Friday, August 28, 2015

Among the Swells

We go to the Opera once a year. Yes, the Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, with which we have something of a historic connection (I suppose) since the '80s when we were in St. Louis working for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis which was headed by Richard Gaddes -- who also, of course, was head of the Santa Fe Opera.

Our trip to St. Louis in 1983 (or was it 82?) was our first encounter with New Mexico. (also our first encounter with St. Louis, but that's another story.) The "enchantment" New Mexico is known for was immediate. We may not have known it at the time, but that first time in New Mexico planted the seed that led to our eventual retirement here. One of the productions we worked on in St. Louis was "La Verbena de la Paloma," a Spanish zarzuela, which featured a performance by Maria Benitez and her flamenco troupe which had been invited to come to St. Louis from Santa Fe by... Richard Gaddes. That was our introduction to flamenco, an interest we still pursue whenever we can -- which is fairly often in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Last year, we attended "Carmen". This year it was "Salome." We have this thing for bad women I guess ;-). We sit in the back of the orchestra section, in the cheap seats. The only cheaper tickets are for standing room on the crossover behind us. Given the layout of the place, the cheap seats in the back of the orchestra section are really quite fine, and we have no complaints about them at all (unlike the situation at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque, where even the expensive seats can be terrible because the place is so poorly designed.)

Santa Fe Opera has certain traditions, including that of the Swells coming early in their Lexi and Mercedeses and Range Rovers and Escalades to sit in the parking lot, tailgating elegant meals -- which you can have catered by the venue if you like, or bring your own, and you can even bring your servants along to serve you if desired. Oh, it's all very swell.

Some people dress in their finest Southwestern or Manhattan attire, others, like me, don't. You can guarantee I'll be wearing a ballcap and jeans, not even fancy boots and belt buckles. Last night, though, for fun, I put on my  Translator t-shirt and Turkey Track ball cap from the Virgil Ortiz collection and wore an overshirt that I've had for years that is printed with various artist's signatures (Picasso, Matisse, Chagal, etc.) and "designs." So I was pretty festive compared to my usual get-up.

We do not tailgate at the Opera. Instead, this year, we decided to have a de luxe dinner at The Compound, a Santa Fe restaurant institution on Canyon Road. We decided to dine there because we'd attended a reception there for an IAIA scholarship recipient a week or so ago and had a wonderful time -- and because our tickets to the Opera included a gift certificate for $10 off dinner. Well, who could resist, right?

Truth to tell, we have never paid more than $100 for dinner out anywhere, and we knew that this dinner out would cost more than that, conceivably well more than that, even with the Opera certificate, but what the heck. If it's only once a year...

The only people who would routinely dine at The Compound are Swells because they are the only ones who can afford to do so on a regular basis. As it happens, we know some Swells through some of our various activities in  the arts and IAIA, and so it wasn't much of an off-putting experience to be among them at dinner. We knew some of the people dining last night at The Compound, some of whom, like us, were having a bite before heading to the Opera. "Hello, hello, nice to see you, how are you," that sort of thing. "Oh, I love your jacket!" This to Ms Ché. One day on a whim, she bought an embroidered jacket from Guatemala that she fell in love with at a shop in Santa Fe, and she wears it whenever she's feeling particularly festive. It never fails to draw complements.

We had our dinner -- it was lovely -- and when the check came, it was almost exactly $100, and I thought it was... reasonable for what we had, every bite and sip of which was excellent. What was nicest about the experience was that it was very relaxing after a rather long and tiring day, especially for Ms. Ché whose Thursdays as a student at IAIA are long indeed. On Thursdays, I have my own chores to take care of, some of which I've inherited from Ms Ché since she can't do them when she's at school (oh...), and so it's a very busy day for me,  too. We were able to unwind and relax at dinner which made the Opera experience even more rewarding.

Getting from The Compound on Canyon Road out to the Opera can be a little tricky. You have to use the dirt road that runs beside the Santa Fe River to get to one of the main cross streets that will get you to Paseo de Peralta which will hook you up with St. Francis Drive which you take all the way out past the military cemetery to the edge of Tesuque Pueblo where -- by golly -- up on the hill perches the Santa Fe Opera facility, in one of the most spectacular settings in all of the Santa Fe area (which has a lot of spectacular settings).

The Opera performs in a sheltered outdoor facility. The audience faces the sunset, and the sunset can be awe inspiring, breathtaking, requiring applause -- the way we once did the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico when we were working in Florida. Even out where we live in the Middle of Nowhere, in the Empty Quarter of New Mexico, the sunsets can take your breath away (sunrise too), but in Santa Fe, they can practically knock you out because of the mountains all around. And the Santa Fe Opera facility very cleverly integrates the sunsets into the overall ambiance and experience, sometimes even into the settings for particular operas.

