Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Five productions, including the world premiere of ‘M. Butterfly,’ will hit the high notes in Santa Fe

The Santa Fe Opera’s latest season begins on Friday, July 1. (Courtesy of Insight Foto for Santa Fe Opera)

bright spotThe Santa Fe Opera will serve fresh twists on classics by Bizet, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner, spiced with the world premiere of “M. Butterfly.”

Based on the Tony Award-winning play of the same name, “M. Butterfly” germinated when the composer Huang Ruo’s opera “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” opened at Santa Fe in 2014. “M. Butterfly” will open July 30.

“He saw the play when he was back in college at Oberlin,” SFO general director Robert K. Meya said.

“M Butterfly” playwright David Henry Hwang said he’d always imagined his piece transformed into an opera.

Santa Fe commissioned the work from the two artists.

Hwang was inspired by the true story of a French diplomat (and Chinese spy) who carried on a 20-year love affair with a star of the Peking Opera who carried an astonishing secret. The story’s many parallels with Puccini’s classic “Madam Butterfly” echo in the new opera’s music. Baritone Mark Stone sings the role of René Gallimard. Countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim and mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu will make their company debuts.

Santa Fe Opera general director Robert K. Meya. (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera)

“M Butterfly” marks Santa Fe’s 18th world premiere. Newer operas tend to draw more first-time audiences, Meya said, citing “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” (2017) and “Cold Mountain” (2015).

Bizet’s most popular opera, “Carmen,” opens the season on July 1 in a new production starring three-time Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. The opera marks her return to the Santa Fe stage after 2015’s “Cold Mountain.” Her defiant Carmen stands opposite tenors Matthew White and Michael Fabiano, who share the role of Don José. Santa Fe last staged the work in 2014.

“’Carmen’ is an audience favorite,” Meya said. “This one will be set in an updated setting. The director refers to it as a fun fair or what we would call a carnival setting.”

Leonard sang the role at the Washington National Opera in May.

Bizet wrote “Carmen” for Paris’ Opéra-Comique and it premiered in 1875. But its unrestrained sexuality, immoral characters and on stage murder shocked the audience into silence.

Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” opens on July 2 in a setting merging Seville with Santa Fe. The familiar sunbaked colors of southern Spain meld with the opera’s natural backdrop.

The classical retelling features a 20-foot-high bust of Rossini’s head which revolves to show the interior of a house.

SFO favorite Joshua Hopkins (“Die Fledermaus,” 2017) returns as Figaro. Former SFO apprentice singers Emily Fons and Jack Swanson play Rosina and Count Almaviva.

“Falstaff” runs from July 16-Aug. 25. (Courtesy of Benedetto Cristofani)

Opening on July 16, Verdi’s comic opera “Falstaff” is a co-production with the Scottish Opera. Sir David McVicar’s version plays as classic Shakespearean humor knotted in trickery and disguise.

McVicar’s version opened in Glasgow, then transferred to the Edinburgh Festival before moving to Santa Fe.

“Because of COVID restrictions, they couldn’t have a chorus,” Meya said, “So we had to build all the costumes (for the singers) here.”

Baritones Quinn Kelsey (“Rigoletto,” 2015) stars in the title role. Alexandra LoBianco and Elena Villalón make their company debuts as Alice and Nannetta.

Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” marks the first piece by the composer to make the Santa Fe stage in more than 30 years. The new version opens July 23 with tenor Simon O’Neill as Tristan and soprano Tamara Wilson as Isolde.

The SFO last staged a Wagner opera with 1988’s “The Flying Dutchman,” which will make its return as part of the 2023 season.

“Tristan” is a Meya favorite, and he began pushing for Santa Fe to produce it when he became general director four years ago.

“It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written,” he said. “It’s very, very hard to find a tenor and a soprano. It’s the stamina and the heft.”

The opera lasts four hours.

“It’s such an immersive experience, once you allow yourself to be taken in, you sort of lose track of time,” Meya explained.

“Tristan und Isolde” is the fourth opera in this year’s season. (Courtesy of Benedetto Cristofani)

Wagner wrote “Tristan and Isolde” under the twin influences of the gloomy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and of his married lover Mathilde Wesendonck. Both taught him about unfulfilled longing. He conveyed his musings on love, sex and death in intensely chromatic music of deferred resolution, with tidal waves of full-throated singing. The prelude’s opening with the famous yearning (“Tristan chord”) is often cited as the birth of modern music.

This year’s ticket prices range from $15 to $376. Audience members are encouraged to wear a mask. The company is monitoring the current wildfire situation and air quality. Should smoke levels reach a level of severity, the opera will be rescheduled.

“It’s going to be day by day,” Meya said. “We’re really praying that the efforts of the incredible firefighters and FEMA continue to manage the fire.”

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