Arts Interview: The Return Of The Native

An Interview With Charles Mackay, General Director Of The Santa Fe Opera

Steven Robert Allen
5 min read
The Return of the Native
Charles MacKay, Santa Fe Opera general director (Ken Howard)
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John Crosby, the founder of the Santa Fe Opera (SFO), was a bona fide visionary. The SFO was—and, in many ways, still is—his wailing baby. His brilliant idea to construct an open-air opera house in the middle of the desert Southwest has had a profound and lasting impact on New Mexico’s image of itself. Yes, we live in the sticks, but we can always point to that funky spaceship opera house on the hill as proof of the existence of hoity culture in New Mexico.

Crosby’s successor, Richard Gaddes—who, by all accounts, did a world-class job as his replacement—retired last year. The post has been filled by Gaddes’ talented protégé
Charles MacKay, a native son born in Albuquerque and raised in Santa Fe who has built an impressive résumé in the opera world, especially as general director at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a position Gaddes also held.

MacKay talked with the
Alibi about taking over as captain of his hometown company.

How do you like the new gig?

I’m having a great time. It’s daunting in one respect because it’s such a big responsibility. We’re dealing with factors I hadn’t completely anticipated, such as the global economic situation, but the company is in such good shape. I never had a thought that I wanted to run the SFO, but when the opportunity came along, and it started to seem plausible that I could become the third director of this great company, it all fit together incredibly well.

Has it been a tough season because of the economic crisis?

In some ways. We’re slightly behind last year in ticket sales. The positive side of that is that we’re in our fourth week of the season, and we have a few more tickets available than we’ve had in the past. La Traviata , unfortunately, is completely sold out. I wish I could wave a magic wand and add a couple more productions of that one—there’s just been so much demand. Although some specific nights are sold out for the other four productions, there are still quite a few tickets available. If a person can be flexible, there are lots of good options.

Your history with the SFO goes back a while. Is it true you started out with the company when you were 17 years old as a French horn player?

It’s true. I was the youngest player at the time … naive enough to think a 17-year-old could play in a professional orchestra like this. [ Laughs. ] It was kind of a fluke. I was an eager kid who knew a lot about music and was really enthusiastic, and they happened to be doing a production that needed a couple of offstage horn players. It was a great beginning for me. At the time, I intended to go forward with a career as a musician.

What changed your mind?

Well, almost by accident, I got sidetracked to help out in the SFO business office when they were short of staff. That’s when I screwed up the courage to talk to John Crosby. I told him I’d become fascinated with the nuts and bolts of opera management and asked for any suggestions. He said, “I suggest you report on Monday at 9 a.m.” On the spot, he gave me a job as an administrative assistant, and I worked my way up from there. Later, I was eventually lured away to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., which allowed me to work in Italy during the summers—not a bad deal. Then I followed Richard as head of Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Richard has played as big a role as John Crosby in your career.

Yes, Richard is one of the all-time great opera managers in history. I’m fortunate that I had the chance to be mentored by Crosby then Richard, and I have been able to work with some of the greatest performers in the world.

What are the highlights this season?

This is the last season planned by Richard Gaddes, and it has an amazing lineup of performers.

I’m a huge believer that
The Elixir of Love is about the most perfect first opera ever written. It has a fun story. It isn’t particularly taxing in terms of mental activity. You can just sit back and enjoy it. It isn’t overly long, either.

In addition to
The Elixir of Love , we also have Don Giovanni this season, one of the all-time touchstones of opera. It’s a revival of a production from 2004 with some new elements added to it and a totally new, very fine cast.

We’re also hosting the world premiere of
The Letter , based on a Somerset Maugham play and made famous by the Bette Davis movie. It’s going very well. Everyone’s buzzing about it.

Then there’s
Alceste , a piece that isn’t performed very often, which requires a specific dramatic soprano and was made famous by some opera legends, Maria Callas and others. It hasn’t been performed for almost 20 years. It’s a perfect vehicle for Christine Brewer, one of the best dramatic sopranos in the world.

Sounds difficult to perform.

It is. It has these long, sustained lines and sits in a high part of the voice. It requires lots of vocal stamina. It’s also a very dramatic part—lots of anguish [ Laughs. ]—and the music really reflects that.

The 2009 Santa Fe Opera season runs through Aug. 29.

Productions include Verdi’s La Traviata , Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love , Mozart’s Don Giovanni , Moravec’s The Letter and Gluck’s Alceste .

Contact the SFO box office: (505) 986-5900,,

The Return of the Native

The John Crosby Theatre at The Santa Fe Opera

Robert Reck

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