Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Not a bad day in Santa Fe

“What better way to open a festive concert against the backdrop of the New Mexican night sky than with a poetic reflection on the beauty of music by night?” asks the program notes for “Renee Fleming with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra."

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Perhaps with a raging thunder storm accompanied by a driving rain windblown into the unprotected sections of the Santa Fe Opera Theatre causing the temporary evacuation of the occupants of those seats as well as the instrumentalists warming up on stage. Followed by a concert-long lightning show – and a chorus of nearby thunder with a scaled down version of the earlier storm to accompany Ms. Fleming’s closing pieces, which she sung calmly while her shoulder-length blonde hair, and sea-foam colored gown ruffled in the sirocco of the late night monsoon.

But first we started our Saturday by unintentionally alpine scrambling (for the first time ever) up a basalt rock cliff within which lies one of the largest collections of Native rock art (“glyphs”) in the American West.  

It was the kind of day that Santa Fe tourism loves to highlight – outdoor recreation in the morning, arts & culture in the evening.

Our a.m. scramble took place at the La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site during “a moderate hike on rough terrain” conducted by a local “walking collaborative.”

According to the Atlas Obscura website, “a 1991 archeological survey [of the site] recorded over 4,400 images within less than a mile. Bird figures are a common motif, accounting for almost a third of the glyphs. Some of the panels are thought to go back to the Archaic Period (that’s around 8000 to 2000 BCE), and there are some modern glyphs (that’s archeology-speak for graffiti) as well, but most of the images are Pueblo and date to between the 13th and 17th century.” The site also contains a portion of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the 17th through 19th century trade route from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

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A gathering of forty or so assembled in the site’s parking area – including a half dozen wearing the organizing group’s tee shirts, and one woman originally from Tolland, CT some of whose home-state family members are running the Heirloom Market & Cafe at Comstock Ferre in our old home town of Wethersfield. Small world.

After a brief intro during which we were told to expect a short walk on a flat dirt trail followed by a “quick scamper” to the mesa the group (some like us unwitting) set off. We had also been instructed that this was “not a race.” And it wasn’t – until we reached the end of the pathway and began to ascend the rocky cliff upon which it turned out the glyphs resided. The way forward was not marked. 

Within the first minute at least half of the group swept by us – return visitors, experienced scramblers, those too young to know better, and a few with mountain goat somewhere in their family lineage. The rest of us kept our eyes down searching for openings between the stones wherein we could put our feet and objects to pull ourselves up with and/or hang onto as we crept along. And stopping to figure out where out next move was – since the power climbers among us were no longer in sight and the tee-shirted volunteers who had hung back with our group also seemed to not have a sense of our route to the top.

At some point we realized that we were in the midst of the artwork and began to intentionally pause to admire that which some of us had come there to see. 

Eventually with some physical help from the volunteers and each other, we reached the summit having covered the rocky one mile distance in about fifty minutes.

Although Cieneguilla is not translatable in any of the online tools we looked at, a cienega is a swamp or wetland – and the truth of that name could be readily seen in the landscape that was presented to us from the mesa top. Because of its readily available water, the land was also the site of at least a dozen small Native Pueblos during the time when the petroglyphs were created, in addition to serving as the route for a portion of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – some of which we walked upon as we crossed the flat-topped hill before taking a much easier and quicker route back to our car.

Fortunately we are familiar with southwestern Native American rock art having seen and studied it as part of an Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) program in Big Bend National Park in West Texas – as well as having hiked several times in Petroglyph National Monument, a volcanic basalt escarpment that stretches seventeen (largely flat) miles along Albuquerque, New Mexico's West Mesa. (We would recommend the ABQ site to any visitors to NM with an interest in viewing the ancient rock carvings without having to constantly worry about maintaining their balance.) 

So when it quickly became apparent that this trek, while not a race, was more about the hiking than the glyph-viewing (there was no art work at the summit) we pointed our eyes down and carried on because (a) we started on it and damn it we were going to finish; and (b) we had to escape injury in order to be in good enough condition for Santa Fe Opera’s presentation of Renee Fleming performing “Letters from Georgia [Okeeffe],” which we were attending that evening with Santa Fe friends F and D.

We are not big opera lovers. Since moving out here we have seen “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” and “Doctor Atomic” at SF Opera – both in English, both short, both atonal (aka non musical), both of which we enjoyed, and both probably not “real” operas. But we do like Renee Fleming having seen her singing “Danny Boy” at the funeral of Senator John McCain as well as on other televised events.

We know much more about, and enjoy the paintings of Georgia Okeeffe. So when Santa Fe Opera announced its 2019 one-night performance of the famous female opera singer performing lyrics taken from the letters of the unorthodox and independent-minded painter, it took no longer than one of us saying “we’re going” to decide to get tickets. We asked authentic opera fans F & D to join us – and opted for close to the best seats in the house. Which it turned out went (in descending order) to the mega-donors, really big donors, big donors, subscribers, and the rest of us.

So, with our bodies intact – and following a relaxing dinner with our companions at a favorite Pan-Asian restaurant after which we were presented with a full-sky rainbow, which D suggested might have “ended at Shirley McClain’s house” – we arrived at the opera about forty minutes before the 8:00 performance. 

The arch of colors was still on display to the southeast, but closer to the performance venue the sky was darkening and the sound of thunder was approaching. So we decided to forgo the spectacular view of the Española valley landscape from the elevated site, opt for safety, and settle into our seats.

Good thing!

Some of the architectural features of Santa Fe Opera Theatre that make the building as spectacular as its physical setting and its productions are a partial opening of the roof towards the middle of the orchestra section with permanent open sides in the same area – and a sliding door at the rear of the stage that often is left open until after sunset.

The design provides spectacular Westward views for the entire audience– as well as giving some centrally located attendees a view of the night sky. Our spot in the seat picking pecking order placed us on the center main floor behind the orchestra section, under the overhang and well within the shelter of the side walls.

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The monsoon that arrived at 7:40 took advantage of all the entry points.

The auditorium was about two-thirds filled when the storm struck. Spectators who were outside hurried in. Those already at their seats in the orchestra section opened umbrellas, which were immediately disassembled by the gusting wind that was pushing a sideways wall of rain into the venue. The orchestra, which had been tuning up, grabbed their instruments (if they could) and abandoned the stage. And lightning crackled in the background as thunder boomed overhead.

Then, just as quickly, it stopped. All but the high voltage light show, which continued to illuminate the sky throughout the one hour forty-five minute performance consisting of “Serenade to Music” by Ralph Vaughn Williams sung by the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singer Ensemble; and five “Letters from Georgia” by Kevin Puts, and “Vier letzte Lieder” (“Four Last Songs”) by Richard Strauss both performed by Ms. Fleming.

To our untrained ears it was very enjoyable musical evening (even though only seventy-five percent in English) that was enhanced even more by the background pyrotechnics.  (Here is what the local opera critic thought.)

Fortunately the second storm ended before we made our way to our car.

Not falling off the cliff and breaking our legs while alpine scrambling through 13th and 17th century Native American pictographs. Not being struck by lightning while listening to one of opera’s living legends interpret in song the written words of one of art’s all-time greats. Not a bad day in Santa Fe.

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