‘Dr. Atomic’ Reaches Ground Zero On New Mexico Stage

You can enjoy opera in the mountains, or chamber music in a historic city plaza. Both are quintessential Santa Fe.
(Photo: Bob Godwin for Santa Fe Opera)
By Keith Powers

SANTA FE – It’s a musical tale of two cities. One city has chamber music downtown, almost surreptitiously offering concerts – at noon, or early evening. The other city hosts a rotating mix of splashy opera productions, staged on a mesa overlooking an impossibly beautiful mountain vista.

Both cities are Santa Fe.

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s formula mixes the old, the new, and the in-between.

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival had modest beginnings – sort of. Pablo Casals was its honorary president back in 1973, so it couldn’t have been that modest. But the opening season ran for six Sundays, a far cry from this season’s five-week, 40-concert schedule. From the beginning, the festival’s composer-in-residence program has been robust. Almost 100 works have been commissioned over the years, from composers like Copland, Rorem, Taaffe Zwilich, Turnage, Saariaho, Bolcom, and Stucky. This year new works from Magnus Lindberg, Michael Seltenreich, Max Grafe, Alexander Goehr, and others were featured.

“I think you have to foster a genuine interest in the whole gamut of music,” says artistic director Marc Neikrug, who has led the festival since 1998. “Audiences will always run away faster than you can chase them. I didn’t want to have separate concerts for new and old things.

Marc Neikrug took over the chamber music festival in 1998.

“When they asked me to take over, I said, ‘Give me the last eight years of programs.’ I looked at the list and almost fainted. Three finishing pieces on every program: Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky. It seemed like the epitome of fear. My goal was to divide the programs into one-third Beethoven, Schubert, and back, about one-third  in between, and one third from the 20th century onward.”

As far as Santa Fe Opera is concerned, Charles MacKay knows what he’s talking about. The retiring general director began his relationship with SFO five decades ago, as a parking lot attendant. “After I had parked the cars, I could go stand in the back and listen to the operas,” the Albuquerque native says.

MacKay graduated from the parking lot to playing French horn in the banda for Der Rosenkavalier. He painted sets. He was a box office manager. He raised money. He did it all. During those years he was mentored by director John Crosby, who oversaw great growth in the company built into a gorgeous overlook just north of the city. But MacKay didn’t stay: he went off to be director of Spoleto USA for almost a decade, and after that spent years at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Santa Fe Opera’s MacKay: “New works can deliver.” (Chris Corrie)

His return to Santa Fe wasn’t smooth – not at first. He was named executive director in 2008, and the economy immediately tanked. “The company had an unbroken history of balanced budgets,” he says. “But that year wasn’t easy.”

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It got better. Another legacy soon became more important than balancing the budget: integrating new work into the repertoire. “We’ve had five world premieres since I came back,” he says. “It’s the highest concentration of new work in the company’s history. And they’ve been successful: when we premiered Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain in 2015, we scheduled five performances, and we had to add a sixth – all sold out. With the Jobs opera (2017’s premiere of the Mason Bates/Mark Campbell The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs), we scheduled six performances and had to add a seventh – also sold out.

“I think their success conveys the message that new operas can attract a lot of attention and new attendees. This year’s Dr. Atomic is completely sold out. We tend to rely on warhorses for the strongest attendance, but new works can deliver.

“We see a shift coming,” he says, warming to the topic of new audiences. “For the Jobs opera, forty percent were attending an opera in Santa Fe for the first time.

Sold out: Santa Fe Opera’s site-specific ‘Dr. Atomic.’ (Ken Howard)

“It’s got to be a diverse mix, every year,” MacKay says. This season, that mix included Bernstein’s Candide, productions of Ariadne auf Naxos, Madame Butterfly, and L’Italiana in Algeri, along with Peter Sellars‘ second staging of Dr. Atomic, rotating through the mesa-top Crosby Theatre.

Audiences for Santa Fe’s opera and chamber music festivals don’t seem to overlap, although they could, given the schedules.

“I don’t really see the crossover with the opera season,” Neikrug says. “They’re a tourist destination. People come and tailgate, and watch a little, then take off at the first intermission. Our audience has none of those people. They want to hear the music. This is a serious audience.”

Neikrug may have a point – even if he sounds like he’s making it a little harshly. But he has the right to speak proudly of his own chamber music audience. More than 800 people at a noon-time performance in downtown’s Lensic Performing Arts Center feels pretty impressive.

“The Lensic” hosts a dazzling string of chamber music events.

