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Tailgate parties and waltzes: Fans look forward to celebrating Santa Fe Opera’s 60th opening night

You’ll see many things if you go to the opening of the Santa Fe Opera tonight, including a cowgirl soprano onstage for Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” (“La Fanciulla del West”), along with, no doubt, a number of imitation cowgirls decked out to match the theme during the tailgate festivities in the parking lot well before curtain time.

But, for the first time in the 60 years of opening nights for the Santa Fe Opera, you won’t see Tom and June Catron. They’ll be in Philadelphia for their granddaughter’s wedding.

“We’ve seen every production,” Tom Catron, a longtime board member, said. “And this will be the first year we’re not there on opening night.”

Erik Illick, left, and Madeleine Fort dress in a Chinese theme while exploring a dragon display at a tailgate on a 2005 opera opening night. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

Erik Illick, left, and Madeleine Fort dress in a Chinese theme while exploring a dragon display at a tailgate on a 2005 opera opening night. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

And when he says every production, he means every single opera produced by the company ever since, while serving as the new organization’s attorney, he put together the incorporation papers that founder John Crosby signed on Dec. 26, 1956, and which Catron filed the next day with the State Corporation Commission. “A little more than six months later, the theater was built and the first performance went on,” he said.

Noting that Santa Fe really was a small town back then, June Catron said talk about plans to start an opera here drew raised eyebrows and expressions of disbelief.

That first year, board members’ wives were asked to sell tickets to their friends, June Catron said, adding that she sold quite a few – after making sure she learned how to pronounce “Così fan tutte.” Ticket prices that first year were $2.20, $4.40 and $8.80, the couple said. Later, a ticket table was set up in La Fonda.

June Catron said she had liked opera growing up in San Francisco, but only really got involved after she married and came to Santa Fe with her husband.

For his part, Tom Catron said he became an opera fan after serving in the military in Italy during and after World War II. When the war ended, a friend kept taking him to the opera there until he decided it was “the best entertainment of anything,” Catron said.

Judy Knops appears ready for a Wagnerian aria while tailgating in 2005 at the Santa Fe Opera. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

Judy Knops appears ready for a Wagnerian aria while tailgating in 2005 at the Santa Fe Opera. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

A casual air

Ray Lutz, who joined the opera board in 1988, also attended the very first opening night.

“I was an engineering student who had never been to the opera,” he said, but he did have a musical background. “I got through school playing country music in bars,” and sang in the University of New Mexico concert choir, he said. The head of the choir didn’t drive at night, so he offered Lutz a ticket to the opera in return for Lutz’s driving them from Albuquerque to Santa Fe and back.

“We fell in love with it,” Lutz said of himself and his wife Nancy, remembering that it was a small theater with a casual air at the time. And sometimes a chilly air, he added, noting that the audience was fully in the open – the opera house made blankets available for viewers to huddle under if the temperature dropped.

While attending UNM, they would drive up to see the opera and, the first couple of times, the couple brought their sleeping bags and hunkered down for the night by the parking lot. Crosby discovered them during the night and proceeded to talk to them for the next two and a half hours about all his hopes for the Santa Fe Opera, Lutz said. After a repeat performance on their next visit, they decided to set up camp at Hyde Memorial State Park instead, Lutz said.

Then they started driving back and forth without staying overnight, which was kind of fun in their little green Porsche – until the night an all-points-bulletin was sent out for a killer in a green sports car, and they crested a hill at 1 a.m. to encounter a roadblock. Seeing shotguns aimed at your windows makes for a memorable trip home, he noted.

In the beginning years of the opera, only the stage and a portion of the orchestra pit was covered by a roof, Tom Catron said, remembering one night – he thinks it was a Rossini opera being performed – that the rain began falling steadily and the instrumentalists fled. Conductor Robert Baustian had the piano brought up from the pit onto the stage and proceeded to play the rest of the score on the piano to complete the performance, he said.

“More than half the audience stayed there through the rest of the opera,” Catron said, adding that the policy was that, if the opera was performed through the end of the first act before being cancelled for rain, people did not get a refund or rain check.

In this 1972 photo, patrons at the Santa Fe Opera waltz in the courtyard while the orchestra plays from the mezzanine balcony. In earlier years, dances were held on the stage itself after opera performances. (Courtesy of Robert Nugent)

In this 1972 photo, patrons at the Santa Fe Opera waltz in the courtyard while the orchestra plays from the mezzanine balcony. In earlier years, dances were held on the stage itself after opera performances. (Courtesy of Robert Nugent)

The show must go on

The opera had rain, and it also had fire.

As a matter of fact, the only production of the Santa Fe Opera that Lutz missed was the year the theater burned down.

That was in 1967, when the Santa Fe Opera was presenting the American premiere of “Cardillac” by Paul Hindemith. But, when the Lutzes drove up to see it, “the theater had burned down,” he said. Instead, the cast performed “La Boheme” in street clothes at Sweeney Gym that night, Lutz said. The couple never did get to see “Cardillac.”

June Catron recalled that opera used a lot of flaming torches, but that wasn’t the source of the fire. Her husband suspects it was arson by a fired worker, but she quickly reminded him that nothing was proven. The Catrons remember seeing little left but drips of melted aluminum frames that held the chairs, with small piles of perfectly spaced screws deposited on the ground. The stone steps of the recently built mezzanine remained, but they led to nothing.

But Crosby and board members quickly went into action, finding costumes – Tom Catron said he remembers loaning a trench coat for one of the opera characters – and other necessary supplies. Board member Robert Tobin, who had his own plane, flew down to San Antonio to collect and bring back musical instruments and scores for the operas to replace those that had been lost in the fire, they said.

The opera season went on as scheduled, but in Sweeney Gym at Grant and Marcy.

Heather Carlile, second from right, sings “Toreador” from “Carmen” among friends carrying out the Spanish theme during a 2006 tailgate. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

Heather Carlile, second from right, sings “Toreador” from “Carmen” among friends carrying out the Spanish theme during a 2006 tailgate. (Katharine Kimball/Albuquerque Journal)

‘It felt like family’

Many traditions have grown up around the opera over the years. One is the tailgate parties, which have grown more elaborate over time, especially on opening night, often taking on themes of the opera being performed that night.

Lutz said he has regularly taken part in the parking lot tradition, which seemed to grow naturally from people’s attempts to make sure they had a chance to eat dinner before the opera and still get there in time for a good parking space. “There were people doing it right off the bat, but not as elaborate as it is now,” he said, adding, “When the opera opens Friday night, I’ll be cruising the parking lot looking for friends.”

The Catrons had done some tailgating, but more often joined friends in a pre-opera dinner at El Nido, the Tesuque restaurant that no longer is in operation. “It’s the place most regulars would go for dinner and maybe after the opera to have a drink,” Tom Catron said. Many of the opera cast and crew went after the performance to Tiny’s when it was located on Water Street, he added.

For many years, the opera also cleared the stage after a performance and invited audience members to come waltz to music provided by orchestra members. “It was a lot of fun,” Tom Catron said.

June Catron added that, after the second story was built, a dance band, made up of either remaining orchestra players or fresh musicians brought in, would play from the balcony while audience members danced in the courtyard at the entrance to the opera house.

Noting that many long-time ticket holders got to know one another over the years, Lutz said, “It felt like family.”

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