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Santa Fe Opera
The Santa Fe Opera is the only open-air opera house in the United States. Rebuilt three times, each successive structure has retained the footprint of the previous building. Defined as much by the surrounding high desert landscape as by programmatic requirements, the opera house has continued to offer a convincingly modern interpretation of New Mexico’s regional identity.
The Santa Fe Opera overlooks the Tesuque Highway from its mesa top site, and faces west toward the more distant Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It fulfills the vision of its founder, John O. Crosby, for an open-air house that would take advantage of Santa Fe’s “ideal climate, natural beauty, and [the] interest of the public in the great southwest.” Crosby, an army veteran turned musician and composer, came to New Mexico in 1943 seeking a cure for chronic asthma. He established the Santa Fe Opera in 1957.
Local architects John W. McHugh and Van Dorn Hooker designed the first structure, working with the acoustical engineer Jack Purcell of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (Boston and Los Angeles). Sited in a basin with natural acoustic properties, the arc-shaped theater responded to the contours of the landscape. Seating an audience of 480, the auditorium had no sidewalls and opened to the sky beneath a canted roof on the sides. The stage was a simple enclosure without a proscenium arch or fly loft, and panels behind the stage could slide away to reveal a dramatic view of sky and mountains. The site’s natural acoustics were enhanced both by redwood fences and an expanse of poplar trees planted around the building, and by a reflecting pool in front of the orchestra pit, which refracted sound outward and upward toward wooden baffles extending from the roof. Performances began at sunset and were often interrupted during the summer monsoon months by torrential thunderstorms that drenched both the audience and the cast.
Following its destruction by fire on July 27, 1967, the theater was rebuilt to a new design by McHugh and Kidder, working again with Jack Purcell. According to McHugh, the need for a greater seating capacity had already become apparent, along with a desire for some form of weather protection. Modifications carried out four years earlier, including extensions to the stage roof and the two-story curved loggia, had begun to address these issues, but the new building introduced additional changes; the public spaces were expanded, and the stage, back stage, and working spaces were all improved. Still, the structure’s original and distinguishing exposure to the sky and the weather were intentionally left untouched.
An unusually rainy summer in 1991 changed this thinking and led to the decision to build a more enclosed and protected house. The commission was awarded to the New York firm of Polshek and Partners, which had renovated New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1987. James Polshek’s design retains the natural acoustics, open air quality, and distinctive roof profile for which the Santa Fe Opera was justly famous, while increasing the theater’s seating capacity to 2,234 and installing new and more protective roofs over the auditorium and stage. Eight baffles were added along the auditorium’s south side to provide shelter from summer storms. Dramatically suspended from cables, the overlapping mezzanine and stage level roofs rely on twenty-six tension rods and eight steel masts to transfer the 435-ton structural load down to the columns of the original structure. Jack Purcell again advised on the ideal acoustic curvature for the new roofs. As Phillip Huscher explained, it was in effect “an entirely new structure [hung] on an old skeleton.” The renamed Crosby Theater at once carefully preserves and critically reimagines the distinctive regional identity of this opera house in the high desert of New Mexico.
The Santa Fe Opera is open for an annual summer season that runs from mid-June until August.
Huscher, Phillip. The Santa Fe Opera: An American Pioneer. Santa Fe, NM: The Sunstone Press, 2006.
McHugh, John W. “The Santa Fe Opera’s New Theatre.” The Santa Fe Opera, Twelfth Season, July 2-August 31, 1968. Santa Fe, NM: Opera Association of New Mexico, 1968.
Scott, Eleanor. The First Twenty Years of the Santa Fe Opera. Santa Fe, NM: The Sunstone Press, 1976.
“The New Theatre.” The Santa Fe Opera, 41 st Season, June 27-August 23, 1997. Santa Fe: New Mexico Opera Association, 1997.
The Santa Fe Opera, 42 nd Season, July 3-August 29, 1998. Santa Fe: New Mexico Opera Association, 1998.
The Santa Fe Opera Souvenir Program, Third Season, 1959. Santa Fe, NM: Mayshark Lithographing Company, Inc., 1959.
The Santa Fe Opera, Eighth Season, 1964. Santa Fe, NM: Opera Association of New Mexico, 1964.
The Santa Fe Opera, Eleventh Season, 1967. New York: Creative Lithography, Inc., 1967.
Wilson, Chris. The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
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