And they hear a dazzling set of performers: In one ten-day period, Alan Gilbert brought along a host of his former New York Philharmonic colleagues. Shai Wosner gave a riveting recital of (get this) Rzewski, Scarlatti, and Schubert. Dover Quartet performed multiple times. Pianists like Gloria Chien, Ran Dank, Gilles Vonsattel, and Haochen Zhang, and quartets like the Danish and Orion had previously performed this summer.

Meteorological drama interjected itself into some of the performances. Several productions of Dr. Atomic were interrupted by thunder and lightning storms – storms that everyone felt in the open-air theatre. One storm was so heavy it drove some of the strings out of the pit and forced the crew to sop up water onstage around the singers. Even the chamber music festival had weather issues: a black-out in the middle of the Alan Gilbert-led chamber performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde forced the musicians to move to the lip of the stage, so they could read the score by the emergency house lights.

‘Das Lied von der Erde,’ with Michelle DeYoung, endured a black-out. (Steven Ovitsky)

Clearly the balance Neikrug creates has worked. “I wanted to prove that challenging an audience, and having confidence in them, is the only way that this music doesn’t become a relic,” he says. “I knew if I programmed sensibly, and made new things and great players an integral part, it would be successful.”

Not that he will be standing pat. “I’m notorious for planning ahead,” he says, a point proven when brochures for the 2019 programs are handed out at one concert. “It’s been sad for me to see the vocal recital disappearing. I’d like to bring it back in 2020. I know there are great accompanists out there, but people like Kirill Gerstein and Jeremy Denk and Jon Kimura Parker are brilliant players, and they’ve agreed to come along as accompanists.

“‘How does it keep itself alive?’ – that’s the question that keeps me interested in making it better,” Neikrug says. “This audience is unbelievable; they come to some of the most challenging programs.”

In perfect harmony: Santa Fe Opera crowds and tailgating. (Kate Russell)

The opera audience has great enthusiasms as well. The tailgating aspect is a thing to behold. The gorgeous vistas around the Crosby Theatre lend itself to arriving early, with an elaborate picnic, and socializing on the grounds.

And Neikrug might be exaggerating about disinterested audiences leaving at intermission. Even a Sunday Apprentice Scenes presentation – a stripped down, piano-accompanied pastiche from previous productions – was sold out, with no sign of audience flight at the break.

The centerpiece of the opera season was clearly Dr. Atomic, in a new staging by director/librettist Sellars, with the energetic Matthew Aucoin conducting. In Santa Fe, Dr. Atomic became site-specific, a piece of performance art as much as an opera. Sellars stripped the production down to the local geography. The stage opened out the back, looking directly toward Los Alamos, site of the atomic tests, 45 miles away.

Tesuque Pueblo dancers enacted a corn dance as the audience filed in. Descendants of the victims of radioactive fallout – the Downwinders – took the stage during the performance, silent supernumeraries. We were at ground zero. The staging power felt awesome. It seemed like a mushroom cloud could reappear, right then.

Ariadne (Amanda Echalaz) sings on the half shell. (Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera)

The sets for both Dr. Atomic and Ariadne auf Naxos were promising, but static. The Dr. Atomic set, with its looming, threatening disco ball hanging above, went unchanged the entire performance. There were two sets for Ariadne – the first half was a narrow, uncomfortable hallway; the second set was arresting – Ariadne on the half shell, a modernist egg-shape enclosure that the scorned lover never leaves. Both sets were visually striking at first, but should have varied during the productions.

Ryan McKinny is Robert Oppenheimer in ‘Dr. Atomic.’ (Ken Howard)

But both casts sang brilliantly. The Dr. Atomic cast could have used more challenging voice-settings – John Adams‘ sprechstimme left the prodigious artistry of soprano Julia Bullock and baritone Ryan McKinny (Kitty and Robert Oppenheimer), bass Andrew Harris (Edward Teller), tenor Ben Bliss (Robert Wilson), and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch (Gen. Groves) without enough challenges to show off their stuff.

In Ariadne, sopranos Amanda Majeski (the Composer) and Liv Redpath (Zerbinetta), along with tenor Bruce Sledge (Bacchus), had Strauss to sing, which gave them some artistic advantage over the Dr. Atomic cast. Redpath was a revelation: she had the most interesting part, after all – as the leader of the burlesque troupe, she comments snidely on all the action. And that voice – facile, very high, light and colorful – made her the linchpin of the performance.

Quibbles aside, the enthusiastic audiences truly tell the story. “I’ve lived this for so many years,” MacKay says. “It’s like planning a banquet: a main course, something offbeat or different, and then a dessert. Some items might not be to every taste, for sure. But knowing your audience, understanding your place in terms of serving them, and leading them to the extent that you can – that’s the model that’s worked in Santa Fe.”

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.

Liv Redpath, as Zerbinetta in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’ comments snidely on the action. (Ken Howard)