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Retired singer recounts birth of Santa Fe Opera

Retired opera singer Regina Sarfaty at her home in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Retired opera singer Regina Sarfaty at her home in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – A signed Stravinsky score still sits in Regina Sarfaty’s office like a talisman.

A memento of the singer’s Santa Fe debut, its well-worn pages also signaled the birth of the company that rocked the operatic world.

Mezzo-soprano Regina Sarfaty was the first singer to step onto the Santa Fe Opera stage in 1957 when some onlookers doubted founder John Crosby’s crazy dream of music in the mountains.

The opening night opera “Madama Butterly” drew rave reviews as Santa Fe took its place among the world’s leading opera festivals.

Today, more than half of its seasonal audience of 85,000 comes from outside New Mexico. Those visitors represent every state and 25 to 30 foreign countries.

Many singers whose names now emblazon the rosters of the world’s leading opera houses launched their careers in Santa Fe. The SFO is opening its 60th season on Friday, July 1.

Regina Sarfaty, center, singing the title role in “Carmen” in 1961.

Regina Sarfaty, center, singing the title role in “Carmen” in 1961.

In the beginning

Sarfaty met Crosby at New York’s Juilliard School when she was a student and he was the rehearsal pianist. She remembers a quiet, polite man who spoke with his head bowed. He was just 30.

“He said, ‘I’m going to start an opera company in Santa Fe,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Where’s Santa Fe?’ ”

Crosby was the son of an attorney and a professional violinist based in Bronxville, N.Y. He first came to New Mexico through the Los Alamos Ranch School in 1940.

Doctors had advised his parents to send him West to a drier climate because of his chronic sinusitis. He thrived in Los Alamos, took up sports, and returned home the next year.

He kept coming back, first to wrangle at Santa Fe’s Bishop’s Lodge, founded in the 1860s as a retreat by Archbishop of Santa Fe Jean Baptiste Lamy. In 1948, the family bought 47 acres on Santa Fe’s Tano Road, south of what would become the Santa Fe Opera complex. It became a family magnet.

At first, Crosby considered placing his opera in more heavily populated parts of the country, including Connecticut and Maine. But no place could match the glorious summer sunsets and vistas of Santa Fe.

As a fledgling conductor, Crosby also realized Santa Fe was far from the pens of East Coast critics.

Sarfaty told Crosby to return when he had a contract and forgot about it.

When she was still a teenager, Sarfaty auditioned for a $500 Juilliard scholarship after her sister invited her into a local choral group. The daughter of a Brooklyn cantor, Sarfaty had never envisioned a singing career until all the teachers at the audition wanted her in their classes.

“I knew nobody when I started,” Sarfaty said. The pianist “Van Cliburn sat next to me in my theory class.”

The great soprano Leontyne Price was another voice student.

Crosby returned with a contract about four months after their first discussion. Sarfaty would earn $100 a week, plus room and board at the property’s old ranch house. With no other job offers, she accepted.

Crosby carefully placed his opera on a former pinto bean farm known as the San Juan Ranch. Its ridged landscape produced an ideal acoustical bowl, and its sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains could double as scenery.

He had already begun construction by 1956. The original outdoor theater seated 500 patrons on folding chairs and wooden benches facing a covered stage with redwood walls. The swooping roof extended over the orchestra pit and a reflecting pool to boost the acoustics. There were just two dressing rooms. The old ranch house doubled as the singers’ lodging. Crosby planted white petunias in front of the theater so they could be seen at night.

Sarfaty was just 22. At first, the elevation and dryness proved a dangerous recipe, cracking her lips and shortening her breath. Still, she sang roles in five operas, an unheard-of workload by today’s standards.

“We rehearsed on the grass,” she said.

There were no rehearsal rooms.

Opera singer Regina Sarfaty, left, in the role of Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” at the Santa Fe Opera.

Opera singer Regina Sarfaty, left, in the role of Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” at the Santa Fe Opera.

On opening night, Sarfaty played the role of Suzuki draped in a faux silk kimono in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Suzuki was Madama Butterfly’s maid. Soprano Maria Ferriero played Butterfly.

“The woman singing Butterfly was a little diva,” Sarfaty sniffed. “She had an aura.”

Sarfaty had thrived at Juilliard by practicing, “until I (could) sing it falling out of bed in the morning.” She applied the same relentless work ethic to Santa Fe. She was so busy rehearsing and preparing that she forgot to be nervous.

Building a legacy

Crosby’s gamble earned the cast 10 curtain calls. United Press International said, “There was nothing amateur about it.” Time magazine wondered if Santa Fe would become “the Salzburg of the Southwest.”

“Lawrence Crosby (John Crosby’s father) came up to John and said, ‘John, you have a winner here. Buy the property,’ ” Sarfaty said.

The elder Crosby had provided the initial $200,000 loan to build the theater. Today, the SFO budget is $23 million.

Regina Sarfaty holds her script to “The Rake’s Progress” that was signed by Igor Stravinsky. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Regina Sarfaty holds her script to “The Rake’s Progress” that was signed by Igor Stravinsky. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

His impresario son lured the great composer Igor Stravinsky to Santa Fe through a friend by inviting him to rehearsals of “The Rake’s Progress.” The neoclassical work produced an indifferent reception at its Metropolitan Opera premiere. Stravinsky’s appearance brought international attention and legitimacy to Crosby’s venture; the Santa Fe production brought “The Rake” a second life.

Sarfaty sang the role of Baba the Turk, a bearded circus performer. Her costume of low-slung harem pants crowned by a bejeweled navel was considered risqué for the Eisenhower era. To add to the pressure, Stravinsky sat in on each rehearsal and performance.

Sarfaty took an instant liking to the Russian composer.

“You couldn’t have met a nicer man in your life,” she said. “He signed my score. We called him Maestro. ”

Stravinsky kept coming back to Santa Fe for five of the next six summers.

When Sarfaty returned to sing “Carmen” in 1961, she could hear Stravinsky cry “Olé!” after each aria.

Santa Fe would propel her to New York, Dallas, Philadelphia and Europe.

Carnegie Hall paired her with the legendary Maria Callas in 1959.

“She tried to get me fired,” Sarfaty said. “I was a young up-and-comer, and she didn’t like competition.

“We get on the stage,” she continued, her arms crossing her chest to mimic Callas’ trademark stance. “She’s wearing pale gray satin sleeveless with a huge shawl. She started with a big vibrato. She said, ‘Do you want a candy?’ I said no. She wanted to distract me. Everybody was there. Even (the composer/conductor) Mr. (Leonard) Bernstein.

“She didn’t rattle me. But I have never heard such beautiful singing in my entire life.”

Sarfaty would go on to sing in 15 Santa Fe operas through the years, until she began performing in Europe.

She retired in Santa Fe in 1996, teaching the opera’s apprentices for eight years. She still remembers the thrill of that first opening night.

“It was as if a cannon went off in the opera world,” she said. “It was boom – Santa Fe Opera is on the map. Why else would I be asked to do Stravinsky across the country?”

Now 82, Sarfaty teaches young singers in the casita of her Santa Fe home.

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