A man in full

JOHN CROSBY, FOUNDER OF THE SANTA FE OPERA

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - John Crosby Craig A. Smith reads from A Vi­sion of Voices: John Crosby and the Santa Fe Opera 3 p.m. Sun­day, May 10 Col­lected Works, 202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226 (fur­ther read­ings fol­low at 6 p.m. on May 20 at Bookworks, 4022 Río Grande Blvd. N.W., Al­buq

John Crosby was one of the pi­o­neers who made Santa Fe what it is to­day. He cre­ated the Santa Fe Opera in the mid-1950s, con­duct­ing its open­ing night in 1957 and more than 550 fur­ther per­for­mances be­fore relin­quish­ing his po­si­tion as gen­eral direc­tor in 2000, two years be­fore his death. In the just-is­sued bi­og­ra­phy A Vi­sion of Voices: John Crosby and the Santa Fe Opera, au­thor Craig A. Smith ex­plores the un­usual life of this quirky char­ac­ter, a man who could be both charis­matic and mad­den­ing but in the end left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on the com­mu­nity and on the na­tion’s op­er­atic land­scape. On Sun­day, May 10, Smith reads from his book. On the cover is a por­trait of Crosby, circa 1970; im­age cour­tesy Santa Fe Opera/Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press.

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When John Crosby died, in Dec. 2002, he was buried with­out public cer­e­mony in the Santa Fe Na­tional Ceme­tery, a place­ment he had earned through army ser­vice in World War II. Although the event was at­tended only by fam­ily and three friends of long stand­ing, hun­dreds of news­pa­pers car­ried news of his pass­ing. Seven months later a public me­mo­rial ser­vice was held at which Santa Feans could pay trib­ute to the man who, as the founder of the Santa Fe Opera in the mid-1950s, left an en­dur­ing im­pres­sion on the city and se­cured its place in in­ter­na­tional cul­tural cir­cles. Re­mem­bered as an enig­matic char­ac­ter who suc­ceeded with a project that seemed unimag­in­ably quixotic, he is now the sub­ject of a full-length bi­og­ra­phy au­thored by Craig A. Smith, who for many years, un­til 2010, served as arts critic for Pasatiempo. On Sun­day, May 10, Col­lected Works will host Smith read­ing from and dis­cussing his new book, A Vi­sion of Voices: John Crosby and the Santa Fe Opera, which is pub­lished by the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico Press. “In late 2011,” Smith said, “I re­al­ized it had been al­most 10 years since he died, and that a num­ber of peo­ple were still with us who had worked with him in the early years of the Santa Fe Opera. I thought that if any time would be right for a bi­og­ra­phy, it should be now.”

Pasatiempo: What set you on the path to re­search­ing and writ­ing this bi­og­ra­phy?

Craig A. Smith: A num­ber of years ago I men­tioned to Nancy Zeck­endorf that I thought there should be a bi­og­ra­phy of John Crosby, and she agreed. When I later started to fo­cus on the idea, I pro­posed it to the Santa Fe Opera. They didn’t want to pro­duce the book, but [gen­eral direc­tor] Charles MacKay said he would be happy to open their files to me, and I am so grate­ful for that. I quote from 40 or 50 busi­ness let­ters from Crosby, but there are thou­sands in the files, and they pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing record over 40 years.

Pasa: For­tu­nately, you were able to speak with many peo­ple who were in his or­bit. How many in­ter­views did you con­duct?

Smith: I spoke to al­most 100 peo­ple. In some cases th­ese were very short, if the per­son’s in­ter­ac­tion with Crosby was not ex­ten­sive. Mem­bers of his fam­ily were very help­ful — his brother is still living, his nieces, his nephew — and staff mem­bers at the opera ac­com­mo­dated with their mem­o­ries, as did many mu­si­cians and peo­ple in the in­dus­try.

Pasa: Was there a re­cur­rent mem­ory that ran through many of their ac­counts?

Smith: There were many sto­ries about how some­one would come to speak with him, and he would look right through them. Peo­ple like re­sponses. If you speak to some­one, you ex­pect a con­nec­tion of some sort. But he would look back at peo­ple with a stone face. He avoided eye con­tact and would hide be­hind his glasses. In the book, I in­cluded many pho­tos in which he is ac­tu­ally smil­ing. A lot of peo­ple, when they looked at th­ese pic­tures, said, “This doesn’t look like John.” Pasa: Did you know the man per­son­ally?

Smith: I only met him once. Years ago, I think in 1984, I con­ducted an in­ter­view with him for the

Santa Fe Re­porter. He was very pleas­ant. He played se­lec­tions from the Strauss opera he was con­duct­ing that sum­mer. Af­ter­wards, I men­tioned to some­one who knew him about how friendly he had been. My friend asked, “Was he wear­ing his glasses?” I re­sponded that no, he wasn’t. “Well, that’s why he seemed so pleas­ant,” said my friend. “He couldn’t see you.”

Pasa: For 20 years you re­viewed his com­pany’s pro­duc­tions, of­ten with him con­duct­ing. Did those ar­ti­cles gen­er­ate any re­sponse from him?