Well, we missed the sunset from our seats at the Opera because we were down in the parking lot chatting with friends who were tailgating, oh my. Yes, indeed. Well, in this case, the friend was a Tesuque Pueblo native (and alumna of IAIA) who lived just down the road, and she was there with a friend of hers, an Indian whose tribe or pueblo we did not discover, who said he'd never been to an opera. I said I thought he would have an interesting time with this one. Oh my oh my.

We told of producing the play by Oscar Wilde on which the opera is based some 20 years ago in Sacramento, and how it met with some controversy and to-do because it was pretty... out there. For Sacramento theater at the time, it certainly was. The director was into whips and chains, piercings and tattoos, and he used every one of them in the production. A couple of nearly naked heavily tattooed and pierced young men perched on a tower above the stage throughout the performance as if they were gargoyles. The John the Baptist was himself nearly naked throughout, though his body was painted white with "native" designs worked in to his flesh. He was whipped on stage until his blood flowed. For real. This was possibly the most shocking part of the production. The Salome, on the other hand, was almost chaste and pure, driven to a kind of madness in her lust for John the Baptist, and ultimately, of course, to have his head on a silver platter, not because she was "bad" but because she was driven mad by her mother and the trauma of her stepfather's murder of her father. Oh, it was a strong psychological study as well as performance art that broke a lot of boundaries in Sacramento's theater scene in those days. That was part of our mission, however, so...

We didn't know how the opera would be staged as we had only seen a couple of pictures, and as it turned out, they weren't even from this production. We expected it would be challenging, no matter...

Soon after we took our seats, we saw other friends entering the auditorium, and though I wouldn't necessarily call them rich, I would say they're Swells of a sort in that they publish one of the area's arts and culture monthlies. Other Swells, of course, filled the seats at a leisurely pace, while the western skies burst into momentary slashes and swaths of color and then faded to gray as the house lights dimmed and the performance began.

It was challenging -- which we didn't mind at all. The story is not a happy one, and it doesn't end well. But we knew that. The staging was remarkable -- if rather static at times -- and the orchestra was superb. The singers, particularly the Salome, appeared to stumble a bit at the beginning, but they ultimately solidified their performances, and the hour-forty intermissionless performance seemed to go very quickly.

The main challenge was sorting out the figurative and psychological images in the "dream ballet" -- which was actually a substitute for the Dance of the Seven Veils. As a rule, opera divas do not dance. And in this case, though the Salome had a few "movements" I guess you'd call them, she did not dance for Herod or us.  She was pretty rigid during the "dance" sequence, reminding me a bit of the Carmen last year who stood stock still -- somewhat hilariously -- during her alleged dance sequences. 

Nor were there any literal veils in Salome's no-dance dance. Instead, the veils were interpreted as emotional and psychological veils that were expressed through layers and layers of the setting and mimed performances of the murder of Salome's father by Herod, and the layers of trauma that made Salome what she was. I have to say that this was not entirely clear in the production itself, though the director's explanation in the program -- which I didn't read beforehand -- helped to clarify the sequence for me after the fact.

References to "the Jews" got quite a few laughs, and the scene in which they dispute practically everything under the sun with one another was pretty funny. A lot of Santa Fe's Swells are Jews, so it would seem, and they appeared to get the joke just fine. It was presented in good faith and good fun.

Afterwards we skedaddled as it had been a very long day already and it would be another hour and a half on the road to get back home. No time for mingling and chit-chat among the opera buffs and the Swells.

My impression was that they -- like we -- were surprised and pleased with the production overall.

We'd seen any number of Carmens over the years -- and look forward to seeing more -- but last night's Salome was new to us and may have been new to much of the audience. Though the story is well-known, the music isn't (there's nothing you can whistle on your way out the door). Strauss's music is quite modern (for 1905) in fact and is deliberately a-tonal at times. Disturbing. Given what's going on, what do you expect? The setting was dominated by an intricate silver sided box that rotated and opened up this way and that, exposing John the Baptist's cell, the banquet room of King Herod, and Salome's traumas. The lighting was sometimes a bit dimmer than I would have liked, but that's a minor quibble. The staging was frequently quite static as performers lay or stood or sat still with little or no action observable. This wasn't so much a problem as it was noticeable. I would have liked to see more physical action on the part of the cast, but that's my preference, not an essential element.

This was Salome's production through and through, whereas the production of Oscar Wilde's play that we did was much more about John the Baptist. Both are important to understanding the story, and either can be the focus of attention.  But in Strauss's version, it is all about Salome -- and John the Baptist is little more than a supporting character.

My introduction to Salome was when I was in high school and acquired a booklet of Aubrey Beardsley drawings illustrating Oscar Wilde's play. Interestingly, that same booklet was on sale in the Opera Shop. I didn't buy it -- we have too many books as it is -- but I smiled when I saw it. Circles within circles, yes?

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