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ANN CONWAY

New Mexico Was Music to Their Ears

August 02, 1993|ANN CONWAY

SANTA FE, N.M. — You'd have thought it was Christmas at Bill and Laila Conlin's pueblo-style home here on Thursday night.

A string of red holiday lights shone in the kitchen window with its view of the Sangre de Christo mountains as Laila whipped up paella for guests--14 supporters of Opera Pacific who came to New Mexico to attend the Santa Fe Opera, now in its 37th season.

But a close look revealed the lights were shaped like chili peppers (the sun-dried clumps of which can be found hanging in just about every Santa Fe home).

For guests, the twinkling decorations were a charming reminder that they were in America's answer to Salzburg, a breath-of-fresh-air kind of place where great opera and great scenery go hand in hand.

"This is a wonderful getaway for us," said Bill Conlin, who was decked out in blue jeans and cowboy boots. "A nice change of pace from Newport Beach."

As guests sipped their choice of wine or peach-nectar punch (flavored by fresh mint grown in a neighbor's yard), they stood on the veranda overlooking the Conlins' fruit orchard and watched an electrical storm dance in a turquoise sky.

Vrrrrroooooom went a thunderclap.

" That must be Wagner," joked Eileen Stearns, widow of opera conductor Curtis Ludwig Stearns.

Guests giggled. For this crowd, it was the perfect one-liner. With all of their touring (treks to the Ghost Ranch Abiquiu and the San Ildefonso Pueblo) and fine dining (dinner at Le Tertulia and Tomasina's), opera is still the thing .

A discussion of Richard Strauss' "Capriccio," the opera they were about to see, followed Wednesday's buffet dinner at tour organizer Clarice Coffey's home on the edge of town. Also on the agenda during their weeklong stay: Puccini's "La Boheme," Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and Handel's "Xerxes."

"Strauss loved to compose for the human voice," explained Maggie Price, tour guild chairwoman for Opera Pacific. "Watch the countess in this opera. She has a difficult part to sing. Each of her arias get bigger and bigger. She doesn't have a chance to relax anywhere in between."

Would it be like the production they saw staged in San Francisco, one guest wondered.

Price shook her head. "Don't expect each time you see an opera that it will be exactly the same. And don't say to yourself: 'I don't like it done that way.' So what? You're not the director. You're not the person making the decisions. If an opera was done the same way every time, you wouldn't want to go again."

Price's husband, Charlie, stayed behind at Hotel Santa Fe. "He doesn't do this (opera)," Maggie said, smiling.

After guests dined on chicken teriyaki and flan, they boarded the bus that would whisk them to the opera house, the 1,765-seat amphitheater that is a monument to the marriage of architecture and landscape.

Once inside, a cold wind rustled the tresses of Ann Espy. Price had warned tour-goers that it would be chilly, might even rain. Espy was ready. Instead of pumps, she wore hiking boots. Instead of a flowing opera cape, she wore a heavy wool parka with a fur-lined hood. "I wear this outfit twice a year--once in Sedona in the fall and here at night," Espy said. "I hate to be cold."

Price, a veteran Santa Fe Opera-goer, was prepared for a downpour. (July and August are Santa Fe's rainy months.) Her purse contained a rain bonnet and a large plastic bag to protect her feet and legs. "That rain can really roll down the aisles and soak you," she said, laughing.

But on this night, when Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby was conducting, when the entire cast was outfitted in white silk brocade, the wind slowed down to a playful breeze and the sky was as clear as a mountain stream.

"This is magic," whispered Carol Schick, a once-upon-a-time opera soprano who can still hit high C. Then, looking at the stage, with its cobalt blue backdrop and its stark white furniture draped in white cloth, she said: "I wonder if white is a Strauss thing?"

Not necessarily. "When we saw it in San Francisco the costumes were colorful and it really helped me keep track of everyone," said Shirley McCoy, who attended with her husband, Richard.

"Wasn't that great?" Price asked the crowd after they were back on the bus.

Some agreed. "I loved it!" said Liz Sliepka, chairwoman of Opera Pacific's South Coast Guild.

Some didn't. "I felt someone should have come in a half hour before the end of the performance and shot the countess. It was time for her to go. Why couldn't she make up her mind?" She was to decide which holds the greater attraction for her, music or verse. "I mean, come on ."

Mission accomplished. For Maggie Price, the whole purpose for opera touring is to give people a "positive appreciation for their own feelings about opera."

"Tours are a great way to generate a person's knowledge of opera, to broaden their scope, to give them a more critical appreciation," she said.

"Opera is about life. And it's not for an elite few. I want to make all of my tour-goers missionaries for opera."

It's working for Bill Conlin. "I've gone from a casual attendee to someone who really looks forward to going," he said.

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