be retired, such as when you realize that you were one rental tent away from your tailgate party staying dry while much of the competition got drenched in well-needed rainfall. For hours. The cake went back in the trunk.

Our mood shifted from the elation of everything coming together “just so” to “This is so flippin’ unfortunate that we just have to laugh.” I admit, I did have a bit of a tantrum, as befits a spoiled aristocratic duchess (or a working stiff just trying to have some fun) who’d ignored the possibility that monsoon season would kick off with staggering aplomb the same night the opera did.

We hid away in our cars during cloudbursts. David, Robbi, and their crowd of aptly costumed flappers and gents arrived, said hello, then went back in their cars, too. The rain paused, then rained some more, then rained even more. We decided to surrender to it, and stood outside with umbrellas (because we did bring those, thank Offenbach). Cookie kept stirring the food, while we took turns holding an umbrella over the cast-iron skillets. Robbi spread a little sunshine, in the form of glitter, which she put on all of the flappers’ eyelids. David kept our Champagne flutes full.

Here are a few things I learned that evening: Costume-rental velvet flapper dresses do not give off a pleasant odor when soaked by rain. Even though you bring your “A” game and lots of confidence (but not business cards … one of the winning parties did hand out branded business cards to the judges), that doesn’t mean you’ll win. Sometimes, when there’s only a half hour before it’s time to head into the amphitheater, the rain stops falling, the sky turns blue, and everyone gets to sit down and eat one of the best meals of their lives—made even better because a hot, decadent meal can never taste as good as it does when you’ve been braving the elements for hours with friends you now love even more because they proved themselves to be such good sports. Oh, and perhaps most important: It’s better to rent a tent that you don’t end up needing than to need a tent that you don’t rent.

See you on opening night!