Smith: I have to say, I never heard a word from him about any of my re­views. I heard from other peo­ple about them, but not from him. I did come across a let­ter in the files in which he re­ferred to me as a muck­raker. To my knowl­edge he never tried to muzzle a critic. I’m not sure he ever took a crit­i­cism to heart; I don’t think a re­view would cause him to con­sider a change, as it does with some mu­si­cians.

Pasa: He was ob­vi­ously cap­ti­vated by North­ern New Mex­ico dur­ing his years at board­ing school in Los Alamos. Still, found­ing an opera com­pany — what made him try this?

Smith: He felt greatly in­spired by the cre­ative arts, es­pe­cially by mu­sic and, within it, opera. He felt a burning de­sire to be an ac­tive, suc­cess­ful mu­si­cian. First he wanted to be a vi­o­lin­ist, but he couldn’t quite hack the tech­ni­cal part, and so he turned to con­duct­ing. Suc­cess in opera pro­vided se­cu­rity for other as­pects of his life. Opera pro­vided self-af­fir­ma­tion that was im­por­tant for him.

There’s no ques­tion he was charis­matic. He was es­pe­cially per­sua­sive in front of a group. It was one-on-one that was a prob­lem. In those sit­u­a­tions, he usu­ally had some­one serve as a buf­fer, some­one who could con­trol who would be al­lowed to ap­proach him.

Pasa: Mu­si­cians you in­ter­viewed spoke cau­tiously about his abil­ity on the podium, and you point out that he hardly ap­peared as a guest con­duc­tor else­where.

Smith: His last Elek­tra [by Richard Strauss] I thought was re­ally good — well con­ducted, well paced. But try as he might, he didn’t al­ways have a spark. There was one point when he wrote to an agent that he wanted to do more con­duct­ing in Europe be­cause it would be good for Santa Fe Opera. He was ab­so­lutely cen­tered on Santa Fe Opera; he was mu­sic direc­tor in ev­ery­thing but name. He had great dif­fi­culty let­ting go. Even when he went on va­ca­tion, he was con­stantly in touch. Con­stant over­sight was so im­por­tant for him.

Pasa: Were there other un­nerv­ing as­pects of his per­son­al­ity, apart from avert­ing his eyes from peo­ple?

Smith: There were a few peo­ple to whom he was con­sis­tently open, and he could some­times show kind­ness. But many peo­ple found it hard to feel warm to­ward him. He could “pitch a fit and fall in,” as they say. It’s hard to feel friendly to­ward some­one who’s scream­ing at you. He showed dif­fer­ent faces to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I view him as a mul­ti­fac­eted per­son­al­ity who had no rest­ing point.

Pasa: He had an ex­tra­or­di­nary mem­ory for num­bers, to a de­gree that, you say, sug­gests an autis­tic abil­ity. I have heard sug­ges­tions that he may have had what we now rec­og­nize as Asperger syn­drome. Do you think that might be the case?

Smith: I do. Some med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als I have spo­ken with decline to com­ment on that pos­si­bil­ity, say­ing they can’t di­ag­nose a pa­tient who they don’t know and is long gone. Some per­sons have dis­missed the idea as just the “def­i­ni­tion du jour,” but hav­ing looked at ev­ery­thing, I think it’s very pos­si­ble. His mem­ory of fi­nan­cial de­tails, his abil­ity to fore­cast, to keep sep­a­rate strands of thought go­ing in his mind — th­ese would be con­sis­tent with Asperger syn­drome. What­ever it was, it con­trib­uted greatly to his suc­cess.

Pasa: In light of his pe­cu­liar­i­ties, what made him so charis­matic that he could build and sus­tain an opera com­pany?

Smith: There’s no ques­tion he was charis­matic. He was es­pe­cially per­sua­sive in front of a group. In that set­ting, he could be ge­nial, funny, charm­ing; he could con­vey in­for­ma­tion in a per­fect sense with­out re­fer­ring to notes. It was one-on-one that was a prob­lem. In those sit­u­a­tions, he usu­ally had some­one serve as a buf­fer, some­one who could con­trol who would be al­lowed to ap­proach him.

Pasa: Did you de­velop a per­sonal re­ac­tion to him in the course of writ­ing your bi­og­ra­phy?

Smith: I al­ways knew what he did was spe­cial, but this did re­fine my view, and I ended up ad­mir­ing him a great deal more. He was iras­ci­ble, but he also had a ten­der side. He knew he was not as good a mu­si­cian as he wanted to be, so he was con­stantly driven to seek per­fec­tion on the stage, night af­ter night. He wouldn’t rest un­til he got that, even if it meant he was go­ing to wring ev­ery­one out and hang them up to dry in the process. I don’t think he was manic-de­pres­sive or bipo­lar, but there is of­ten this sense of him turn­ing on a dime. If Crosby had self-doubt, it never showed. In his later years, he would com­plain to peo­ple about how he felt he was los­ing some con­trol of some things, but I’m not sure he ever re­ally con­fided in peo­ple. I don’t know about dark nights of the soul for him. I don’t have ev­i­dence that he al­lowed time for that; there was al­ways some­thing else to oc­cupy him at the opera. I ad­mire him for what he did, and I feel great sym­pa­thy for him. But he’s the last per­son in the world I would have wanted to take a road trip with.

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