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Director: SF Opera Is Thriving

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera is on budget and thriving despite alarmist headlines about the fragility of opera companies across the country, general director Charles McKay said Thursday.

A crowd of about 70 showed up in the hillside Gaddes Hall to hear McKay trumpet the organization’s financial health and its ongoing commitment to new works and young singers.

The gathering was prompted by a recent New York Times story describing the foundering Seattle Opera and recession-driven conservative programming in both Los Angeles and Chicago. Both companies are sticking to top 10 crowd-pleasers such as “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly” to ensure ticket sales. The Times speculated on whether the trend represented a cultural shift or a temporary setback.

“None of this applies to the Santa Fe Opera,” McKay insisted. “We are in good shape. We anticipate a balanced budget this year (thanks to ) robust ticket sales and contributions.”

Ticket sales have reached an all-time high of $8.175 million in 2012, he said, with eight days remaining in the season.

“We’re starting a pool on what the final number will be,” he added with a laugh.

All five of this season’s operas have boasted 93 percent capacity crowds, he said.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is providing a grant of $1 million to support the production of new operas within the next three years. This marks the third grant the company has received from Mellon. The foundation also awarded the Santa Fe Opera a $75,000 grant toward new media projects using social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter in promotions.

The day McKay arrived in Santa Fe in 2008 to replace retiring director Richard Gaddes, the stock market crashed 500 points. The economy forced him to review the budget and make cuts as he started the job, he acknowledged. The trimming included frozen salaries, a suspended retirement program and leaving unfilled positions vacant. The company also reused sets to save money.

“This year we have taken a major step forward and increased the budget by $1 million,” he said.

The brighter financial picture will allow the opera to build new sets and costumes for next season, McKay said.

The opera and its spectacular setting north of town draws between 45 and 49 percent of its audience from New Mexico and lures fans from all 50 states, the majority from California, Texas and Colorado. Foreign ticket sales comprise from 2 to 2.5 percent of the rest, with visitors hailing from between 20 and 25 countries. This year, Poland comprised a major slice of the overseas market, thanks to the Polish-penned opera “King Roger.”

Special offers and savings for first-time New Mexico opera-goers have also boosted ticket sales, McKay added.

To help fund Santa Fe’s nationally renowned apprentice program, the company has partnered with the Opera Company of Philadelphia to produce newer works like next season’s “Oscar,” 2015’s “Cold Mountain” and the American premiere of New York-based Chinese composer Huang Ruo’s “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,” which will replace the previously announced “Miss Fortune” by Judith Weir.

“Dr. Sun Yat-Sen” – about a revolutionary’s “turbulent love life,” as reported by the New York Times – is the first opera by Huang Ruo. It has previously been staged in Hong Kong. A premiere scheduled in Beijing was postponed, spurring speculation of official disapproval from Chinese leaders.

This season has boasted all-star casts, McKay said. Next season includes famed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in Offenbach’s comedy “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.” Acclaimed American countertenor David Daniels will star in “Oscar.”

Also at Thursday’s news conference, Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the umbrella group Opera America called 2012 one of the most innovative and creative times in the field of opera.

Across the United States, companies are turning to social media to publicize their seasons, he added. High definition transmissions in movie theaters draw audiences across the country – including in Santa Fe and Taos.

A free Philadelphia transmission of “Carmen” lured 5,000 fans who stood in a line during a downpour to enter the theater. The Dallas Opera sold 500 tickets on Groupon in 20 minutes. The Washington National Opera is using Facebook to publicize a live September performance of “Don Giovanni.” Smaller companies are bringing opera out of the opera house and into churches and lofts, he said.

“A flagship company for 50 years is the Santa Fe Opera,” he said, “in meeting the standard and (as the) standard bearer of innovation and creativity. The Santa Fe Opera is a national treasure, both managerially and artistically.”