BWW Interview: Robert Meya of SANTA FE OPERA at the Opera Ranch
Since his appointment as General Director the end of the 2018 season, Robert Meya has provided the utmost in forward-looking executive leadership and strategic direction for Santa Fe Opera. Only the fourth General Director in the company's 62-year history, Meya succeeds Charles MacKay who followed General Director Richard Gaddes and Company Founder John Crosby. I spoke with Robert Meya at Santa Fe Opera.
How did you first come to Santa Fe Opera?
I was an intern at the Santa Fe Opera when I was earning my masters degree at Carnegie Mellon University. One of the requirements for my degree was to do an arts internship. Besides that time, I have been with Santa Fe Opera for eight years. My prior position was Director of External Affairs.
Did you grow up in a musical atmosphere?
My mother was an opera lover and my grandmother was a trained opera singer who sang to me when I was just a little kid. I often went to the Met Opera with my mother. It was not until I was in my twenties, however, that I decided to go into arts management. When my mother heard of my chance to intern at Santa Fe Opera, she said, "You have to do that." So I drove here from Pittsburgh, arriving the night before I was to go to work. The structure of the theater that I saw in the distance was in its second season. I fell in love with the place as soon as I saw it.
Where did you work after obtaining your degrees?
I worked at San Francisco Opera under General Director Lotfi Mansouri and Pamela Rosenberg before going to work at the Boston Symphony for a few years. The latter was near where I grew up in Connecticut and was closer to family and friends. I also did a short stint for Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre. After that, I worked for the New York City Opera (aka City Opera) as director of development for four years. That, actually, was when I crossed paths with current Santa Fe Opera Artistic Director Alexander Neef. He was coming in as artistic administrator under projected new General Director Gerard Mortier. I went there because I was so excited by Mortier's artistic plans.
Over those years, I would come back to Santa Fe Opera in summer, so I got to see what was happening here artistically. That was always exciting and it allowed me to see friends, colleagues, and board members. Santa Fe Opera always felt like family. One time when I was here with a group from City Opera, Charles MacKay, whom I had not met before, said "Why don't you come and visit with me in my office." When I came, he said, "Have you ever thought about coming back to work here?" I said it had not crossed my mind.
A couple of months later when he was at Santa Fe Opera's office in New York, he asked to see me again saying, "I think there is a nice opportunity for you . . . and he convinced me to come back to Santa Fe Opera. Here, in the summer of 2012, I met my wife, South African-born soprano Amanda Echalaz, who was singing Tosca. Seeing each other regularly at the cantina, we gradually got to know each other. Two years later, she moved here from London and we got married. She had been singing all over the world, but mostly in Europe. We now have two children four and five years old.
What happened with Gerard Mortier and the New York City Opera?
City Opera's board of directors originally promised Mortier a budget of $60 million. He was supposed to be at City Opera in 2008, but he never showed up. When the financial crisis hit, the board members came to terms with what their capacity was with fundraising and ticket sales. They said, "We can give you $30 to $35 million." Mortier replied, "I'm not coming." He went to Madrid and the Canadian Opera Company hired Alexander Neef. Once the New York City Opera decided to leave Lincoln Center, I must say my heart sank. As wonderful as many of its venues are, with no home, City Opera became an itinerant company. To me, it felt like the organization's soul had been ripped out.
Santa Fe Opera has sometimes been termed the United States answer to Austria's Salzburg Festival. What are your feelings about that?
I have family in Salzburg. My dad is Austrian and my wife sang in The Exterminating Angel there two years ago. That year we took our Santa Fe Opera Board to Salzburg's Easter Festival. There is a great deal that we can learn from them and there are valid comparisons. Next year we present Tristan.
Did you plan any of the 2019 season?
We did not plan most of the 2019 Season. My team consists of Alexander Neef as Artistic Director, Harry Bicket as Music Director and myself as General Director. We had a hand in selecting two of the conductors, Johannes Debus who conducts Jenufa and Paul Daniel who leads The Thirteenth Child. Of course, we are involved throughout the whole rehearsal process for the current season. We were involved in cast substitutions and brought Gabriella Reyes in at the last minute to sing Musetta in LA BOHEME.
