BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices

The Santa Fe Opera has been serenading the mountains and mesas north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, since John Crosby founded the company in 1957. Long held to be one of the world's premiere operatic ensembles, the Santa Fe Opera is a force of nature that has attracted major talent from around the world; a true repertory company, with consistent casts and no star system. Its starkly attractive venue is the only outdoor theatre in American designed exclusively for opera.

"The attention of the music world was focused this summer on one of the most phenomenal beginnings in U.S. operatic history," wrote Opera News in 1957, "The debut of the Santa Fe Opera Association."

The company's apprentice program (, established that same year, was the first of its kind. Often called "Opera Boot Camp," it is considered the most coveted and prestigious program on the planet. Many of the opera world's foremost artists got their start in the program, ultimately receiving contracts for leading roles at the world's top opera companies, and for concerts with prominent US orchestras.

"Graduates" of The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Programs for Singers and Technicians are active with opera, theater, and ballet companies around the world, as well as in the film and television industry. All credit the Apprentice Program as instrumental to their artistic growth and current career. According to SFeO General Director Charles Mackay, the apprentice programs are "a launching pad for the next generation of talent."

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices
'Il Viaggio a Rheims' Apprentice Scenes; photo Ken Howard

As director of the company's apprentice program since 2005, international opera star and former Santa Fe apprentice David Holloway is a veritable fount of knowledge. Originally from "Nowhere, Kansas," as he calls it, he credits the program for jumpstarting his singing career. He made his SFeO mainstage debut in 1974 as Papageno in Mozart's Magic Flute.

Erica Miner: John Crosby must have been a force to reckon with.

David Holloway: Absolutely. Why John Crosby would go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a town at that time of 35,000, and start a world-class opera company - he had to be crazy. And he was [Laughs]. But he had a vision, and he was willing to take a leap. Obviously he was brilliant, to come up with that idea. From the very first he enlisted people like Stravinsky to come. When I came from Kansas to be an apprentice it was like John was on the moon to me. I knew him from 1966 when his parents were both still alive. His dad would wander around the campus and talk to anybody. He was very easy to chat with. He had one of those really strong New England accents. I kept thinking he was British. I had a 1948 Chrysler, with the original Scotch plaid interior. John and his dad went nutty about that car. I just bought it off a lot in Kansas for $250. John drove a really old Mercedes, like early 50s.

EM: What a vision. It must have been amazing to be around him.

DH: From the very first he built reservoirs underground to trap water, some with 70,000 gallons. The cantina has pointed roofs to funnel water underground, from which plants were watered. In the 60s you'd see him in the mornings outside in shorts, working in the garden planting flowers, bushes, trees. Santa Fe is one of the only opera companies in the world that has its own swimming pool. The campus is just gorgeous.

EM: Who got you started as a singer?

DH: Bob Baustian, one of the SFeO conductors, was at Kansas when I was there in college. He was really my mentor and the reason I got into this. He took me under his wing, just saw something in me. He coached every note I sang.

EM: Baustian was SFeO's Mozart specialist?

DH: Yes. When Bob left for Oberlin, John needed someone to run auditions. I was chosen because I knew the company and had accompanied most of the auditions. I've been director of the program for 12 years now, going into my 13th season.

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices
'Don Giovanni' ensemble; photo Ken Howard

EM: How did Crosby first establish the apprentice program?

DH: He was starting an opera company in the middle of nowhere and really didn't want to hire New York professionals to come out, pay their prices and house them for the summer. So he had this inspiration to start an apprentice program for singers. He went to colleges and hired people from there. Sherrill Milnes was an apprentice in '59, Marlena Kleinman Malas in '61. All these people that sang in choruses back then that went on to have careers. Back in that day, if you sang in the chorus of the Met or City Opera there was a stigma attached - it was hard to be a soloist once you'd done that. John really changed that. It's amazing that the stigma of singing in opera chorus is just not there anymore. For someone like me from Nowhere, Kansas, it was great. I got acquainted with operas without a lot of pressure. To sing in the choruses, get to know the operas.

EM: Who better to run an apprentice program than a former apprentice?

