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Tailgating with the Tenors

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At the opening of Santa Fe’s opera season, it’s more about what you bring to eat than what you wear. Katherine Mast pulls up a folding chair and spends a night at the opera
Photo by Kate Russell

It’s a quick 7-mile drive from downtown Santa Fe to New Mexico’s opera house, but perched on a mesa overlooking the sprawling Española Valley, the open-air structure seems in a world of its own. My partner, Michael, and I drive up the long, winding road to the upper parking lot, joining a growing line of cars. Though the show won’t start for more than two hours, we’re far from the first to arrive.

We’ve got tickets to see Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Italian retelling of the fictional Spanish philanderer, Don Juan. We’re excited to see this classic opera, but that’s not why we showed up so early. No, we’re here to tailgate.

Photo by Kate Russell

I grew up in Pittsburgh Steeler’s country, where “tailgating” meant beer, brats roasted on a portable grill fired up on the bed of a pickup, and a noisy parking lot before a football game. In Santa Fe, it means something entirely different.

 

Teenage parking attendants in orange safety vests direct us to the next spot in line, and we pull in behind a couple arranging a vase of flowers on a white table cloth covering a card table. It’s a scene repeated across the parking lot in intimate tables set for two and in larger, jovial parties. A few pop-up canopies offer shade from the blazing August sun. There are men dressed in suits and women in gowns. Others wear jeans and cowboy boots.

Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 Opening night. Photo by Kate Russell.

“It’s so Santa Fe,” Michael muses. “You get dressed up and eat fancy foods — but you’re eating in a parking lot.” He loves the incongruity: a little pomp mixed with the Southwest’s down-to-earth, come-as-you-are attitude.

The air is still hot as the sun begins to tip toward the west. I’m comfortable in my long, sleeveless sundress, but I made sure to grab a scarf and coat on my way out the door. Over the next few hours, the temperature will plummet 30 degrees. We’ll get to see the sky change colors as we take our seats in the opera house, whose open sides offer glimpses of the Jemez Mountains to the West. And then the cool night air will fill the auditorium. I expect I’ll be shivering by the time the performance ends.

Photo by Kate Russell

The first time we tailgated at the opera, Michael and I showed up with a few clamshell packages of grocery store deli foods and ate with plastic forks and paper napkins, sitting slightly hunched in the back of his Subaru. Since then, attending the opera has become a summertime ritual, and each year we’ve upped our game a little. This year, we’ve got a plastic folding table with wooden lawn chairs.

Now, the car’s open hatch becomes the staging area for the fanciest picnic I’ve ever had. We discovered a light Swiss rosé during a recent tasting event in town; a bottle is chilling in a cooler along with three types of cheeses and a variety of fresh fruit. I’ve made a savory tart with an olive tapenade, tomatoes and mozzarella.

Photo by Kate Russell

“We’re going to have an awesome sunset tonight,” Michael predicts, and judging from the dark post-rain shower summer sky, I’d place my bet with his. Especially between summer solstice and fall equinox, the evening light in New Mexico is extraordinarily vibrant. We arrange our table so we’ll be facing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the East when sun dips low enough to light them up blood-red.

When the Santa Fe Opera House was first built in 1957, it could seat 480 people. Some 60 years and a few renovations later, the open-air structure with its unusual sail-like roof has space for more than 2,000. It’s an evolution in comfort, from stories I’ve heard. A family friend, now a cellist in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, recalls starting his career at the Santa Fe Opera years ago. On nights when the monsoonal skies would unleash a torrent of rain, the musicians would rush their instruments in swift choreography toward shelter from the unprotected pit, but the music would never miss a beat. And Michael recalls the days before the Opera House’s modern roof when umbrellas were part of the requisite opera attire.

Santa Fe is one of a handful of places offering a summer opera season, so it draws enthusiasts from far-flung places to see a remarkable concentration of operatic talent. Because there are fewer summertime opportunities, musicians and performers, as well as costume, lighting and set designers, compete for limited spaces.

Raphael’s Crew on opening night. Photo by Kate Russell.

Each summer offers a lineup of five different operas, ranging from classics like tonight’s Don Giovanni to experimental world premieres. When Cold Mountain premiered in 2015, the company tacked on an additional performance after four of the five originally scheduled nights had sold out weeks before the first show.

Tonight as we eat, we strike up a conversation with the women tailgating next to us. One tells me her mother also hailed from Pittsburgh, though decades before. “Have you ever seen Don Giovanni?” she asks as we swap what’s left in our bottles of wine. She’s leaning back in her lawn chair, one cowboy boot-clad ankle crossed lazily on her other knee. “It’s my favorite opera,” she says, then launches into a detailed analysis of the music.

I’ve never been the biggest opera fan, but each year, the repetition of unfamiliar words in languages I can’t speak—the arias and the choruses—they’re growing on me. But now, no opera is complete without a glass of wine and a plate of fine cheese in the parking lot before hand.

Photo by Kate Russell
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