When I was growing up on the island of Leyte, in provincial Philippines, there was no culture, nor
financial resources for producing, much less watching operas. There are still none now, except in Manila.
When I was a student in Manila, I managed to see occasional student productions such as Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmelites” by the University of the Philippines
Conservatory and an evening of operatic excerpts performed by students and faculty of my
school, the University of Sto Tomas. I remember the last one with a chuckle,
because, during the singing of the “Humming Song” of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,
the little boy portraying Cio Cio-san’s son wandered out into the front of the
stage of the Cultural Center of the Philippines
and stared in wonderment at the amused audience. On the occasions that a
foreign opera was invited to perform in Manila (such as the Metropolitan Opera
Company performing “Tosca” for the opening of Imelda Marcos’s Cultural Center
of the Philippines) the tickets were so horrendously expensive that only the
very rich could afford them.
When I moved to the
US, and specifically New York City, this all changed. Then, I was literally
buried in the musical riches and choices,
among them operatic, that New York City was and still is famous for.
The first opera I saw, and in fact, the first really
professional opera I’ve ever seen, was
Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” at the City Opera. This was followed in no
particular order by Gounod’s “Faust”,
Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, the double bill of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" and others I don’t remember (this was back in the late ‘80’s). Over at
the Met, the riches spilled out for me to pick and choose, depending
on the state of my wallet: Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”, Verdi’s “Rigoletto”,
“La Traviata”, “Il Trovatore” and recently, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “La
Another city where I was fortunate enough to watch several
operas was at the Sydney Opera House. I was in Sydney for a month visiting my sisters who
lived there, so catching performances at the iconic Opera House was a
no-brainer. I can still remember what I saw back in 1993: Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Beethoven’s Fidelio.
I also had missed opportunites which somehow still annoys me today. I very nearly watched the Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi in
Rossini’s opera “Moïse” at the La
Fenice in Venice save for the fact that a burly German who was as
determined as I was to get one of the last remaining SRO tickets out-shoved and
out-muscled me. Shortly after that, La Fenice burned down to the ground (they say, by arson). Poetic
justice? Hardly. It is horrifying to think that some demented soul would torch an opera house, but this was Italy, where the real-world underpinnings of violent and tempestuous opera had their roots. La Fenice, which means "The Phoenix", has since been rebuilt and restored.
In Naples, I stood outside the Teatro San Carlo, frustrated
that I would never be able to watch an opera in this famous theater because my
cruise ship sailed out at five pm every single time we visited that port.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, I examined in dismay the posters
advertising the theatrical events in that city. The notices were in Cyrillic so
I could not tell which show was showing
where and whether I had enough time to watch a matinee performance and not get left behind by my
cruise ship. There was no one I could
ask information from because no one speaks
English in St. Petersburg. Maybe a few, but most of them were tourists.
Although I made Los Angeles my home for close to
seven years, I cannot remember ever watching an opera there. The company, even when it was managed by Placido
Domingo, didn’t seem all that compelling to me. My experiences at the City Opera and the Met had always been the touchstone of my
subsequent operatic forays.
For as long as I was aware of it, the Santa Fe Opera had
always loomed large in my must-visit list. It wasn’t so much that the company
had an excellent reputation for its world-class productions and oftentimes
adventurous repertoire, so much as the
fact that its operas were staged in a partially enclosed structure that looks
out on the surrounding mountains. This, I thought, I've got to see.
My chance finally came this summer. From my current base of El Paso, Texas, Santa Fe was five hours away by car: doable, certainly. When I examined the 2012 repertory of the Santa Fe Opera, one title leaped
out from the computer screen: Tosca by Puccini, the same opera that I couldn’t see in
Manila back in the '70's because the price of the ticket was completely out of my reach. Somehow I kept missing it in New York and elsewhere. My familiarity with its music was nurtured by listening to complete recordings and DVD's by the likes of Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and Galina Vishnevskaya. This was my chance
to round off watching Puccini’s Big Three: “Madame Butterfly”, “La Boheme” and
now “Tosca”. With little hesitation, I bought my ticket online (another of the conveniences of this digital age) and prepared myself
for the pleasure of watching a live performance of one of Puccini’s, and the
world’s, greatest operas in spectacular surroundings.
Posing with the poster of "Tosca"
I had been made aware that Santa Fe opera aficionados have a
peculiar custom: having tailgate parties before the performance of an opera. I
prepared myself for this event by visiting the local Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe
and buying a sushi plate, some prepackaged provolone, cheese and crackers.
For the wine, I bought a pinot grigio from the Veneto region in Italy. A four-month stay in Venice, the homeport of
a cruise ship I was working on at the
time, had made me partial to this fruity local wine. Since “Tosca” was Italian,
I thought this vintage would be
The Santa Fe Opera is housed in a modernistic structure high
on a bluff around three miles from the town proper. You can see its steel ribs
sticking out of the landscape as you drive down freeway 258. There are
helpful signs pointing you the exit towards the Opera House, proof that this opera has become an integral part of the Santa Fe landscape. However, there is no prominent sign
to indicate to you that you must make a sharp turn and climb up a nondescript
road up the side of the mountain. I missed it the first time I came to visit it out of an abundance of precaution, and nearly ended up in Taos! There is no grand landscaped approach to the site
until you approach a pair of steel gates that look like you’re going into a
gated upscale subdivision. Then you are
in a parking lot being waved in by uniformed traffic attendants. It can’t be
more elite than this.
