It all started in the cradle.
Robert Meya’s opera buff grandmother sang him operatic arias when he was an infant.
Fittingly, the Santa Fe Opera named Meya its new general director in 2018 after amassing $9.4 million in fundraising under his leadership.
While the dollar count certainly helped, Meya says his long relationship with the opera propelled him to the top. He began as an Opera Club Steward intern under SFO founder John Crosby 20 years ago.
“So in many ways, it was like coming full circle,” he said. “I sort of felt like a member of the family.”
Director of the SFO’s external affairs since 2012, Meya is the company’s fourth general director in its 63-year history. His tenure falls in the footsteps of Charles MacKay, Richard Gaddes and Crosby.
Meya grew up in Connecticut, where he played classical piano. He attended the Metropolitan Opera regularly with his mother.
“From a young age, I was the nerdy kid collecting classical records while everyone else was listening to The Beatles,” he said.
The beauty of the human voice ignited his passion, he said.
Singing “can transport you more emotionally and viscerally than almost anything else,” he explained.
The director is launching his new leadership role though what he calls his “three pillars.” The first marks the continued honoring of Santa Fe’s past with the favorite composers of Crosby and Gaddes, as well as the continued commissioning of new works spearheaded by MacKay. Audiences will hear Crosby’s ongoing legacy through the music of Richard Strauss, Meya said.
“There are two (Strauss operas) we haven’t done,” he added.
The SFO will continue Gaddes’ heritage through his love of the music of Benjamin Britten.
As for MacKay, Santa Fe opens its latest commission, “The 13th Child,” this season. “M. Butterfly” will premiere in 2020, with “The Lord of Cries” opening in 2021.
Meya also wants to expand the opera’s community involvement through “Opera for All Voices,” commissioning shorter works by young composers. Augusta Read Thomas’ “Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun” will debut at Santa Fe’ Lensic Performing Arts Center on Oct. 26.
The director also wants to bolster Santa Fe’s international reach. Currently just 2% of its ticket buyers are from outside the U.S., he said.
“People will come to Santa Fe on the way to the Grand Canyon,” he said. “We want people to come here specifically for the opera.”
He sees co-productions as a potential recruiting method.
Meya previously served for four years as the New York City Opera’s director of development. There, he oversaw a staff of 26 and successfully increased annual fundraising from $11 million to more than $18 million. From 2005 to 2006, Meya was executive director of the White Nights Foundation of America, overseeing U.S. fundraising activities for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. He organized the largest gala in the foundation’s history with the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Plácido Domingo and featuring the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. He also served time at the Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Opera.