Each year the Santa Fe Opera offers a wonderful season of art, song and music, starting in June  and running through August.  Even if you’re not an opera aficionado, treat yourself to just one performance. You will never see another opera company like this.

The stage is semi en pleine air. Either side of the building is open to the elements. The back of the stage offers a view towards the Jemez Mountains.

En pleine air also translates into a variety of opera wear. The Santa Fe Opera season occurs partly during the local “monsoon season” which brings torrential downpours that drop the temperature twenty degrees and more. Opera attire is whatever keeps you warm and dry and happy.

Opera holds a special place in my heart. I saw my first opera many years ago in Budapest. There was something about the magic of the stage, the costumes and the music that immediately captivated me. I have been an opera fan ever since, and naturally I was curious about the Santa Fe Opera.

During the 2018 season, I attended two performances, Madame Butterfly and Doctor Atomic. Madame Butterfly is a classic, and this performance did not disappoint.  

The set featured a steel box at center state, fitted with sliding Japanese style wood and paper doors, to frame the “building”. Mats, flags and other accoutrements decorated the house and a ramp backstage provided ingress and egress.

The change over between scenes flowed seamlessly, as stage hands rotated the structure, added some props, removed others and set the stage for the stunning finale that left the audience on their feet and in tears.

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The Santa Fe Opera staging for Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterly was everything I love about the opera. Beautiful staging, costume, music and song.

Admittedly, the indoor/outdoor aspect of the Santa Fe Opera is a bit quirky.

And when you come down to it, it’s not at all opera-like!

Where else can you tailgate,

bring a raincoat and sweater to ward off the elements,

and enjoy world class opera?

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe

Outside in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Opera house are posters for the season’s performance.

Yes, tailgate. More on that in a moment.

The opera building itself is situated on the top of a mesa. The  original building built by John Crosby in 1957 was an open air theatre.  The audience sat on wooden benches. Here attendees were subject to the wind and rain (locally referred to as  monsoon season) mid summer. In 1965 a mezzanine was added.

And in 1967, for better and for worse, the entire structure burned to the ground.

The opportunity to build a new opera was taken seriously and what has emerged is simply astonishing. It’s a structure that allows the outdoors in, mostly sheltering the audience from the sometimes torrential mid summer rains. And inside 2,128 people seated and an additional 106 standing positions allow everyone to attend.

Each year the Opera offers an eclectic and interesting array of productions. This past year’s opera season offered a foray into history, culture and even science. Plus of course, a bit of tailgating.

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The opera house is an indoor/outdoor building. The white “flags” in the background are wind baffles. And in the parking lot: tailgating is de riguer.

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe

The exterior of the Santa Fe Opera boasts some fairly contemporary trusses, highlighted here against a stormy sky.

Tailgating at The Santa Fe Opera

Tailgating is de riguer at this opera. Dress up; dress down; but bring something to eat, drink and share.

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe

Clouds build over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, as seen from the Santa Fe Opera parking lot where the tailgaters gather.

Overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and a setting sun over the Jemez Mountains to the west, with the sparkling lights of Los Alamos in the distant hills, the opera is a great place for a tailgate!

In the parking lots and small picnic areas, people gather to mix, mingle, eat, drink and celebrate opera season in Santa Fe. Food is also available through the Opera, but many locals prefer to host their own parties. From elaborate spreads to simple picnics, everyone gathers as they wait for the 8pm show.

It is almost inconceivable that a town the size of Santa Fe can host an opera of this magnitude, quality and creativity. Yet every year, this town of 70,000 people, draws world class talent to this high desert location.

Opera has something of an elitist reputation. But Santa Fe presents a very different experience that will redefine your notion of this art form. 

Be prepared to open your heart to its music.

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Santa Fe Opera Tours: Behind The Scenes

The art of the opera becomes apparent with a behind the scenes tour. The actual opera house is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the stage is a community unto itself where costumes are made; wigs are woven; music is practiced; and stages are created. 

The tours provide a personal, in depth look at the wide range of people, skills and talents it takes to present a performance.  From custom dress to make up, to the set storage room, the Santa Fe Opera docent led tour is well worth while. It offers an eye opening glimpse of the gargantuan effort behind the art. Upon seeing this, I have to admit that two hundred dollars or so for a seat didn’t seem quite so extravagant. (More on the ways on how to find a $15 Opera experience below!)