DH: I was an apprentice in '66 and '67, 50 years ago last summer. I had been an administrator and vocal teacher in Chicago at the College of Performing Arts, and I sang in Dusseldorf for 10 years and every major opera company in Germany, then at the Met, and San Francisco. I made my Met debut in November '73, Yamadori in Butterfly. Later I sang Schaunard with Corelli and Caballe and Pavarotti. Just fantastic casts.

EM: What do you find most striking about the Santa Fe program?

DH: It's different from almost any other. St. Louis has something very similar, but nobody has the scope, the cachet, of Santa Fe. It's different from programs like the Merola - I was in that in '68 - that work the singers, tell them what's wrong with them. Santa Fe is not like a conservatory program. We don't train people how to sing. The training is really being in the operas. The schedule is tough, doing 5 operas, and what we demand of those 44 singers in chorus work - we need them to sing their hearts out - there's not much time for anything else. They get to train with coaches who work in opera houses all over the country, who then talk about the singers they heard in our program and the singers get jobs out of it. Everything we do for the apprentices in our program has helped them get to the next step.

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices
'Vanessa' ensemble; photo Ken Howard

EM: In which cities do you audition apprentices?

DH: We used to go to Boston, New York, Bloomington, Indiana, Lawrence, Kansas, Houston, Albuquerque and L.A. About 5 or 6 years ago we started using to compile the applications. Everybody has to submit audio and video recordings - we had 1,164 applications last year. Bob Tweten and I screen all the applications. Of those, we choose 450 to sing for us, live, in L.A.

EM: 450? How do you keep them all straight?

DH: It's easier than you think. On the computer I have their name, something about them from their application, their teachers and conservatories. We both make notes like crazy. We keep very good records of every voice we hear. And we grade them. This was a John Crosby thing. He graded all the voices A, B, C, D. We're still doing that. At the end of the run we choose from the A group. We sometimes have to dip into our B's. I don't remember having to dip into a C. The problem voices are low bass and tenor. Sopranos, mezzos, baritones, will all be from the A's. It's quite a process. We spend about 6 days in New York, 3 days in Chicago, 2 days in L.A. and 1 day in Albuquerque. We do Albuquerque because it's in state. We also get singers from Houston. Rice University is probably one of the top vocal programs now.

EM: So out of 450 you get 44, about the top 10%. How do the apprentices feel about being part of this program?

DH: It's one of the coveted places they like to come to. What we've tried to do over the years is make it as professional an experience as possible. What John said in the very first is that he wanted people to have a taste of the professional singer's life. He always made them get their own apartments, pay for their own meals and gave them a weekly stipend to cover all that. It just barely covers it. Apartments are expensive in Santa Fe now. We're talking about whether we should help get apprentices housing. The Housing Office gets apartments for all the artists, orchestra, but they've never included apprentices. I do exit interviews with each of them every summer. Charles is so responsive to stuff like that. He sees it in these exit interviews. He says, "David, maybe we ought to be doing something. Would it be helpful?" Most of the apprentices try to get acquainted with somebody from the program they can rent with. That makes a huge difference. But it's expensive, about ¼ of what they make.

EM: And they come from all over the world?

DH: Yes, but if they're going to be an apprentice they need to have been in an American program. We have a guy from Turkey this summer but he's been at Juilliard. We have several from Canada. We've always had a number of foreign apprentices every summer. We don't get visas for apprentices, though we get them for artists and conductors.

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices
Apprentice Jared Bybee; photo Kate Russell

EM: Is the audience very receptive if an apprentice steps into a role when someone cancels at the last minute?

DH: They just love it. For the audience and Board members and patrons the apprentice program is the "thing." They love to get acquainted with them. Apprentices also "sing around" at outside events. We'll do about 60 church services this summer, which they love. The events payments have really gone up, too. We do a concert on the Plaza band shell every summer. Since 2006 I've had an outside event in Whole Foods. The apprentices sing a 40-minute program. I usually wheel in an electric keyboard.

I always tell everybody it's going to happen in Bread [Laughs].

EM: Who chooses the repertoire?

