End of an Era
An interview with the Santa Fe Opera’s Richard Gaddes
During New Mexico’s monsoon season, clouds well up on the dry mesas, thunder cracks the sky wide open and, when we’re lucky, our parched desert gets the thorough drenching it deserves. Around that same time, the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) opens its regular season. At its finest, a night at the opera in New Mexico can meld the fury of the natural world and the electrical storms rocking that partial open-air stage.
For the past eight years, Richard Gaddes has been the man at the helm. The general director of the SFO has struggled to take some of the notorious elitism out of opera, welcoming ordinary New Mexicans into this odd, but oddly satisfying, high-strata subculture. Gaddes has also raised the stature of a regional opera company into an international powerhouse, recognized around the globe as one of the most cutting-edge institutions of its kind. For his efforts, he was recently awarded the highly prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors award, acknowledging a lifetime of distinguished service to the art.
At the end of the 2008 season, Gaddes will retire. He recently spoke with the Alibi by phone about his legacy and the future of the SFO under its incoming director, Santa Fe native Charles MacKay.
I’d like to start by congratulating you on your recent NEA award. That’s a nice way to ease into retirement.
Thank you. It was a surprise, and it’s very exciting. Representatives from the NEA had been here last summer, and they actually picked my brains to some extent about the process and so forth, so I didn’t really expect to be one of the awardees. It did come as a surprise, and a pleasant one I might add.
You’ve been involved with the SFO in various capacities for decades. What’s your proudest accomplishment at the opera?
Well, when I became the general director in 2000, I thought one of the most important things we needed to do was be more accessible to the community. At that time, we did have a very active outreach program, but I felt there was a slight feeling that we were—maybe elitist is too strong a word—but we weren’t as much a part of the community as we should have been. So we embarked on a very specific strategy to change that impression. We tried to become more user-friendly. We introduced new programs; the simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera that we’ve collaborated on with the Lensic, for example.
Those have been pretty popular.
Oh, very. There’s been a whole bevy of programs that have been introduced over the last seven years that have been very successful and that have actually changed our ratio of audience members. Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, we had about 34 percent of our audience from New Mexico and the rest from elsewhere. Now it’s slightly more than 50 percent from New Mexico.
“With the cost of gasoline affecting everything, people have to make cuts, and the easiest way to do that is to cut out movies and ball games and holidays and opera.”
One of the things I recall you doing was having reduced prices for first-time operagoers.
Yes, that was at the very beginning of the program, and it had amazing results. It’s so long ago I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think we thought we’d sell 500 tickets and sold five or six thousand. That was the real watershed. Tailgating, for example, is so successful now that it’s on the verge of becoming a problem.
Really? In terms of getting cars through the parking lot?
And getting the tables dismantled before 8:30 and so forth. But it’s a nice problem to have.
People go all out for that.
Yes, people make an evening out of it, which I think is good.
What in your mind distinguishes the SFO from other opera companies, regional or otherwise?
I think mainly the physical plan. How many other opera companies have the view we have, sitting in the audience watching the sunset and looking through the stage at the Jemez Mountains?
It certainly is a spectacular setting.
Yes, and singers who have spent their lives in hotel rooms in London, Munich, Chicago, Philadelphia, wherever, they’re thrilled to come to Santa Fe for the summer, enjoy the wonderful climate, enjoy the SFO’s wonderful working conditions, bring their families, sort of have a working vacation. It’s very appealing to singers.
Did you play a large role in selecting Charles MacKay as your replacement?
Not really. I gave the president a list of people who should be considered, but I was not part of the search committee. Charles MacKay was chosen as the result of a very clearly defined process. He was the obvious person for the job.
What does he bring to the job that makes him ideal?
Well, for the last 20-something years, he has been running a very successful program in St. Louis. [MacKay has been the general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) since 1985. Gaddes founded OTSL in 1976 and served as its director until MacKay took over.] He is a musician and a fine administrator. He happens to be born in New Mexico. He’s also president of Opera America, which is the trade organization of opera in this country. So he has a very high profile and is very accomplished.
What do you think the SFO’s biggest challenges will be in the coming years?
The main challenge is to keep on the same high artistic plain that we’re on right now. Not every production is a surefire success, but we’ve had a lot of very successful productions. And the economy is a continuing problem. We’ve been operating in the black for many years now, but with the cost of gasoline affecting everything, people have to make cuts, and the easiest way to do that is to cut out movies and ball games and holidays and opera. People have less disposable income.
When you retire will you be staying in Santa Fe?
Well, I’ve been here since I was 25 years old, so I’m going to keep part of my roots here in Santa Fe.
Let’s talk about this season. What do you consider the highlights?
It’s hard to pick specific highlights. In planning a season you try to highlight every production. For example, the Santa Fe debut of David Daniels singing Radamisto is very exciting and selling a lot of tickets because Handel’s opera is rarely performed and very difficult to sing and to present. Having him sing it is a major coup.
Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten is going to be very intense and wonderful theater with a wonderful cast. The person singing Billy Budd, a gentleman by the name of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, should be wonderful. It’s a great, great piece.
In The Marriage of Figaro, the person singing the role of Susanna, Elizabeth Watts, is winning prizes all over the place. She’s from London, and this is her operatic debut. But also the return of Mariusz Kwiecien to sing the Count is a big deal. The cast of Figaro is stunning.
Then there’s the premiere of Adriana Mater, with the return of Peter Sellars, a piece that has been performed in Paris and Finland and is now having its American premiere. It’s very important.
And, of course, Verdi’s Falstaff, a favorite of mine, with a number of debuts, not least of all the conductor Paolo Arrivabeni.
It’s going to be a wonderful season.