Down the drive is Opera Ranch, a village that houses the seasonal musicians and performers.  Tours for the ranch are also offered, starting starting in the Spring/Summer. Check with the Opera directly for details.

The Opera also offers Opera Insider Days. This is a free event Saturday mornings, accompanied by a talk and a tour of the backstage. No reservations are required. 

Ticket holders also have access to a free prelude talk the evening of the performance. Seating is limited although reservations are not required. The Opera generally offers two talks, one two hours before the show, and a second one one hour prior to the show. You’ll have to juggle this with your tailgating plans, but make it if you can.

Atomic Science Meets The Art of Opera

The Santa Fe Opera 2018

The Santa Fe Opera Season in 2018 offered a most interesting selection. I was fortunate enough to attend two shows (with the newcomer discounts of 40%): Doctor Atomic and Madame Butterfly.

Madame Butterfly was simply sublime. Words can do no justice to the beauty and song of this classic production.

A bit more controversial, however, was Dr. Atomic.

Doctor Atomic is an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars. Doctor Atomic premiered in San Francisco in 2005. It’s the story of the 24 hours before the first atomic bomb explosion takes place in New Mexico. 

The production received an enormous amount of build up and press.  Discussions of war, morality and the role of science filled the air.

At the Opera, a massive steel ball–”The Gadget” as the bomb was called– was suspended from the ceiling. With the lights of Los Alamos twinkling in the background, the set was almost surreal. 

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe

A massive steel ball/bomb hangs on the set of Dr. Atomic, with the lights of Los Alamos glittering in the background at the Santa Fe Opera

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The actual “Gadget” Photo courtesy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation

The History Behind Doctor Atomic

It was at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1945, where scientists came together to develop the atomic bomb under the guidance of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Oppenheimer was given undreamed-of resources, huge armies of people, and as much money as he could spend in order to do physics on the grand scale, in order to create this marvelous weapon. And it was a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. Of course, we are still living with it. Once you sell your soul to the devil, there is no going back on it.”           –Wired Magazine

The process of building and testing atomic weapons would have numerous ramifications for the history of both the country and of New Mexico.

The primary test site was at Trinity, which is located at the northern border of the White Sands Missile Range. Here, on the Trinity site, named by Oppenheimer after a poem by John Donne, a base camp was installed for the world’s first nuclear test.The site was very primitive, but within commuting distance of Los Alamos where the scientists lived.

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe, Doctor Atomic

Map showing the Trinity test site

Wartime urgency and secrecy, combined with the remote locale, made for difficult conditions. Men camped first in tents, and later a rudimentary camp was built. It was here that the bomb would be assembled and tested. 

The process was anything but smooth. From the  Atomic Heritage Foundation:

“Much of the preparation for the Trinity test encountered setbacks. The challenges faced in developing the Trinity site were numerous and multifaceted, and there were often close calls that could have jeopardized the outcome of the entire project. Some were almost comical, such as when Kenneth Greisen was pulled over for speeding in Albuquerque while he was driving detonators to Trinity four days before the test. He could have been delayed by several days had the officer checked the contents of his trunk.

A more ominous event was the actual process of winching the Gadget to the top of its tower at the test site. As it was being raised to the top, it came partially unhinged and began to sway. Many observers were stricken with panic at the possibility of the bomb accidentally falling from the tower and detonating, but the Gadget was eventually righted and made its way to the top of the tower without further incident.”

On July 16, 1945 the “Gadget” was detonated. The mushroom cloud climbed nearly eight miles high and left a crater over 1,000 feet wide. The test was so powerful that the sand melted in the blast and formed a green glasslike substance called Trinitite.

(Film courtesy of Atomic Heritage Foundation)

The Aftermath

Today you can tour the Trinity site twice a year. Tours are very emotional for many people, particularly the Downwinders. 

The “Downwinders” are the New Mexican people of the Tularosa Basin  that were downwind from the highly radioactive tests. Toxicity at certain areas reached more than 10,000 times recommended health and safety limits according to an upcoming documentary Downwind: The Film by CBS producer Lois Lipman. 

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe, Doctor Atomic

The first nuclear test at Trinity.


Doctor Atomic brought out the mixed and often raw emotions that emerged from the nuclear era in New Mexico, where world class scientists labored under the secrecy of war, while local people saw their land and lives inconceivably and irrevocably destroyed.

