SANTA FE, N.M. Overture with blue notes: Santa Fe, which once billed itself as The City Different, becomes more and more The City the Same.
It was to be expected. This fashionable retreat is meeting the fate of every fashionable retreat. The qualities that drew people here are endangered by the number of people drawn. Crowds grow, the traffic snarls, problems multiply.
Soon enough, the connoisseurs have given way to the tourists, and the mass-produced unique proliferates. There is a Gresham's Law in cultural matters, too. Quantity drives out quality. And a kind of kitsch of the spirit settles in, along with the material kind available at every souvenir shop.
The charming aspects of a little-known place appeal to the sophisticated, who descend in droves and thereby change it. Whatever different thing they were seeking a new identity? a familiarity with the unfamiliar? an accustomed novelty? a quick sense of rootedness? turns into the same thing they left behind.
Act One in a remodeled setting: The Santa Fe Opera has become a national institution by now. There was a time when it was like a good local vintage, prized at home and known abroad. Now it is much like any other fine opera company. Its location and the circumstances of its growth may differ, just as one large airport may differ in name and decor from another, but not in basic function.
Opera night in Santa Fe, despite the Western locale and informal dress code (casual out here in the desert), is much like opera night anywhere else. That is not a bad thing the show's what counts but it is no longer a different thing.
Act Two, a remembrance of things past: Years ago, on a blazing hot summer's evening, there was a production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" here in a setting worthy of his masterpiece. The familiar but always stirring music was played in unfamiliar surroundings, and the great avenging statue of the Father could have stumbled directly out of the unforgiving landscape spread out beyond the open stage. A great Aztec god had come to life.
In those days, with the theater's roof extending only part way to the stage, people in the center of the theater could look up directly at the bright stars in the dark desert sky. Whole constellations shone.
At that evening's performance, a thunderstorm struck in the middle of the second act, and those of us caught in the center could take refuge in the back of the open-sided structure. Or we could sit there in our ponchos, cooled by a downpour that soon dwindled to a pleasing mist.
It was an unforgettable performance in more than one way.
Finale, new and improved: The theater has since been shored up, its seating expanded, and its roof extended to join the front and rear sections. What was a desert tabernacle has become more of an opera house. It's more convenient that way. The place is more protected from the elements. It's supposed to be an improvement.
Progress has arrived, as it has to much of Santa Fe, and with it something of what made this theater different, as Santa Fe was different, has been lost though it is not done to admit it.
Coda and summary: It's a familiar bargain. Much of the old sense of openness and emptiness of the American West has been exchanged for comfort and utility, or whatever other gods of modernity you care to mention. It all makes perfect commercial sense.
Seeing a fine production of "La Boheme" here is no longer all that different from enjoying it anywhere else. The romantic music, thankfully not new and improved, remains unchanged. It still moves, no matter how hard you try to blink back the tears and not show it. But the theater itself, once so much a part of the extraordinary experience, has been rendered ordinary. The West has been won again. And lost again.