Prepared to hold my own tailgate party with wine, sushi and provolone but....
When I had parked my car, I saw that some opera
goers had already laid out tables and chairs for their parties. I brought no
table nor chair so I contented myself with opening the trunk of my car and laying
out my repast on a beach towel.
But things have a way of resolving in a quite different,
pleasant manner, and I found myself
invited to join a table of gracious partiers who saw that I was alone. During
the course of the tailgate party which featured several bottles of excellent wine, deviled
eggs, a home-made potato salad, great cheeses and meatballs, I learned that among the persons seated at the table
were the head of the drama department of NYU, a New York
theatrical producer, a lady-painter, and, for lack of a better term, a gay divorcee
who confessed that she was “taken better care of by her ex-husband after their
divorce than when they were married.” I presented a painting that I brought
with me with the vow that I would give it to the first person who consented to
have his/their picture taken with me in the spirit of the festivities. That
person was David, an art dealer, who had lent me a wine-opener and then agreed
to take a picture of me with the group . The monsoon wind bustled in, napkins blew away, my plastic wine glass upended
and spilled its pinot grigio, and a good time was had by all.
...I ended up joining a Santa Fe Opera tailgate party with the smart set!
And what of the opera itself?
The theater built for the opera in Santa Fe was structurally
magnificent and delightful. It had excellent sight lines, with not a bad view
anywhere in the house, astounding acoustics that enabled the singers to
sing without amplification and still be heard in the last row, and those open sides that looked out on the Jemez
and Sangre del Cristo mountains. This alone was worth the price of the
ticket and the effort to get to this mountaintop opera-house.
Interior of the Santa Fe Opera House
I was ushered to my seat by a personable young man named
Finn, whose father, he informed me, was a well-known archaeologist who dug
around the old pueblo of Santa Fe. Finn was well-travelled, having gone through
most of Southeast Asia and parts of Europe and was planning to study anthropology
at the University of Mexico in Albuquerque.
Finn, the usher
The stage set-up for "Tosca" was unusual. Where the New York Metropolitan Opera, under Franco Zefferelli, would have given you the original view of the
church where Mario Cavaradossi painted his Madonna, or the faithful reconstruction of
the room at the Palazzo Farnese where Scarpia nearly rapes Tosca and where he meets his demise, or the exact
battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo,
the special qualities of space at the Santa Fe Opera House had given rise to
an ingenious solution: a floor which served
as a gigantic canvas of the
painting-in-progress of the Madonna by Cavaradossi. During Act Two, the canvas/floor lifted up to reveal a painting on its underside that depicts a
mural at the Palazzo Farnese. The simple expedient of pushing two turreted
walls on either side of the floor conspired to change the setting into Castel Sant’Angelo,
the scene of Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s suicide. As a backdrop, a circular vault lay on its side so that the inner beehive
chamber looked out at the audience, giving a hint of the majestic interior dome of a church without the opera-goers having
to look up and crane their necks. Suggestive and spectacularly clever indeed. Stephen Barlow directed this production.
As for the performers: the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as Tosca sang with full-throated energy and dramatic flair. Raymond Aceto as the villainous Scarpia
was truly menacing. He inhabited his role so thoroughly that boos were heard - for his character, I would say, rather than for his
- when he took his bow. Andrew Richards was supposed to sing the role of Mario Cavaradossi,
but his replacement, the American tenor Brian Jagde was excellent and handsome,
I must confess that during the first act, I intermittently
dozed off, not because of the music, but because of the effects of the nearly
half-bottle of wine I’d drunk before the show. Come to think of it, Tosca is
one long operatic performance by a duo and a trio, relieved by transcendent arias. The only spectacular choral part of
the opera occurs at the end of Act One,
when the priests, bishops and laity come out in full force to sing the Te Deum
. After that, it’s a string of arias ( “Vissi d’arte” , “E Lucevan le stelle”) interspersed with trios and duets.To the uninitiated, this can get boring.
For me, after I’d shaken off the effects of the wine, it was sheer
It also became inexplicably warm. Only at intermission did I realize
that it had rained lightly outside. Although the sides of the hall were open, I didn't notice that. I did notice the lights of cars on the distant freeway and remember thinking: "How extraordinary!" I heard that at some
performances, lightning could be seen striking down on the mountains in the
background. I didn't doubt it. I had experienced a thunderstorm with terrifying lightning
strikes just two days ago.
In the end, I was impressed by everything about this
production. The protagonists and supporting cast handled the scenes to
perfection. Their performances were top-notch,
at par with those I’d seen in New York
and Sydney. In fact, these were the same artists you would see in New York or Sydney!
Finally, I can now check off the last remaining opera in Puccini’s
Big Three that I hadn’t seen live until now. Of course, there’s still “Turandot”…
My fun hosts at the
parking lot party had intimated that they were going to assemble again the
following week for another tailgate party prior to watching a production of George
Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”.
I just might join them again.
The Santa Fe Opera crowd, many of whom came from Texas,Yee-Haw!