Saturday, October 10, 2015

Craig A. Smith Channels John Crosby in Santa Fe

By Erica Miner

Craig A. Smith is an artistic luminary in the artistic community of Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the past 30 years, he has written about classical music locally and throughout the US and Canada. The Kansas City native went to the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory and earned his graduate degree in vocal music.

Smith’s much-praised biography of Santa Fe Opera founder John Crosby, A Vision of Voices: John Crosby and the Santa Fe Opera, ( is not only filled with insightful biographical details, but is clearly written with great respect for Crosby’s accomplishments and the importance of his presence in that city.

EM: How long have you lived in Santa Fe?

CAS: Since 1983. It had me right away. I came here to sing in the first season of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, fell in love with New Mexico, and before I knew it had moved here. I did live in Chicago for two years in the late 1980s on an extended job assignment, but I don’t really regard to that as living away [Laughs] So in effect 30 years.

EM: Please describe your work as a professional musician, as a journalist, and with Performance Santa Fe.

CAS: I worked here as a musician, and wrote for the Santa Fe New Mexican for 20 years, eight as a freelancer and 12 on staff. Before that I did a lot of work with nonprofit organizations as a professional fundraiser. Performance Santa Fe was one of those organizations. After two and a half years there I decided I missed writing too much. I went back and became a freelance writer.

EM: Do you miss singing?

CAS: I stopped singing when I moved here to Santa Fe. There were no jobs for singers, not even church jobs. The trade-off of trying to maintain an audition cycle and trying to make a career was simply not working with what was available here. So I transitioned into music writing.

EM: And you’ve been writing up a storm.

CAS: I’ve always enjoyed being an arts writer. When the book began to develop I felt it was a wonderful direction to go.

EM: How and when did your love for opera begin to blossom?

CAS: I was one of those kids who came up through parochial school - the Catholic choirboy approach - so I was in love with music from grade school. In high school I was fortunate to have some really fine teachers, also in college, and my interests became more refined musically. I really began to discover opera in undergraduate school. I was absolutely thrilled by the whole idea of stories told in such a fascinating, powerful way. I began to devour every opera I could get my hands on. I was lucky because the little University in Kansas that I attended had a very large library of opera scores. I went through all the Puccini operas, playing them on the piano, very badly [Laughs] to learn them that way, plus I had done some operatic chorus work when I was a professional musician in Kansas City.

EM: Not many people get to approach opera that way.

CAS: It’s a wonderful art form, right at the top of my musical love. I do like musical comedy and jazz. But classical music and opera are at the top.

EM: Did you know John Crosby personally?

CAS: I met him once in 1986 and interviewed him when I was writing for a newspaper here in Santa Fe. I had heard he was a tiger, but he was very friendly, very quiet. He asked if I knew the Strauss opera they were doing that year and went to the piano and played it for me. Afterward I met a person in Santa Fe who used to work for him. I said, “Mr. Crosby was so friendly.” The gentleman said, “Did he have his glasses on?” I said, “No he didn’t.” He said, “Well, that’s why he was so friendly. He couldn’t see you.” I thought that was interesting. But that was the only time I met him.

EM: From reading the book, he does seem very erudite, extremely brilliant and also quite quirky in many ways.

CAS: That’s a good way to put it. He was brilliant at anything that had to do with running the company, planning, budgeting, hiring, overseeing everything that went on, but personally he was extremely quirky. As director Linda Brovsky from Denver told me, he was the oddest man. He was fun to work with, but walked through the weeds to avoid saying good morning. He would literally take a different path to avoid having to talk to people.

EM: Yet he was involved in one of the most collaborative art forms.

CAS: Exactly. I’ve often wondered how he managed to balance those things, although he did say several times, as I found from interviewing people, “When you hire someone to work on an opera you have to let them alone.” So he really did believe in bringing together a creative team and letting them do their work. One person told me that sometimes he would come into a dress rehearsal after not seeing anything on that production and letters would fly from his office to the director or designer about things he wanted changed or would suggest be changed. That caused some conflict.

EM: An interesting dichotomy. Letting people do their work, and micromanaging at the same time.

CAS: That’s true. He lived the opera and felt a personal pang when something did not go as planned. That happened very seldom. He ran an extremely tight operation. He would appear at different places on campus at different times during the day when you weren’t expecting it. That’s one way he kept tabs on things. He adored the orchestra - he called it “his” orchestra - and was friendly with many people in it. Yet he could treat them very badly in rehearsal with verbal abuse, and complain bitterly about things they were doing.

EM: Writing his biography seems like a labor of love. What motivated you?

