ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Tech executive Peter Batty has been making the trip to New Mexico's high desert almost every summer since 1996 to get his opera fix at one of the most famous venues in the United States.
Not this year.
Instead of tailgating outside the Santa Fe Opera, he and his wife celebrated their anniversary and the opera's opening night on their balcony in downtown Denver. The hors d’oeuvres were out and the champagne poured as the performance unfolded online.
The famed opera is offering a series of virtual performances after being forced to cancel the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Saturday night events are meant to celebrate the five originally-scheduled operas that would have been performed this summer, including the world premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.
Robert Meya, the opera's general director, says the message is simple: Dress up, pop the cork and join in from home.
He hopes the digital initiative can bring some joy to the community in what has been a very trying time. He said the project also affords everyone around the world a front row seat to some of the talent that would have taken the stage at the open-air venue.
About 20,000 people tuned in via various social media platforms for the first episode on July 3, when acclaimed mezzo-soprano and New Mexico native Susan Graham played host as Joshua Hopkins brought to life Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
“We are celebrating all that is still possible and still beautiful here at the Santa Fe Opera,” Graham told those watching from their living rooms and patios.
Without a regular season, the opera is facing a $10 million loss in revenue, leaving officials to stretch federal relief money and donations as far as they can go.
The opera had sold about $5 million in tickets before the pandemic began and has had to refund about half of that. Some patrons are holding on to their tickets for future years while others have donated their tickets back to the opera to help compensate seasonal staff. Sponsors have helped to match those donations.
The opera is among businesses across the U.S. that received loans under the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program, which is part of the effort to rescue an economy devastated by shutdowns and uncertainty. The government is backing $659 billion in low-interest loans that borrowers can use for payroll, rent and similar expenses.
The Santa Fe Opera received a $2 million loan that has helped to retain several dozen full-time staff and provide some compensation to nearly half of the 700 employees who make up the seasonal staff, Meya said.
In a regular year, the opera's operating budget is about $25 million, with 40% of that coming from ticket sales and donations making up another 40%.
“It's going to be a real struggle to get through it, but I know that we will," Meya told The Associated Press in an interview. “We’ve always had balanced budgets in the past at the Santa Fe Opera and we’re going to do everything in our power to try to achieve that again this year.”
In recent years, the venue has been the backdrop for productions about the dawn of the nuclear age in 1940s New Mexico and a world premiere of a techno-infused opera about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg also has been a regular visitor to performances in Santa Fe.
Batty held out buying tickets for this year's performances in Santa Fe as the pandemic grew worse. He already had season tickets for Opera Colorado, which was forced to cancel its annual gala and the season's final production in the spring.
Batty was disappointed but not surprised by the cancellations, saying it was the right thing to do given the health concerns.
Batty attended his first Santa Fe opera in 1985 while visiting as a student from the United Kingdom. He heard that going to the opera was “one of the cool things to do" so he tried it. The experience ignited his love for live opera.
“It's a wonderful experience,” he said of tailgating, soaking in the atmosphere and sitting under the stars during the performance. “We hope everything will be back next year.”
Until then, Meya said he hopes the Saturday night episodes offer a spiritual healing of sorts to counter the cancellation of the opera's season and so many other arts and cultural events around the world.
The virtual offerings already have resulted in a “light bulb moment” for Meya.
“Gosh we should be doing this every season even when we have season,” he said. “We should be including more of these types of programs so we can get the word out and build our audience.”