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A Vision of Voices: John Crosby and The Santa Fe Opera

spacer By Craig A. Smith
University of New Mexico Press; 288 pp. $29.95

Books Vision of Voices lg 815

Origin narratives can make great stories, particularly when the endeavor is as quixotic as the creation of an opera company in the New Mexico desert and the founder is as strange a being as the late John Crosby. Santa Fe Opera is an extraordinary achievement, path-breaking in its form and ambitions and still flourishing nearly six decades after its first performance, in 1957. But Craig A. Smith, the author of this volume, faced a daunting challenge in rendering the inner life of the company’s famously prickly, reticent, borderline autistic creator. 

As an arts journalist in Santa Fe for two decades, Smith had a front-row seat for a substantial chunk of the company’s history. He was granted access to Crosby’s papers in the company archives, including two oral histories, notes for an autobiography, correspondence and scores, and he interviewed nearly 100 people — family, friends and opera company staff, board members and artists. Excerpts from Crosby’s writings are sprinkled throughout, and his tart, take-no-prisoners style rings out, as in a 1973 telegram to an agent: “Refuse to do anymore business with your office since I never do business with liars.”

The book falls into two parts. First comes a tidy journalistic narrative that looks at Crosby’s early life, education, military service, the well-to-do family that would enable him to pursue his dream, and then the dream itself — the creation of an opera company from the ground up. Some of the stories are part of opera lore — getting Stravinsky to participate in the company’s first season; the tiny first opera house, open to the elements; the devastating fire that burned it to the ground just as the 1967 season got underway. There are fascinating details about how, exactly, everything got paid for, the interrelationships of Crosby’s and his family’s land holdings and the opera’s, and Crosby’s fierce attention to everything about the company operation, down to the text and spacing on the company letterhead and how much water was wasted if the toilets ran all night. 

In chapters four and five, Smith gets more personal, and more interesting, as he uses his own observations and those of his interviewees to analyze Crosby’s passion for Strauss, the weaknesses of his conducting, his mercurial personality and how that affected his artistic leadership. The quotes get more colorful. “He had the emotional temperament of a two-year-old,” says Miles Davis, the long-time principal bass in the orchestra. We hear about Crosby’s private life, the succession of young male companions and the infamous swimming-pool parties. Finally, there is the sad dénouement — Crosby’s retirement in 2000, the tensions with his successor (his anointed heir apparent, Richard Gaddes, who is conspicuously absent from the interview list), and his death, a little more than two years later. Smith can’t get inside Crosby’s head, but he does the next best thing, and without whitewashing any of Crosby’s unpleasant characteristics, he manages to convey how, in spite of them, this difficult man was able to enlist fellow believers in pursuit of a singular vision. spacer 

HEIDI WALESON

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