Santa Fe Opera announces reduced 2021 season with extensive safety measures

Four operas, to be played for 30–80% capacity houses

By Peter Alexander Oct. 26 at 9:15 p.m.

The Santa Fe Opera (SFO) has an advantage these days over most other summer opera festivals: they perform outdoors.

Santa Fe Opera’s open-air theater. Photo by Kate Russell.

In the time of COVID, of course, outdoors is the safest place to be. That fact made it easier for SFO to plan for the coming season. 

“The single greatest advantage that we have given the challenges of the coronavirus is that that we are an outdoor venue,” Robert Meya, the SFO’s general director, says.“ Even if we have to reduce our social distancing way down, it’s still going to be a lot safer than any indoor theater.”

Meya announced the summer 2021 season in an online press conference Oct. 21. The season will be reduced—four operas instead of the usual five—to decrease crowding on the grounds of the SFO during rehearsals and work hours for backstage crews. The four operas on the schedule provide an interesting variety of styles, with one each from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Robert Meya announces the SFO 2021 season from the stage of the John Crosby Theater.

The season will comprise Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—ideal for an outdoor summer venue!—and the world premiere of The Lord of Cries by John Corigliano and Mark Adamo. All four had been part of the long-term plan for the coming summer.

A fifth opera that calls for a very large chorus and many extras would have been next to impossible to produce with safe distancing of cast and crew, and was dropped from the schedule. 

The open-air “lobby” of the Santa Fe Opera. Insight Foto.

It was important to preserve as much of the 2021 schedule as possible because of contractual commitments by the SFO. “Most of the contracts had been issued,” Meya explains. “Certainly verbally, we had agreements with all of the artists for that season.”

All of the productions planned for 2020 have been moved to 2022 or ‘23, including the world premiere of M Butterfly by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, the return of Wagner to the SFO with Tristan und Isolde, and the company’s first production ever of Dvořák’s Rusalka. “Because we wanted to preserve all of these projects, we had to leapfrog over 2021,” Meya says.

“We were able to save all five projects by slotting them into ‘22 and ‘23. That created a little bit of a domino effect, because we had those plans laid out. We had already built three of these (2020) productions. In March [they were] almost ready to go on stage.”

The dates of those future performances postponed from 2020 will be announced later. “I’m hoping we can go forward with the season announcement for 2022 this coming spring, in the normal pattern of announcing about 14 months out,” Meya says. Stay tuned.

Costume sketch for Lord of Cries. Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

Of the four operas slated for 2021, the premiere of The Lord of Cries is sure to attract the most attention from the opera world. The 17th world premiere at the SFO, The Lord of Cries is based on two classic works of literature, The Bacchae by Euripides and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

According to the description in the SFO’s news release, “Separated by 24 centuries, The Bacchae and Dracula tell virtually the same timeless story, with the same subversive message: We must honor our animal nature lest it turn monstruous and destroy us. The Lord of Cries begins with a strange, androgynous god returning to earth to offer a mortal three chances to ‘ask for what you want’ or risk the consequences. He materializes in Victorian England in the guise of the eponymous ‘Lord of Cries,’ . . . the irresistible antihero of Dracula.”

The Lord of Cries is the second opera by Pulitzer Prize winner Corigliano, after his 1991 Metropolitan Opera commission, The Ghosts of Versailles. Librettist Mark Adamo is himself a composer who wrote librettos for his own operas, including the 2013 Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which was revised in 2017 for a “CU NOW” workshop production in Boulder.

John Corigliano

Ticket information and full information on all four operas, including casts and synopses, is available on the SFO Web page.

The SFO’s various health strategies, for artists, staff and the public, have been worked out in partnership with CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, as well as a Reopening Advisory Group comprised of SFO Board members, staff, and public health experts. Steps to protect the health of the public during the 2021 season include seating reduced to between 30 and 80 percent of capacity, depending on conditions; ticketless entry and staggered arrival times; electrostatic disinfection of high traffic areas; and enhanced ventilation and air purification in elevators and restrooms. 

The usual preview dinners and backstage tours will not take place, and the SFO Cantina, a popular gathering place before performances, will be closed. Tailgating picnics will still be permitted in the parking lot, with appropriate distancing.

SFO Tailgaters. Photo by Chris Corrie.

Protecting the health of the artists and others working at the SFO is both a high priority and a complex challenge. Meya explains the steps that will be taken: “The musicians in the orchestra, all of the singers, and of course that includes our apprentices who comprise our chorus—[everyone] rehearsing and performing in close proximity is going to be quarantined upon arrival in the state for 14 days. During that same period they will receive the CCR test as well as the antibody test.

“Once they’re admitted to rehearse on campus, we will have frequent [testing]. All the singers, musicians and apprentices will be tested three times weekly, the backstage crew who can still socially distance to some degree will be tested two times weekly, and everyone else on campus will be tested once weekly.

“Those tests will be the rapid test. We are actually in the process of sourcing those—something like 12,000 tests. We will do the tests on site. We’ll set up a testing station [with] six machines that are going to be running approximately seven hours a day, six days a week with three operators, in order to conduct something like 1000 tests per week.”

The SFO outdoor campus. Photo by Peter Alexander.

In addition to those precautions, the SFO campus is mostly outdoors, with open air rehearsal spaces. But of course the visiting artists and their families will be out in the community as well. “We’re going to ask all of those people to sign a stringent out-of-workplace agreement about what they’re not going to do, like go to bars or restaurants.”

The Santa Fe Opera is one of the very first summer operas to announce full details for their 2021 season. Central City announced long ago that they would move their entire 2020 schedule to 2021, but details of health precautions have not been released. Opera Theater of St. Louis announced Oct. 19—two days before SFO—that they will proceed with an open-air, socially distanced 2021 season. 

Considering the dangers posed by the coronavirus, Meya feels very fortunate that the SFO is operating in its unique environment. “We are in that environment that is the perfect marriage of nature and art,” he says. “We’re in such a fortunate position in so many ways. We’re determined to put on a season, and we have been able to announce with a good deal of confidence.

“I feel very positive that we can make this happen and that we can do it safely.”

Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Robert Goodwin

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