1957 to 2016:
Sixty Seasons of Santa Fe Opera and Mozart
By Peter Pabisch, Albuquerque
It sounds farfetched to think that New Mexico, then called Nuevo Mexico, was part of the Habsburg Empire for almost 200 years until 1700. And Santa Fe, its capital, existed as the most northern official administrative city of Latin America since 1610, with its highest ruler from the Habsburg family, namely Philip III, son of Philip II who had the Escorial in Madrid built and had presented to his family in Vienna the famous Spanish Riding School. No wonder then that the entire Southwest of the United States constitutes 65% of former Mexico until 1848, when the Mexican-American War was decided in favor of the northern power. Yet, to this day New Mexico has a flavor of its own relating much more to Catholic Europe with Spain, Italy, and Austria, rather than infiltrate the political correct protestant tradition of this country going back to the Pilgrim Fathers and Plymouth Rock. Even the Austrian Embassy has to be reminded in irregular intervals that Santa Fe is much closer to home than Washington D. C. with the entire East of the United States of America. But be that as it may, it is therefore to no surprise that at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) an unintended continuation of this bond seems to thrive on the cultural level since its inception in 1957, as the opera has performed quite a few works by Austrian composers or composers who lived a great part of their lives in Vienna, once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and later the Austrian, even the Austrian-Hungarian one, right into our days of modern Austria – with its famous music tradition and, in fact, its “premier league” position in this regard.
John Crosby, the founder of the SFO, who enjoyed the assistance of Igor Stravinsky during the first few years of the house, giving it greatness right from its difficult beginnings, had a liking for Richard Strauss, a few Italians – Gioachino Rossini, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, and, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Remarkably, the first season, in 1957, offered Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The other two operas of the traditional five pieces to be produced each year were, after all, Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and as a world premiere, Marvin David Levy’s The Tower. The SFO, as an ambitious, top level enterprise for six decades, will offer, in 2016, a Puccini (The Girl of the Golden West), a Richard Strauss (Capriccio), Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette, Samuel Baker’s American opera Vanessa, and Mozart’s most esteemed master piece Don Giovanni – with the libretto by the immigrant to America Lorenzo da Ponte.
In these sixty years the genius from Salzburg will have occupied almost all the lead in every category at the SFO, among 85 composers presented in this time span. Three of his operas rank amid the most often played pieces – first, The Marriage of Figaro - seventeen times, The Magic Flute - twelve times, Cosi fan tutte - eleven times – only to be challenged by Verdi’s La Traviata - thirteen times, Richard Strauss’es Salome and Puccini’s La Bohème - eleven times each, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly - ten times. All the other operas were performed under ten times, many of them only once or twice; but being performed in Santa Fe has meant victory for the musicians and the artists – and also for many librettists – as for example Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss and Lorenzo da Ponte from Italy, as already mentioned – who emigrated to the early United States after his collaboration with Mozart in Europe.
As to the number of operas presented over the years Richard Strauss remains the frontrunner with thirteen of his well and lesser known works, followed by Mozart with eleven, Rossini with nine, and Puccini, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze, and Benjamin Britten with six each on the entire program. Verdi, Gaetano Donizetti, and Frederic Handel show five works each, but these rankings do not consider how often each opera was played at any given season, as already indicated above. There Mozart is clearly winning. As to other Austrians Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Johann Strauss jun., or Franz Lehár increase the impressive list of composers from Mozart’s home grounds.
In 2015 Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera constituted a well-received introduction to the SFO’s offerings of this composer, and for the 2016 season Don Giovanni will continue the Mozart boom - with the expectation, it is hoped, that the natural thunder from the 7,000 feet cloudy surroundings of this unique opera house will occur just when the mighty statue of the commandant emerges onto the stage. Otherwise the most successful, personable General Director Charles MacKay and his artistic and administrative team are promising a memorable, powerful, cultural sixtieth summer season. All those who know of Austria’s contributions to the world of music, will find the mythical formula AEIOU contained in every Mozart piece – outstandingly so in Santa Fe!