An operatic education
Singers come and singers go, but as Santa Fe Opera wends through its densely scheduled seasons, operagoers have come to welcome one voice as a constant presence. It belongs to Desirée Mays, the much-loved lecturer who is now beginning her 15th season of explicating the company’s offerings before nearly every performance. Her lilting voice is amplified to rise above the clatter of silverware as pre-opera buffet dinners move into the dessert course each evening (except for the opening weekend) at the Cantina on the Opera’s campus.
Born in Dublin, Mays was trained not as a singer but as a dancer. “I went to school in an Irish convent,” she said in a recent conversation, “and the nuns would tie my leg to the desk to make me keep still, because I was always listening to music in my head.” She ended up dancing with the Sadler’s Well Opera Ballet. She married and came to America with her family — first to Washington, D.C., and then to Salt Lake City, where she became immersed in the arts community. She relocated to Santa Fe, and about a year after she arrived, Santa Fe Opera had an opening for a pre-performance lecturer. “It was synchronicity, really,” she recalled. “I started lecturing in 1996, in my second summer here, and ever since then it has been the base for my career as a lecturer.”
That has become a busy career that now involves about 75 lectures each year, of which half are in Santa Fe; “I’m grounded for two months,” she said. She recently returned from Los Angeles Opera, where she spoke about Wagner’s Ring cycle (a particular passion of hers), and this fall, she is headed to the Verdi Festival in Parma and Bologna and to the Wexford Festival in Ireland, serving as resident expert and tour leader for groups organized by Act 1 Tours, a New York-based company that specializes in cultural travel. She is also a regular lecturer for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, for whom she will offer lectures on four operas during the upcoming season.
Temperamentally, Mays seems perfectly matched to her work. “If I fall in love with something I want to share it with people,” she insisted. “And, as a dancer, I’m used to repeating my material over and over. The outline for my talks is pretty well set, but when I give a lecture I’m aware of my audience, of where they’re coming from, of whether I’m going too fast or too slow for that group. You can sense the shared feeling, the conspiracy of everyone there.”
Does she ever worry about giving away secrets of an opera’s plot before the performance? “It depends on the piece,” she explained. “Last summer when Santa Fe Opera gave The Letter, I didn’t tell the end of the story — and, in fact, I believe they kept changing the staging of the end, so I was glad I hadn’t provided details about it. But most people attending an opera know what the ending is. They know Butterfly’s going to die.” In any case, she believes that the experience of the opera itself is the most important thing: “I can tell people what to look for, but they have to look for themselves.”
Many music lovers also know Mays through her series of books titled Opera Unveiled. Prepared as an annual guide to Santa Fe Opera’s five offerings, the series is now in its 12th installment, offering brief but insightful essays that elucidate the plot of each opera and situate the work in a larger context. “People kept asking for copies of the notes from my talks,” she said, “and these books grew out of that. They’re short books, and normally each essay expands the discussion to a different area of interest: the composer, the social period in which the piece is set — there are many possibilities. Opera will educate you in all sorts of different surprising ways. That’s been part of the ongoing appeal. For me, each one is an education.”
Her live lectures use these published essays as jumping-off points and are often specific to the production itself. She watches intently at the dress rehearsals of each opera in Santa Fe, and she absorbs what directors have to say at the public presentations they deliver. Sometimes she interviews singers in advance. “This summer,” she said, “it will be great with Life Is a Dream, because I can talk to the composer, the librettist, and the director. I suppose that’s the opera I’m particularly looking forward to speaking about, because people will not know much about it. I didn’t know the Calderón play on which it’s based until I read it for this opera. So that’s one that people will need a helping hand with; that’s what I see my job to be.
“And then, The Tales of Hoffmann is fascinating to talk about,” she continued. “It comes straight out of the brain of E.T.A. Hoffmann, which is bizarre to begin with. The opera uses the device of having the great opera singer Stella as a character and also having three other female characters, set as stereotypes, who are three aspects of Stella. That is an interesting idea and a rather difficult one to get across. I think it’s crucial that one soprano sing all four roles, even though the Met did it with three different singers. It’s a challenge, because these parts have quite different voice types — coloratura, lyric, and dramatic sopranos — and a single singer would have to be good to do all that. At Santa Fe, they will all be sung by one singer. It’s an intriguing piece, but it’s one for which people need a little background before seeing it. You need to know that these three loves are all aspects of one woman, who happens to be an opera singer. But then, maybe this opera is really about Hoffmann and his muse. Maybe that’s what really is going on in this opera, in which case we should focus on their dialogue and interactions, and the unsuccessful relationships with these three women can just be cast off.”
Mays’ audiences at the Santa Fe Opera’s Cantina can be diverse. “They range from 17-year-olds to people who were raised on the old Met, and that’s a challenge,” she admitted. But her job is clear. “I want to get the essential story across — it’s all about storytelling, really — and then some anecdotal material and comments from the director. That’s a lot to get into 25 minutes. Another challenge is the monsoons. There can be thunder and lightning, and sometimes we have waterfalls crashing off the side of the tent that serves as a roof for the Cantina. But people love the adventure. They always rise to the occasion. They cluster in, they wait if it’s too noisy, and I just get on with it.”