Robert K. Meya.
Photography by Gabriella Marks
Santa Fe Opera director Robert K. Meya continues the company's tradition of making the art form accessible to all.
By Nancy Zimmerman
Robert K. Meya is only the fourth director in the Santa Fe Opera's 64-year-long history, and his love of opera stretches back before the Connecticut native could form words. Meya's grandmother, a trained opera singer, introduced the art form to him when she sang to him as a baby.
"I heard all the Puccini arias, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, works like that, so I got the bug literally from day one," Meya recalls. "I started playing classical piano at a pretty young age, and I used to go into New York for the weekend with my mother to attend the Metropolitan Opera. I learned at an early age how grand opera could be."
Some 400 years ago, when opera first emerged as a new art form in Italy, it transcended class distinctions. Perceived as a rather highbrow affair today, opera first succeeded and has persisted through the centuries because of its appeal to all walks of life. Themes such as love, loss, and betrayal — and the sometimes-bawdy humor — resonated with audiences everywhere.
In the same vein, Meya is committed to honoring the art form's humble roots and far-reaching appeal by making Santa Fe Opera's performances accessible to as many people as possible. "It works across borders and involves cultural exchange and learning languages, and — of course — music itself is the universal language," Meya says. "Opera always transcended boundaries. It was very democratic and accessible and fun. It was popular entertainment, and today should be no different."
Santa Fe Opera.
Photograph by Insight Photo for the Santa Fe Opera.
Besides his grandmother's lullaby influence, summertime visits to Europe contributed to Meya's passionate interest in opera. "My father grew up in Austria, and my mother grew up in Poland, so I would spend a lot of my summers [in Europe], and I had the opportunity to learn languages."
Meya studied international relations in college, graduating from Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Science in foreign service. He later earned a Master's in arts management from Carnegie Mellon University. After school, he immersed himself in the business of classical music, working at the Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera. Charles McKay, Santa Fe Opera's previous general director, recruited him to The City Different in 2012.
"It wasn't my first time in Santa Fe," Meya says. "Twenty years earlier, I came to the Santa Fe Opera as an intern to fulfill my grad school requirements. I drove cross-country from Pittsburgh, and I went directly to the opera house without even stopping in town. As I came up over the hill, I could see the opera's glorious structure on the horizon against a gorgeous backdrop of mountains and nature. It was late in the day, and the sky was changing color. It was like a religious experience, and 20 years later that hasn't changed."
Meya started as the director of external affairs, eventually being named general director in 2018. Under his direction, Santa Fe Opera has continued to bring the medium to more audiences with free community concerts, family nights, pre-show talks, and discounted tickets for locals, first-time operagoers, and standing-room attendees.
"We know that 40 percent of our audience is first-time ticket buyers," Meya says. "We're definitely on the top of the list of things to do when you're in Santa Fe, and we take that very much into consideration when we build our programming."
Outside the Santa Fe Opera.
Photograph by Kate Russell.
The initiatives have contributed to the opera's continuous growth, Meya says, noting that the company's trajectory has been uninterrupted and steady. "The growth of this theater from a 400-seat venue in 1957 to its current capacity of 2,200 has been consistent, just as the artistic growth has continued," he says. "We have a phenomenal board of directors, and what's unique about it in comparison with other arts organizations is that our members are dispersed nationally. All of the country's major cities are represented on our board, which is a real advantage for a company that's based in Santa Fe but which has a truly national orientation."
Meya and his wife, soprano Amanda Echalaz, are pleased to raise their two young children in Santa Fe because of the town's rich cultural offerings and stunning natural beauty. "I've come to really appreciate the community," he says. "There's a real openness to the creative process here."
Inside the Santa Fe Opera.
Photograph by Robert Goodwin.