We had brought Vanessa Vasquez, the Mimì, here for a gala last December so we could preview things to come. She is fabulous. She and Reyes are wonderful together. BOHEME has a young cast and the whole team, including director, designer, lighting, etc. consists of young people, many of them women. There is a new generation appearing and, as I look at my counterparts at other opera companies, I see a passing of the torch. I think we are beginning to have a very different approach to management.
What is your vision of Santa Fe Opera's future?
When I was first appointed General Director, I was asked to articulate my vision for the future. There are three pillars I feel are important: first, to honor the legacy of this company; second, to better connect with our community; and third, to build our international profile.
Knowing and having worked for John Crosby, Richard Gaddes and Charles MacKay, I have tremendous respect for the company's history and artistic legacy. I have every intention of paying homage to these men's accomplishments and I am looking for ways to build on them. Six of Richard Strauss's works had American premieres here. We have produced all of his works except for two, DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN and GUNTRAM. FRAU deserves to be produced here. So, I'm just going to give you a hint that it just might be down the pike, but don't hold me accountable for that. It's an extraordinary piece.
People will tell you that Richard Strauss is not so good at the box office. FRAU is an expensive production, it's difficult to cast . . . there are lots of reasons why you can't do it . . . but I can tell you that once you've made that commitment things fall into place. The general public may not think about co-productions but we've been remarkably successful at that, particularly under MacKay. They are hard to negotiate, however, particularly with today's financial struggles, and they require advanced commitments.
How have co-productions helped to refresh the repertoire?
Co-productions of world premieres can do very well. The (R)EVOLUTION OF Steve Jobs was a runaway success in Bloomington and Seattle. Strauss operas have often found early co-producers. ARABELLA, which we did in 2012 together with Minneapolis and Toronto, also went to San Francisco as a rental. We co-produced Capriccio with a wonderful festival in England, west of London, called Garsington. We took our board there two months ago. Our Capriccio was the hit of the season.
There has always been a balance to Santa Fe Opera seasons and we are going to preserve that. We bookend each season with productions that sell a lot of seats, for example LA BOHEME. There are twelve performances of it this season and seven each of COSI FAN TUTTE and THE PEARL FISHERS. JENUFA and THE THIRTEENTH CHILD have only five each. The shows that sell the best will also close the season.
This year we are selling 88% of our seats. It's not 90% but its doing well. Leoš Janáček's JENUFA can be compared to a Richard Strauss opera in terms of box office draw. Although Janáček's music has become much more popular in this country over the past 20 years, his works are still relatively unknown. You'll find one of his operas at the Met every couple of years, but not every season. I'd say his music is still a "hard sell," but artistically it is extremely compelling.
What are some of things that the fundraising of your predecessors has brought about?
John Crosby and Richard Gaddes were formidable fundraisers. It's a tradition here. Look around at the facility. Because Crosby had that vision and good fortune, he was able to manage his own investments for the benefit of Santa Fe Opera. That was nothing short of remarkable. He could raise money like nobody else. You can see the fruits of his hard work in this 200-acre facility. Look at the state-of-the-art theater with the new titles system that was installed just this season. Fundraising is critical to Santa Fe Opera because it takes a great deal of money to keep the company running.
We also have a history of selling tickets. Our operating budget is around $25 million a year. Of that, 40% comes from fundraising, 40% from ticket sales, and 20% from co-productions, rentals, retail offerings, along with other sources. We have a perfect balance between our two major sources of income, fundraising and ticket sales. That, to me, is a sign of our healthy fiscal position. The base of our fundraising support is our incredible board of directors. They are extraordinarily generous and extremely engaged. They are the best board of directors I've ever experienced at any organization. We build on their base with our production sponsors, our patron program, our memberships, and all the other vehicles for fundraising.
How much money do donors give each year?
Donors give us $10 million a year and our income from ticket sales is about $10 million. It is fortunate that we are a festival because that makes our business model more efficient. Our year-round staff is only ten percent of our summer staff. That is one advantage and another is that use are a located in a city that draws tourists. People come to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for more than just opera, so "The City Different" with its internationally famous opera company is truly one of America's great summer tourist destinations.