CAS: I had been looking for a project, a way to support myself over the next few years, and wanted to write something of significance for Santa Fe. There’s a woman in town, Nancy Zeckendorf, who was a dancer in the early seasons. She married New York real estate mogul William Zeckendorf, Jr., and was very active in New York society, especially the ballet scene. Later she became a board member, president, and chairman of Santa Fe Opera, and a close associate of John Crosby. I mentioned to her one day I’d thought a biography of Crosby was overdue. It turned out she had had that idea long before I did and our coming together coalesced it. Nancy realized there were many people alive who had worked with Mr. Crosby. Many were available, and if we didn’t get their recollections down soon we might not have them. She put together a consortium of people that had known him and were willing to fund the project. On the advice of a University of New Mexico retired theater and dance professor I sent the proposal to UNM press. They accepted on the strength of the outline. The Opera agreed to open all its files, thanks to general director Charles MacKay, who had worked with John a great deal in the early years from being a parking lot attendant to being business manager. He was also an offstage French horn player in the banda for Rosenkavalier. [Laughs] So he knew the area and knew Crosby as well. Things came together in a very lucky way to make the book happen.

EM: An idea whose time had come.

CAS: It’s hard to overstate how important the Opera opening its files was. They did give me absolute access to everything. No one tried to influence my conclusions in any way. I was very grateful for that because his correspondence, all the photographs and press information in the files, all the programs, really helped put together a picture of him along with the interviews I did.

EM: The concept first started taking shape in early 2012 and the book was completed in 2014?

CAS: Yes. The UNM Press production cycle took a year. They also decided not to release it until right before the 2015 Opera season. So the book was done a year and a half before it was released. It seemed awfully long to me.

EM: For publishing that’s pretty rapid in my experience.

CAS: That’s what I’m gathering now. [Laughs]

EM: Two years for all of your research and almost 100 interviews - how did you do all that in such a short time?

CAS: I was doing nothing else and felt obsessed. I began to want to know more about this man. The more information I could assemble the more I was able to try to find him. It was actually a great pleasure. The only part that was sometimes difficult was transcribing very lengthy interviews. I’m sure you can appreciate that. [Laughs]

EM: Oh my, yes. It always helps to be obsessed in these things.

CAS: I think so. Talking to people who had worked with him so closely and to Crosby’s brother (James) who is 90, and to both his nieces and his nephew. The family loaned me papers, photos and things of that nature. Plus I did a lot of online research. I found out what steamship his parents met on many years ago. I found the passenger manifest. Doing that kind of sleuthing always has interested me. You have to do a lot of it but it’s very exciting.

EM: There’s nothing better than having family members onboard and willing to help out.

CAS: I agree. Having that depth I began to understand him so much more as a boy, a child, a young man. Even in his opera correspondence there were instances where he recalled his childhood or his young manhood in New Mexico. It’s like taking a giant puzzle and beginning to put the pieces together. You don’t know what is a piece of sky and or a piece of ground. Then gradually they begin to fall into place.

EM: I’m filled with admiration at all this incredible work you’ve done. The book reads so beautifully, too.

CAS: Thank you, that’s very kind.

EM: Is there a lot of buzz right now about the Steve Jobs opera coming to Santa Fe in 2017?

CAS: Not yet. I think it’s going to be growing, and a lot of the excitement is going to come from outside Santa Fe because of the nature of the commission and of the composer and librettist that have been chosen. It’s a departure for Santa Fe, although they’ve done two works by Finnish composer Kaisa Saariaho, Tan Dun’s Tea: a Mirror of Soul, and things of that nature. I’m not sure if that will be terribly unusual for Santa Fe. They’ve always been on the cutting edge with that. But I’m not sure how people feel about such a recently deceased major person receiving an opera.

EM: Or a movie, for that matter. But we’re all involved with Steve Jobs every day of our lives. That should make it even more cutting edge than usual.

CAS: I think it’ll be very interesting, and probably from curiosity draw people who don’t know much about opera. A piece that shows the drama in one person’s life, the way it did with Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen two years ago, and Madame Mao by Bright Sheng. Maybe if people come to Steve Jobs, they’ll also stay to see whatever standard opera is on the boards.

EM: Wouldn’t that be wonderful. More power to Santa Fe for doing the piece. Steve Jobs was a totally American personage, and this is a totally American opera company. This will be entirely different from anything that’s ever been done.

CAS: I’m quite excited about it. I hope many others will be. After all, we do like contemporary stories about people who have accomplished great things.

EM: They’ve done that in previous centuries. Why not in the current century? It’s very forward looking.

CAS: I heard somebody say, “Ooh, will they have the orchestra play from iPads instead of paper?”

EM: How imaginative - who would ever think of that?

CAS: A number of artists-pianists I know use iPads now. As long as you’ve got the power supply, go for it. [Laughs]

EM: Absolutely. The meeting of the minds from right-brained people to those who live by computing is really exciting. It’s been so much fun talking to you, Craig.

CAS: Thanks very much. I’m most grateful.

Photo credits: Stephen Muller (head shot), Robert Godwin (Santa Fe Opera House), courtesy Santa Fe Opera (Verdienstkreuz, Elektra cast), courtesy University of New Mexico Press (book cover)

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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