A man in full
JOHN CROSBY, FOUNDER OF THE SANTA FE OPERA
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.
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.