SFO is internationally known for introducing new and innovative operas as well as for its productions of works from the standard operatic repertoire. Since its inception, the Santa Fe Opera has staged over forty American premieres and has commissioned nine new operas.
Crosby remained as general director, with the longest such tenure in US opera history, until 2000. He subsequently died in December 2002. Since 2000, Richard Gaddes has been SFO's General Director. In August 2007, Gaddes stated that he wished SFO to begin a search for his successor, with him remaining in the position until the hiring of SFO's next General Director. In November 2007, SFO named Charles MacKay the company's next general director to succeed Gaddes, effective 1 October 2008.
In addition to being SFO's founding General Director, Crosby had simultaneously served as SFO's de facto first principal conductor. Alan Gilbert became the company's first music director from 2003 to 2006. In May 2007, Santa Fe Opera announced that Gilbert had officially concluded his tenure as its music director, and that Kenneth Montgomery had been named interim music director. Montgomery's tenure as interim music director concluded after the 2007 season. He is scheduled to continue as a guest conductor for three operas over the years 2008 to 2011. In July 2007, the Santa Fe Opera named Edo de Waart their chief conductor, effective 1 October 2007.
Generally, two popular operas opened the season, typically one by Mozart. An American (or world) premiere was generally in the program and these included works commissioned by the company. A lifelong lover of the operas of Richard Strauss, John Crosby regularly scheduled one and presented many American premieres of the composer’s work, an example being the 1964 U.S. premiere of the 1938 Daphne. Finally, the fifth opera was often a work which is rarely performed.
In May 2007, the 2008 season was announced: Verdi's Falstaff, Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater (a U.S. premiere), Britten's Billy Budd (reflecting Gaddes' feeling that Britten has been under-represented), and Handel's Radamisto.
On 30 April 2008 the soon-to-be general director, Charles McKay, announced the 2009 season program which opens on 3 July 2009 with La traviata featuring Natalie Dessay who will be making her first appearance in the role of Violetta. Following are Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, which has not be presented by the company since 1968; Mozart's Don Giovanni; Gluck's Alceste, a company premiere; and the world premiere of a new opera, The Letter by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout. It is based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham which had been made into a successful 1940 film noir, The Letter, starring Bette Davis
"In this country young artists have to do something which is impossible – gain experience. But with our plan, these young people will be scheduled in small roles and will have the opportunity of working with their older brothers and sisters who have already won their spurs. To get such experience now, a young artist has to go to Europe."
The Apprentice Program for Technicians was added in 1965.
The Program has formal academic goals in addition to the "hands on" experience provided by the preparation for and participation in professional productions. Seminars and master classes are conducted; singers receive coaching in voice, music, body movement, career counseling, and diction. Technical apprentices are provided with instruction in stage operations, stage properties, costume and wig construction, scenic art, wigs and make up, music services, and stage lighting.
The Apprentice Program for Singers and Technicians continues at the Santa Fe Opera today. Typically, about 1,000 aspiring young singers and 600 technicians apply; in 2006, 43 singers and 61 technical apprentices worked at the opera.
The singers act as the chorus for each opera, as well as performing small roles. In addition, apprentices "cover" (understudy) some leading roles. The technical apprentices perform a variety of backstage functions (including costumes, props, and scenery making and painting) as well as being responsible for presenting the technical aspects (lighting, costumes, scenery, stage management, etc.) of two staged evenings of "Apprentice Scenes" performed by the singers.
Many of the former apprentice singers have returned to perform major roles with the company, notably in recent years, Joyce DiDonato in the 2006 Cendrillon, Chris Merritt also in 2006 in The Tempest, and Carl Tanner in the 2005 production of Turandot.
Three key features of each of the theaters has been the fact that, unlike a conventional theater, there is no fly system to allow for scenery to be lowered from above, there is no proscenium arch (and thus no curtain nor means of projecting surtitles), the sides of the house are open, and the rear of the stage may be completely opened to provide westward views.
Performances begin close to sunset, so that the lighting of the productions is not compromised by the sides of the theatre being open to the outside environment. More social aspects of the performance starting time include giving opera-goers the opportunity to observe New Mexico sunsets against the surrounding landscape and the tradition of tailgate dining.
This was the location of the inaugural performance on opening night, 3 July 1957. Madama Butterfly played to a sold-out crowd. By the end of the eight-week season, the 12,000 people who attended accounted for sales at 90% of capacity.
A mezzanine was added in 1965 but, on 27 July 1967, four weeks into the season, a fire demolished the theater, causing the company to move to a local high school for the remainder of the season. From the Sweeney Gymnasium, they created the "Sweeney Opera House", and completed the season, albeit without most of the original costumes or sets. A huge fund-raising operation took place, backed by Igor Stravinsky, and $2.4 million was raised to rebuild the theatre in time for the following season.
The new theatre was designed by the Santa Fe firm of McHugh and Kidder. One of its principal features was the partial opening of the roof towards the middle of the orchestra section, provided by the curving, audience-facing slope of the stage roof and the thrust of the mezzanine and rear orchestra roof forward. Also, the auditorium’s sides were open, as was the rear of the stage (although sliding doors could be closed). It provided for spectacular Westward views - as well as giving some centrally-located audience members a view of the night sky.
Most of the new theatre's backstage facilities, including scenery construction and storage and costume and props production, were actually constructed below the stage level in order to preserve the open views to the West. A huge elevator, located immediately behind the stage, provides the means whereby scenery can be moved up from the construction shop one level below or down to the storage area, three levels below.
Renamed “The Crosby Theater” (following the founder's death in 2002 and reflecting the contributions of both of his parents in supporting the opera festival), the present theatre was designed by the architectural firm headed by James Polshek of New York. It was built during extensive reconstruction, which followed the tearing down of the 1968 theatre right at the end of the opera season in late August 1997. The new theatre was completed in ten months for an early July 1998 opening of new season. Like the previous opening nights of 1957 and 1968, it featured a performance of Madama Butterfly. With fewer storm-related problems (and, with a higher stage roof providing a better view of the Westward landscape), the theater now seats 2,128 plus 106 standees, although it has a strikingly intimate feel. It added a wider and more complete roof structure, with the new front and rear portions supported by cables and joined together with a clerestory window. This offers protection from the sky, but with the sides remaining open to the elements. The presence of wind baffles and Stieren Hall has helped improve exposure on the southern, windward side of the auditorium.
In 1999, as an alternative to translations by use of supertitles or surtitles, an electronic titles system was installed in the Crosby Theatre. Invented by Figaro Systems of Santa Fe, and only the second one after the Metropolitan opera's MetTitles installed in 1995, the system provides individual screens in front of each patron's seat, showing a translation of the sung text in either English or Spanish with the possibility of handling up to six other languages.
A $30 million capital campaign is currently underway for increasing the endowment fund ($20 million) and for improvements to and expansion of existing structures, many of which were part of the original 1950s ranch buildings on the company's grounds. In addition, new rehearsal studios are planned, adding to the smaller existing facilities and more closely matching the size of the stage.