SANTA FE, NM – An open-air theater surrounded by desert views, the Santa Fe Opera House is known as the place to watch the sun go down while attending a performance.
With a deadly respiratory virus still at large, the opera house is one of the safest venues for large crowds and singers known for the loudest sound projection in the music world.
The actors donned N-95 masks during rehearsals, struggling to catch their breath through the barriers as they chanted their lines. It is quite difficult to do at 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) above sea level.
Machinists wore masks on set and across the opera’s sprawling campus during pre-production of several shows that required everything from welding a life-size metal tree to building golden clock gears massive, including painting, sewing and carpentry.
Hundreds of people gathered last Saturday to watch the first show of the season – “Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)”, Mozart’s 1786 Italian opera reimagined in a Depression era setting from the 1930s. The story traces the wedding day between a high-born woman and a working-class man as they push back the advances of a powerful earl.
Opera lovers got the party started a few hours before sunset in the parking lot. Aficionados dress to impress, unfold tables and chairs and set up picnics and glasses of champagne.
âIt’s part of our coming out, especially after all the months of isolation and shutting down,â said Linda McDonald-Hummingbird, retired nurse and semi-professional singer. “It’s kind of a rebirth.”
As the desert sky turned orange, the audience erupted before the performers took to the stage.
âThere’s just a simple announcement that came over the speakers – ‘Good evening, welcome to the Santa Fe Opera’ – and then they go crazy,â said soprano Vanessa Vasquez, who sang the role of the Countess Almaviva. “It filled me with gratitude and awakened a creative spirit in me that calmed down last year.”
Vasquez passed the pandemic between Phoenix and her hometown of Scottsdale, visiting her parents more than she ever could on the road and learning a new hobby – tennis. This is now part of his pre-performance ritual.
Behind the scenes, operas grapple with COVID-19 safety concerns and collective bargaining.
The Glyndebourne Festival in England and the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France have opened their doors. The Austrian Salzburg Festival begins on Saturday and the Richard Wagner Festival resumes on July 25 after a one-year absence.
The New York Metropolitan Opera hopes to begin its season on September 27, but has yet to strike a deal with its orchestra, despite an agreement signed with stagehands earlier this month.
In Santa Fe, a union organizer representing the orchestra said negotiations were surprisingly easy.
Seats were blocked near the orchestra and masks were worn everywhere during rehearsals, which often took place indoors.
âEveryone wanted to go back to work, but they weren’t going to sacrifice anyone for it,â said Tracey Whitney, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 618.
The masking makes for a creative challenge.
âYou can’t see their expressions. The singers, with each breath they take to sing, they suck the mask into their mouth. It is terribly uncomfortable. It is terribly hot. It’s a lot of unease, âsaid Laurie Feldman, stage manager.
Immigration and travel restrictions also hampered the casting process.
The show was directed by French director Laurent Pelly, but he did not attend rehearsals in person. Instead, a production intern helped Feldman record the rehearsals with an iPad. Feldman and Pelly reviewed the rehearsals every day.
Seating being scarce, the opera house filmed the show for the first time. The video was projected on the big screen in an overflow parking lot, similar to a drive-in. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to broadcasting, which is seen as a way for opera to become more affordable and accessible to a wider audience.
McDonald-Hummingbird, the nurse, said she was optimistic about the opera opening. Black woman and member of Laguna Pueblo, she discovered opera as a child and now gives concerts using Italian tunes and gospel songs.
âI used to pretend in my mind that I was wearing the dress. It’s so powerful. It is a gift from the Creator, âshe said. “I wish it was possible for all the children who have never had the opportunity to experience this.”
On stage, opera diversifies. “Figaro” featured soprano Ying Fang from China as Susanna.
Vazquez, the daughter of Cuban and Colombian immigrants, said she had doubts early in her career that she could be successful as a Latina singer.
âI watched big stages from all over the world and never saw anyone who really looked like me. I thought maybe I needed a backup. And my parents were okay with that, âshe said with a laugh. While studying music, she saw more Hispanic stars headlining, which gave her a boost. She thought, “Oh, I can do that too.”
Vazquez added her own twist to the plot, incorporating her very real pregnancy into the drama of the series. As a countess with the womanizer husband, she stopped several times, framing her stomach with her hands.
âIt really raises the stakes for her, for the countess,â Vasquez said. “She has to think about her child and that gives that desire or that hopeful goal of keeping her family together.”
AP reporter Ron Blum in Denver contributed to the reporting of this story.
Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.