10 May 2007


On May 9th, when Santa Fe Opera finally announced that Alan Gilbert had left his post as Music Director of that company, a long-standing rumor was made official.

While no specific reason for Gilbert’s departure was given (“too busy elsewhere”), the atmosphere was all peaches and cream as indeed it should have been, for Gilbert has done a distinguished job for the venerable American summer opera festival over his short four years in musical command. No successor names have surfaced in any serious way, and senior conductor Kenneth Montgomery, a regular at Santa Fe for many years, was appointed interim manger for the orchestra, but is not considered a likely appointment for the musical directorship.

In response to a question at a May 9 news conference, Santa Fe General Director Richard Gaddes discussed the requirements for the position, making clear it is largely concerned with developing the orchestra and mentoring it, and not a lot more. Mo. Gilbert, the New York native, violist and conductor, who is making quite a name for himself in Europe and seems destined for a major American symphonic post eventually, had other ideas — and one has the impression from the start there was not a close alliance between Gilbert’s plans and ambitions at Santa Fe, and just how much General Director Gaddes would allow. In interviews Gilbert had spoken to this reporter several times about adding all-orchestral evenings to the Opera’s schedule, and he had expansive ideas about repertory. Tristan und Isolde, in festival form that would begin at 5 p.m., break for a long dinner first-intermission, then continue to conclude at about 11 p.m. was high on Gilbert’s list of ideas, he told me, and casting was even being considered. The Wagner and several other large projects never got off the drawing board.

Gilbert was not, in my view, an ideal music director for SFO as he was not much experienced or knowledgeable in singing or vocal culture. His great strength was command of the music and the orchestra, but there was a certain amount of learning-on-the-job with respect to his operatic music making. Even so, he delivered some strong evenings of operatic enjoyment and might be expected to grow in such matters. It will not be at Santa Fe.

What this means for the Festival is that Director Gaddes will continue to make repertory and casting decisions, strongly seconded, as he indicated at the press conference, by his artistic second-in-command, Brad Woolbrite, as well as be prime funds-raiser and CEO. Since its founding more than fifty years ago, Santa Fe Opera has followed a formula — a quite successful one — that combines several familiar repertory pieces with a world or American premiere of an operatic rarity or a new opera, plus the occasional presentation of an original new commission. Over the years much attention has been paid to unusual repertory, with a solid core of Bohemes and Carmens to help pay the bills. There is no reason this will change.

The other limiting factor at Santa Fe might be summed up by describing it as a ‘catered’ opera company. Everything is prepared elsewhere and brought in, one might say. Quaint little Santa Fe, in the mountainous plateaus and deserts of Northern New Mexico, has no depth of musical resources, chorus, dance or related professions to call on. Just to meet the choral requirements of Wagner’s Lohengrin or Tannhauser would be virtually impossible without importing dozens of additional singers, not to speak of added musicians for the orchestra. This is true across the board of logistical and artistic requirements. So there is strong logic, indeed, to the philosophy of repertory and scale that has always guided the SFO, though at times it can seem limiting. On the other hand, take a look at the local scenery — heck of a lot better than 61st and Broadway!

In the long term, whether one music director or another (provided there IS one of adequate talent and insight), will not make much difference. But for those who expected Gilbert to become a bright light and guide-on for SFO, May brought a sense of disappointment.

J.A. Van Sant © 2007