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SF Opera calculates its season schedule

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Opera premieres libretto about Oscar Wilde, his scandals

SANTA FE – Formulating an opera season is a risky calculus involving singer, orchestra and choral availability, factored with rotation of the classic repertoire and the potential drawing power of new music.

The Santa Fe Opera’s director of artistic administration, Brad Woolbright, has been juggling that equation for 35 years. He typically plans a season four or five years in advance.

“We’re working on the 2015-2017 seasons now,” Woolbright said in a telephone interview.


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As most fans know, Santa Fe culls the first two opening (and hopefully top-selling) operas from the standard repertoire. Frequency is a major consideration.

“We have to get 22 performances out of these productions,” Woolbright said. “The formula has not changed significantly in 57 years.”

First he weighs how recently the company has performed – “La Traviata,” “Madame Butterfly” or “La Boheme,” for example.

“You don’t want to do ‘Madame Butterfly’ every two years,” he said. “In ’17 or ’18 it will come back.”

Birth or death anniversaries may point to a composer ripe for a revival, he added.

Next, Woolbright’s focus shifts to newer American or European composers.

“We get scores of scores,” he said with a laugh. “We get composers saying, ‘It’s the greatest opera since ‘Tosca.'”

This year’s world premiere of “Oscar” (July 27) first gestated in the mind of countertenor David Daniels, who wanted to play the role of Oscar Wilde. Daniels asked his friend, the composer Theodore Morrison, to pen the score.


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The libretto concentrates on the scandal that left the author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” a broken man toward the end of his life. He was embroiled in lawsuits over his destructive relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”).

“We think ‘Oscar’ is going to generate a lot of interest,” Woolbright said, “so we’re giving it five performances.”

With star wattage like Daniels, Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato (a former SFO apprentice), Woolbright must factor in availability and timing, as well as what the singers are willing to perform.

Woolbright began talking to DiDonato four or five years ago.

Her manager said she was willing to perform Gioachino Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” By the time she arrives here, she will have sung the role in Paris and at Milan’s La Scala.

“You don’t say no to Joyce DiDonato,” Woolbright said. “She just looked at her calendar and said there was no way she could learn a new piece.”

“La Donna del Lago” opens July 13.

Beginning about four years ago, Woolbright found himself coaxing Susan Graham to star in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Grande Duchess of Gerolstein.” It opens June 28.

“Susan had never performed the title role,” he said. “It’s the perfect role for her.

“It took a long time to convince her,” Woolbright continued. “She looked at the role as an ‘old lady part.’ She’s a great essayer of French music and she’s a great comedian on stage.”

The Roswell-born Graham will be 53 in July. “We made a long list of every woman who’s sung the part who’s younger than Susan,” he said. “So we completely deflated that myth.”

Stars are one factor. Another is the orchestral contract. The musicians will perform for 77 sessions across the season. That includes rehearsals as well as performances.

The director’s personal preferences also figure in. SFO founder John Crosby was well known for his love of Richard Strauss. As a result, the opera produced one Strauss piece per season. After Crosby’s retirement, Richard Gaddes took over as director. He favored works by Benjamin Britten. Current director Charles MacKay leans toward American composers.

Depending on the brightness of a star’s magnitude, money can mark the dividing line between yes or no.

“There’s no secret in the business what our fee structure is,” Woolbright said. “People sing here for about one-sixth of their usual fee” at major opera companies such as The Met or San Francisco.

Sometimes they’re lured to Santa Fe by the chance to bring the family on a working vacation, he added.

“Placido (Domingo) and (Luciano) Pavarotti were never going to sing here,” Woolbright said. “They had bigger fish to fry.”