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John Crosby, 76; Founder of the Santa Fe Opera Was Called a Pioneer for Innovative Repertory

December 17, 2002|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

John Crosby, the visionary founder and former general director of the Santa Fe Opera, died Sunday at Eisenhower Memorial Hospital in Rancho Mirage from complications following surgery. He was 76.

Crosby was the Santa Fe Opera's artistic head and chief conductor from its founding in 1957 until 2000, when he retired. His last act as its full-time leader came on Aug. 24 when he led a performance of Richard Strauss' "Elektra." It was his 171st time on the podium for a Strauss opera -- Strauss was his favorite composer -- and approximately his 567th as a conductor for the company he had founded.

Crosby created not just a company, but a summer opera event. "It was often said that he made opera bloom in the desert, but saying it often makes the accomplishment no less remarkable," said Times music critic Mark Swed. "With Santa Fe Opera, you could say that festival opera came into its own in America."

"The impact he had on the world of opera is as close to immeasurable as anything could be," Santa Fe Opera general director Richard Gaddes said Monday. "He was a pioneer in providing work for young American singers, in creating an ensemble company, and in presenting adventurous repertory both contemporary and neglected classics."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 18, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 595 words Type of Material: Correction
Crosby obituary -- An obituary of Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby in Tuesday's California section gave two numbers for the seating of the original opera house: 480 and 450. The correct number is 480.

Describing his creation in a 1974 interview, Crosby said: "What I was after was a festival, a distinguished series of events presented in a very special way and made possible by long advance and careful off-season planning."

His vision worked. Over the years, thousands of visitors flocked to his open-sided theater nestled in a natural bowl of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico's high desert. Santa Fe Opera was dubbed "the Salzburg of the Southwest," a comparison with Austria's venerable and influential opera festival.

The first season in Santa Fe was budgeted at $110,000 and included 28 performances of seven operas. The company sold 12,850 tickets, filling the original 480-seat house over and over. This summer, SFO sold 73,726 tickets to 37 performances of five operas in its newly refurbished 2,236-seat house. The budget has grown to $12.5 million.

Sensible about the box office, Crosby balanced the new, the old and the neglected. Repertory the first season included Puccini's fail-safe "Madame Butterfly" -- the inaugural production -- but also Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" (1951) and a premiere of Marvin David Levy's "The Tower."

Stravinsky attended the festival's rehearsals, and his presence gave the company instant international stature.

Crosby would go on to commission or present more than 33 U.S. or world premieres of operas by living composers such as Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carlisle Floyd, among others.

Crosby's affection for Strauss was also clear in the programming of Santa Fe Opera. He staged many of Strauss' works for the first time in the U.S. "He was largely responsible for interest in Strauss in this country," Gaddes said.

One important draw for the company was its Santa Fe setting. The open-air theater, a few miles outside town, had no proscenium and no curtain. For many years, the house's middle row seats were exposed to the elements. Patrons there could look up at the stars, but also had to huddle beneath blankets during cold evenings and -- during sudden summer showers -- to don raincoats.

Still, when the back of the stage was left open, as a natural backdrop for the night scene in "Madame Butterfly," for instance, the audience could see the twinkling lights of Los Alamos in the distance. Time magazine once called it "one of the handsomest operatic settings in the Western hemisphere."

John O'Hea Crosby was born in New York City on July 12, 1926. To treat an asthmatic condition, he was sent to Los Alamos Boys Ranch School, where he developed an abiding love for New Mexico.

During World War II, Crosby played in his Army infantry regiment's dance band. After the war, he attended Yale University and earned a bachelor's in music theory and composition, studying under 20th century composer Paul Hindemith. (Eleven years later, in 1961, Crosby would bring Hindemith to Santa Fe for the U.S. premiere of his opera "News of the Day.")

Crosby worked as a Broadway arranger and studied at Columbia University, where he became interested in opera and decided to make it the focus of his life. He left New York City for Santa Fe intent on founding an opera company. He had $200,000 in seed money from his father, a New York City attorney.

He purchased an old ranch north of Santa Fe and oversaw construction of the original 450-seat open-air wooden theater. The following summer, Crosby and his company of 65 members were ready to present their first season. Crosby had already inaugurated an apprentice program for singers -- the first in the country -- and expanded it later to include technical apprentices. Graduates of the program include such current opera stars as Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey and Leona Mitchell, among others.

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