Regina Sarfaty will never forget her first performance at The Santa Fe Opera.



It was July 3, 1957—the first night of the first season of what is now a 55-year-old, internationally acclaimed company. The 22-year-old Sarfaty was making her professional debut, as Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, under the baton of SFO founder John Crosby. Despite a season that would eventually be marked by a succession of rainy nights, the New Mexico weather cooperated on that inaugural evening.



“It was an absolute triumph,” Sarfaty says. “That’s the only word I can use. It was magnificent to look at. We had a full moon, you could see through the back of the stage, the shoji screens were beautiful with the light.”



Some 480 people filled the house, sitting on the backless bancos that comprised the seating. Sarfaty recalls that the audience came in “black tie, some in furs, some in long gowns. Some people came in jeans. You got a feeling of what Santa Fe was about.”



Even now, more than half a century after the company’s establishment and a decade after Crosby’s death in 2002, his influence can still be felt, from the theater itself to the sophisticated water-treatment system on the grounds, from the old ranch buildings that are now offices to the white petunias that have bloomed year after year. Company lore has it that Crosby’s mother urged they be planted, since white flowers stand out better at night than more colorful blooms.



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The story behind SFO is as magical as one its operas. Crosby, a native of Bronxville, New York, and a sufferer of childhood asthma, attended the old Los Alamos Ranch School as a boy, and also worked as a wrangler at Bishop’s Lodge. He and his family fell in love with the area’s beauty and peace, and his parents bought land north of Santa Fe. His father was a successful attorney. The family also profited from business interests in pre-revolutionary Cuba.



After military service and earning a degree in music from Yale, Crosby, who was heavily influenced by Sir Rudolph Bing, general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, became determined to found an opera company in, of all places, Santa Fe: a city that then had only 25,000 residents. He was determined to found a house equal to its setting, devoted to opera at its best.



For three decades, that theater offered one of the most amazing operatic experiences in the world: excellent stage views, sides open to the desert mountain landscape, and a pair of soaring stage-and-mezzanine roofs that left a huge opening above much of the audience. It was lovely to experience—until the rains came. Then, audience and orchestra sometimes had to choose between fleeing the inundation or stolidly donning rain slickers. (When Marilyn Horne sang Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 1990, there was no budging at all, even when the rain slanted in sideways. The musical experience easily outweighed the soaking.)



The SFO has also survived adversity and hard times. That first house, along with a mezzanine section added in 1965, burned down on July 27, 1967. Arson was suspected, though never proven. Down but far from out, the company immediately mobilized. They switched the rest of the season’s performances to the Santa Fe High School’s Sweeney Gymnasium. Fundraising began at once for a new home, which opened for the 1968 season. However, after the summer of 1991, when it rained during 22 of the 37 performances, it was decided that a less exposed theater was in order.



The current theater, which opened in 1998, increased seating from 1,889 to 2,128, plus standing room, and added many welcome amenities, including additional restrooms to help alleviate the long lines at intermission, and a state-of-the-art elevator to provide handicap access to every floor of the house.



With its lion’s share of logistical challenges, The Santa Fe Opera is unlike virtually any other opera theater in the world. Because of the wind’s potential impact, there is no fly space into which sets can be lifted. Every set piece has to be moved in from the sides by hand, or come up on a stage elevator during intermissions. There is no proscenium arch for a standard curtain, as the stage is so wide and low. Every entrance, exit, and set change takes place in full audience view.



It’s worth it. The sides of the house are still open to the air, and the rear of the stage can be opened to reveal a seemingly limitless vista of rolling earth and soaring sky. This has provided some of the company’s most thrilling moments. Those included letting the lights of far-off Los Alamos stand in for the lights of Nagasaki in Madama Butterfly over the years; and in 2011, blazing fires in the far hills reinforced the dark, gloomy message of Gounod’s Faust.



One component shared by all three incarnations of the opera house is a water feature between the orchestra pit and the first row. The current theater has an imposing channel, almost a miniature canal. Part of its raison d’être has been to help provide atmospheric humidity for both singers and instrumentalists, to bring a touch of relief from the dry, high-desert air. But according to former SFO president Nancy Zeckendorf (who, as Nancy King, danced with the company in 1961 and 1962), Crosby didn’t want the orchestra to be disturbed by audience members strolling down to ogle or chat during intermissions. Hence the moat.



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The SFO remains dedicated to its founding principles: to be a repertory company working at a festival level, to be composed of a generally young and energetic artistic group, and to be committed to growth.



Certainly the repertory concept has remained in line with the artistic balance of the 1957 season, and that’s reflected in each season’s offerings. There is always a classic draw like that first-night Puccini, and for many years, patrons could count on an opera by Crosby’s favorite composer, Richard Strauss; a work by Mozart or another popular composer such as Rossini or Verdi; and an envelope-ripping contemporary piece such as Pendericki’s The Devils of Loudun or Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao.