How does one reconcile centuries of Pueblo tradition with an atomic bomb that forever altered the land and the people’s sacred relationship with it? How does one balance wartime urgency and human decency? 

It’s a drama of historic proportions that is still playing out today. 

And many of the players are seeking a way to heal.

“Art is a wound turned into light.” ~ Georges Braque

Art takes many forms. Dance is one.

Sacred ceremonial dances, handed down from one generation to the next, are ancient prayers in Pueblo culture. At Doctor Atomic, the people of the Santa Clara, San Ildefonso and Tesuque Pueblos came together in prayer, in the form of a Corn Dance, a dance celebrating the bounty of the harvest and the land.

They were joined on stage by a group of Downwinders.

Together it was intended as an offering towards healing the wounds of the atomic era.

The confluence of opera, history and the peoples of New Mexico offered a difficult look at the past and the diverse factions that make up this eclectic state. The promise of science versus the deep rooted connection to the earth; the urgency of war versus a centuries old way of life; the intellect of building the bomb versus the very human experience of its repercussions. New Mexico is a place where ancient tradition and modernity live side by side. 

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Tradition and modernity meet and mingle  at the Gathering of Nations PowWow, a celebration of Indian culture and tradition

Local interest was naturally very high and the history of Doctor Atomic found its way into various lectures and programs in the lead up to the actual performance. The Lensic Theatre, a study in Moorish and Spanish Renaissance style architecture, was the primary venue for the talks.  

While I adored the ongoing education and discussions, for me, the performance lacked all the things I love about opera: the elaborate costumes and the beautiful music that transport one in sight and sound.  The ominous musical score cast a heavy sense of doom over the performance.  But perhaps that was as it should be.

But my advice, particularly if you are buying expensive seats, is to stick to the fabulous classics. You won’t be disappointed.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

My experience with the 2018 season at the Opera was, overall, terrific. It’s now on the annual must do list and, among other shows, The classic La Boheme is on the 2019 agenda.

New Mexico is so different from any place else. During the 2018 season, the themes of art, war and opera came seamlessly together in their own quirky way.

In this varied land, ancient history and timeless geography blend with modern day realities like the prestigious Los Alamos labs that still operate up on the hillside beyond the Opera, and to the south, a major Netflix facility in Alburquerque.

Yet somehow tradition and modernity meet and mingle. 

From O’Keeffe to Oppenheimer, it’s a close knit circle of eccentrics that have paved the future of New Mexico.  Perhaps given this eclectic backdrop, it’s not entirely surprising that a performance like Doctor Atomic raised so much interest during the 2018 season.  I’m grateful for the reminder of our history, and for the look both back and forward, hopefully in healing. 

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The Santa Fe Opera Season 2019: Tickets

Santa Fe opera season, opera house Santa Fe, Doctor Atomic

Tailgating, plus the art of opera, is a quirky and unbeatable combination.

Put the Opera on your Santa Fe must do list! While the premium seats range over $200, the standing spots are a very reasonable $15.  This allows just about everyone to go to the opera, at least once.

The mission of the opera is naturally to further the art form. But in addition, the Santa Fe Opera is very educationally oriented.

The Apprentice Program is run by Gayletha Nichols, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. This program has helped to launch some of the most illustrious careers in opera. 

Gayletha herself is a formidable force. She’s been active in opera and opera education for decades, starting in Houston, then moving to the New York Met, and now to Santa Fe where she mentors an astonishing range of young talent. The Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program for Singers has seats that are just $15 for adults and $5 for kids. Cost is not a barrier to enjoying this incredible art form. Check with the Opera for details.

The performance roster at this world class opera company varies annually. Santa Fe Opera Season 2019 features La Boheme, The Pearl Fishers, Cosi Fan Tutte, Jenufa, The Thirteenth Child, Renee Fleming, various apprenticeship scenes and concerts, including one by Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves who was named “New Artist of the Year” by the Country Music Association. 

Santa Fe, “The City Different”,  with the “Opera Different” as well. Check it out. 

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Reading About The Manhattan Project

There are numerous books written about this period of our history. And many films. But a premier resource if this interests you is the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Everything from interviews to archival footage is available to view.

More Reading About Santa Fe Area Arts

If you’re interested in learning more about photography (or cooking or film or any number of topics) check out MasterClass All-Access Pass for on-line excellence:

What is #CancerRoadTrip and how did it come to be? Read this post to get the backstory! 

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