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Opera, in the car and under the stars — The Know

No classical company connects its music to the great outdoors with as much romantic ease as the Santa Fe Opera  It’s not just that the company’s home is located in the rolling hills on the outskirts of the city, or that it performs in an open-air amphitheater with a view of the high desert landscape visible behind the stage

It has more to do with the way people approach going there, as if they are attending a picnic rather than a formal, classical music outing. Scores of folks start their evenings early with white-tablecloth tailgating in the parking lot before the show. They make nightly toasts to one of the most fabulous sunsets on the planet before heading into the theater for a few acts of Mozart or Verdi or the in-house favorite, Benjamin Britten.

That makes SFO’s new and unusual offering of nightly parking lot simulcasts — basically drive-in opera for the masses — a fitting move for the company. Anywhere else it would seem like a gimmick, or a revenue-grab, even a little tacky. Santa Fe does outdoors right; it’s a natural evolution and could turn out to be a novel and lasting way of attending opera.

SFO general director Robert K. Meya describes the offering as “really kind of the sum total of the parts,” where patrons can keep the pre-party going after the singing begins.

If you go

The 2021 Santa Fe Opera’s season runs July 10-Aug. 27 in Santa Fe, N.M. For info: 505-986-5900 or santafeopera.org.

“I do think that this allows them to really take advantage of being in the outdoors, being in a beautiful place, being together again, feeling safe. Some people might not necessarily feel safe coming into the theater yet.”

He’s talking, of course, about customer anxiety in the face of an ongoing pandemic where opera-goers, like nearly everyone else, are still venturing out of the global lockdown with some trepidation. The parking lot concerts are the direct result of dancing around crowd restriction rules that the company had to do to reopen after missing an entire season in 2020 due to coronavirus fears.

As the season was coming together, the regulations were shifting rapidly. Santa Fe wasn’t even sure it would be able to perform in its amphitheater. So, it set up the parking lot as a fallback. If the main venue was off-limits, at least there would be some opera for the people this year.

Turns out, live concerts will take place, though capacity will be limited. But the ground is shifting there as well. When tickets first went on sale in the spring, the company offered only a small percentage of seats in the theater and things sold out quickly.

Then, on June 10 — as restrictions eased yet again — it opened up an additional 1,000 seats per performance.  Public demand for live opera was so intense that the company sold $1.3 million in tickets in just a few hours.

“Which was four times our prior record of ticket sales in any given day,” Meya said.

The company had to shut down the box office for several days as it figured out how to fit folks in with some social distancing intact. Santa Fe will not require proof of vaccination, so the company knows there likely will be unvaccinated people in the audience.

“We want to keep the density in a way that really makes people psychologically feel safe,” Meya said.

Santa Fe is selling tickets in groups, or pods, as large as six, but every pod will have a least one unoccupied seat separating it from the next pod. It’s an unprecedented bit of puzzle solving.

Since Santa Fe invested so heavily in setting up the parking lot system, that will remain, and with that comes a secondary benefit: Opera will be more affordable this year.

SFO is charging as little as $100 a vehicle — and you can pack in a many passengers as you like. That’s no small discount from an arts presenter that charges as much as $284 each for its best seats.

How good that offering is depends on how casual you like your opera. And maybe how good your car speakers are, or whatever you can rig up via Bluetooth. The simulcasts will take place every night the opera is in season with the audio and video transmitted to trailers in the parking lots through fiber-optic cables.

The cable will allow the company to present the visuals on two LED screens, each 24 by 30 feet, and to broadcast sound through radio transmitters. Customers tune in to the music through FM channel 88.7.

The experience is fully customizable. Sit in the car. Sprawl out on the hood. Set up a lawn chair.  In Santa Fe, where the wind and rain can kick up quickly in the summer, all three options might work on the same evening.

Meya said the company is not expecting to make money on the parking lots shows; it will break even at best. But there are other benefits to capturing its performances on film.

When the pandemic shut down opera companies across the country, many of them were fortunate enough to have high-quality videos of past performances in their archives. They quickly realized they could beam that out to customers through the internet.

That was a way to keep the music playing during dark times, but it also kept the revenue flowing. All those archival stockpiles that companies were using as reference material was suddenly product they could sell.

Santa Fe was lacking in that department. “When we looked at our archival video, it was of a very basic quality, not exactly camcorder on a tripod, but pretty close,” said Meya.

So, the investment it is making for the simulcasts  — installing high-definition cameras throughout the house and into the orchestra pit — will actually produce a catalogue of performances it can tap in the future.

That investment also bodes well for future parking lot concerts. So far, Santa Fe is committing to just one season, But if things go well and demand seems steady post-pandemic, they could stay. Because the company now has mobile trailers in its fleet, there’s also the potential of presenting concerts of the newly recorded shows around the region.

Santa Fe could set up events in parks across the city, maybe even reach down into Albuquerque and beyond.

For sure, the 2021 season lineup is outdoors-friendly and has more than a few populist moments for newcomers. The company cut back its usual five productions to four this year, which will include returns of audience-pleasers like “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Eugene Onegin.”

The  most exciting offering is the premiere of “Lord of Cries,” a commissioned piece that SFO is billing as “a juxtaposition of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Bacchae,’ by Euripides.” The piece, a horror story elevated with some classic literature elements — was created by composer John Corigliano and librettist Mark Adamo, both major figures in American music.

Finally, Santa Fe will present a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which just happens to take place outdoors in some mythical, magical woods. Surprisingly, It will be the 64-year-old company’s first-ever presentation of the 1960 work, which combines two of its better-known selling points: great productions of composer Benjamin Britten’s work and a connection to nature.

Tickets, inside and out, are selling quickly.

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