Perhaps the most anticipated opera to be staged that first season was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. A friend of the Russian-born composer, Miranda “Mirandi” Levy, introduced him to Crosby, and Stravinsky agreed to come and supervise Rake—in which, Regina Sarfaty incidentally, sang the part of Baba the Turk. Crosby soon got over the shock of hearing Levy call Stravinsky “Pussycat,” but he stuck to addressing the Russian composer as “Maestro.”



As if all that weren’t enough to put Santa Fe firmly on the musical map, Stravinsky came several times over the next six seasons, to oversee further productions of The Rake’s Progress, as well as of Oedipus Rex, Mavra, Perséphone, Renard, and Le Rossignol—and to receive a two-week, 80th-birthday celebration from the city in 1962. 



“I’ve often wondered whether John [Crosby] himself would have believed that what would happen actually happened,” says Thomas Catron III, who has been involved with the company since its earliest days, and was Crosby’s private attorney. “I wish I’d said, sometime, ‘I know you thought we were going to have a good opera, but did you ever think it was going to succeed to the extent it has, and become international and prominent?’



“He probably would have said yes. He was always insistent on quality, and quality makes everything good, whether it’s opera or anything else.”



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The early singers and most of the company, including the apprentice singers who served as chorus members (the first such program in the country, and Crosby’s idea), were between 20 and 30, Sarfaty recalls. Youth onstage is still very much in evidence, even though The SFO has also proudly presented seasoned veterans of the world’s other operatic stages. The tough schedule, combined with the altitude and dryness, can sometimes derail performers, so an energetic attitude is essential.



“We all arrived. Suddenly we’re coughing, we’re wheezing, we can’t make [phrases] in one breath,” Sarfaty recalls of that first season. “We rehearsed on the grass. There were no rehearsal facilities. The house was not done. Only if you’re young can you survive it. We survived.”



Dancer Jefferson Baum, who performed with the company in 1988 and 1992, recalls being sidelined by the altitude even though he was as fit as a dancer could be in a career with companies such as Ballet de Monte Carlo and the Metropolitan Opera. “That first month, just walking up from the rehearsal hall to the stage, uphill, we’d have to stop and rest,” he recalls. “And the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ polka in Die Fledermaus, that never got any easier. We would exit and be on our hands and knees.”



The atmosphere and camaraderie made it worthwhile. “Thinking back on all the gigs I’ve ever had in my career, I think it’s still, to this day, the best job I ever had,” he says. “I’ve been all over the place, and the Opera’s professionalism is just bar none.”



Fellow-dancer Zeckendorf remembers her SFO seasons with great fondness. “We only made $100 a week, and we still had to pay for our apartments in New York. But I would have come for free, or I would have paid for the opportunity to do so. It was an unimaginable ideal: to come out here for a summer and dance and work with Vera Zorina and Stravinsky.” In her contract, she revealed, the Opera sanctioned an airline weight allowance of seven pounds for a makeup kit and a pair of dance slippers.



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Crosby was an intensely private person who could be tremendously formidable. Those who knew him, however, claim he never meant to offend.



“John was a very introverted person,” Sarfaty says. “He was too busy to be friendly. That man had financial meetings, he had board meetings, he was conducting, he was watering the birch trees, he was taking care of the groundspeople. This was one busy man. When John got an idée fixe, nobody could budge him. Strauss was an idée fixe. Using water responsibly was another.”



“He didn’t want to waste time,” Zeckendorf remembers. “He cared deeply about saving every penny that he could. His integrity and his honesty and his carefulness and his immaculate overseeing of the numbers made him what he was.”



Crosby’s financial acumen was remarkable, and opera legend has it that he could tell you the price of every spool of thread in the costume shop, or how much had been saved by reusing material from one set for another, or how much it cost to supply the intermission refreshment bars.



Catron says that Crosby’s supposed curmudgeonly behavior was reticence, not disdain. “It was difficult for him to talk to people. It was shyness. He didn’t particularly like going to social events.” On the other hand, “He was all right one on one. I don’t know how else you would explain it but as a kind of singlemindedness. You could come across him walking somewhere, and he wouldn’t acknowledge you. He would act like you weren’t there. It happened to me,” Catron admits. “It was not rudeness. Among the people he worked with he was insistent on civility. He really thought that was a kind of a moral aspect of being.”



Though Crosby retired to Palm Springs in 2000 and gave over the reins to longtime associate Richard Gaddes, he stayed closely connected to what had become one of the most singular and remarkable artistic institutions in North America. In 2002, Crosby returned to conduct; surprisingly, not his beloved Strauss, but Verdi’s La Traviata. Perhaps he thought he’d conduct Ariadne auf Naxos or Der Rosenkavalier the following season, but he passed away in December 2002.



“At the beginning, John was asked, ‘How can you do this? How can you make a theater work?’” recalls Zeckendorf. ‘He said, ‘Because this place has always attracted artists,’ meaning O’Keeffe, Mable Dodge Luhan, D. H. Lawrence. He said, ‘They’ll come.’ And by God, they did.”