DH: Mostly Charles and Brad Woolbright, director of Artistic Administration. We plan pretty far in advance. I'm sure they have 2019 already. I love 2018, such a wonderful season. They're doing Ariadne, which is my favorite of the season. I'm looking forward to this season, too, of course.

EM: Santa Fe is known for its cutting edge premieres.

DH: The one this summer is going to be fantastic, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs ( Mostly apprentices will cover that. For me my favorite performances of the summer are the cover ones. The best performance of Cold Mountain was the apprentice one.

EM: I've interviewed the Steve Jobs composer, Mason Bates (/san-francisco/article/BWW-Interview-Mason-Bates-Seeks-Adventure-in-Music-20160517). He's amazing, and so is the librettist, Mark Campbell.

DH: I saw the workshop version of it the last day of the season last year. I really liked it. It was so strong. It all ended in the memorial service for Steve Jobs. I cried.

EM: When do rehearsals start?

DH: The apprentices arrived on May 29. I think Jobs is the 4th opera, so it won't start for a couple of weeks. There have been so many workshop productions of it, so that cast really knows the thing already.

EM: The eyes of the world are on it. And collaborating with Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, it's going to be huge. Who are some of the most prominent opera singers that got started at Santa Fe?

DH: Oh, the list is much too long! For starters, Sherrill Milnes, Judith Blegen, Samuel Ramey, James Morris, Neil Shicoff, Jay Hunter Morris, Joyce DiDonato. Many, many more.

EM: Impressive.

DH: I've always felt Santa Fe was the most important company I could ever get into. I tell people now, when I was a kid to me this was the most important company in the world. Now I've worked for them for 13 years, I still think so! [Laughs.] John Crosby was quick to understand the opportunities the company afforded for developing young talent. He created his model in response to a lack of apprentice programs elsewhere. The Santa Fe Opera was the first company to offer a wholly professional approach to apprenticeships - in 1957 for singers, and in 1965 for theater technicians, as well as career administrators in opera, theater, and the arts. All told, the programs have propelled the careers of more than 4,000 aspirants over the decades.

EM: David, your wealth of knowledge and passion about this company are inspiring. I can't wait to witness its greatness this summer. Thank you so much.

DH: Thank you, Erica.

BWW Interview: David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices
Apprentices Backstage; photo Kate Russell

Photo credits: Courtesy of the artist; Ken Howard; Kate Russell


More From This Author

Erica Miner Violinist turned author ERICA MINER has had a multi-faceted career as an award-winning

screenwriter, author, lecturer and poet. A native of Detroit, she studied violin at Boston

University with Boston Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, where she

graduated cum laude; the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony, where she performed with such celebrated conductors as Leonard Bernstein. She continued her studies with Mr. Silverstein at the New England Conservatory of Music, and went on to perform with the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for twenty-one years, where she worked closely with much-respected maestro James Levine and numerous other luminaries of the opera world.

After retiring from the Met, Erica drew upon her lifelong love for writing as her creative outlet and studied screenwriting in Los Angeles with screenplay guru Linda Seger. Erica?s screenplays awards include such recognized competitions as Santa Fe and the Writer?s Digest. Her debut novel, TRAVELS WITH MY LOVERS, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards. Subsequent published novels include the first in Erica?s FOUREVER FRIENDS novel series chronicling four teenage girls coming of age in the volatile 60s. Her suspense thriller MURDER IN THE PIT, a novel of assassination and intrigue at the Metropolitan Opera, has won rave reviews across the board.

Erica?s lectures, seminars and workshops have received kudos throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, and she has won top ratings as a special lecturer for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. An active contributor to ( and (, she also contributed a monthly ?Power of Journaling? article series for the National Association of Baby Boomer Women newsletter (

journaling-part-2/). Other writings have appeared in Vision Magazine, WORD San Diego,

Istanbul Our City, and numerous E-zines. Erica?s lecture topics include ?The Art of Self- Re-invention,? ?Journaling: the Write Way to Write Fiction,? ?Solving the Mystery of Mystery Writing,? and ?Opera Meets Hollywood.? Details about Erica?s novels, screenplays and lectures can be found on her website (