Charles McKay. photo by Margaret Rambo

After 23 seasons at the helm of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Charles MacKay has gone home to Santa Fe to lead the Santa Fe Opera. Ladue News spoke with MacKay about the highlights of his time in St. Louis.

LN: What have been some of the ‘high notes’ of working with OTSL?

CM: The greatest pleasures come from seeing so many productions over the years with wonderful artists who have started their careers in St. Louis, people like Christine Brewer, who’s now, of course, one of the biggest international stars in the world of opera. There are the artistic achievements of Opera Theatre, plus the fact that through the support of the St. Louis community and so many dedicated donors and subscribers, the company has maintained a solid financial footing. Those things don’t always go together! Another area would be the expansion of the youth programs. Because I was introduced to opera when I was 9, I know the kind of power and fascination that opera can have for children.

LN: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?

CM: One of the things we always must remember is that as a not-for-profit organization, you don’t function in a bubble. You are affected by ups and downs in the economy. Also, it’s been a challenge having fewer major corporations in St. Louis. In life, there are definite ups and downs and you have to not be thrown off kilter and stay focused on your goal. Opera Theatre has always stayed true to its mission of discovering the next generation of singers and putting on high-quality productions that test the boundaries.

LN: What is your proudest accomplishment?

CM: One thing is the Sally S. Levy Opera Center, which is the result of incredible teamwork, collaboration and commitment by many people. Also, it was a thrill when our company performed in Tokyo by invitation twice during my tenure. Very few opera companies are asked to travel internationally. That Opera Theatre is so highly regarded was a real feather in our cap.

LN: What changes have you observed at OTSL?

CM: Remarkably enough, the company has stayed very close to its original mission. The fact that we now have the surtitles is useful to keep your bearings when you need to. The season has expanded from 24 to about 30 performances. We now have a program called Music! Words! Opera! in about 70 metro-area schools. It’s a curriculum-based program giving kids a bit of knowledge and insight about great works and also a framework to create their own operas, which has been very thrilling.

LN: Very few places in the country sing opera in English. Why does Opera Theatre do so?

CM: It’s a very conscious decision going back to its founding. The thought was to perform opera in the Loretta Hilton Center a unique space that enables us to present opera as theater, so it seemed a very natural decision to perform everything in English and to emphasize the dramatic side of opera equally with the musical side. It’s bucking the trend, but it gives the company a unique identity that attracts visitors from all over the country. We had ticket buyers last year from 42 states!

LN: What do you look forward to in Santa Fe?

CM: It will be a joyous homecoming to go back to the company where I began my career and saw my first opera. Everything is about double that of St. Louis, the budget, the size of the theater, the size of the board and patron base, so it’s doing opera on a different scale, too.

LN: What will ensure the future of opera in America?

CM: The challenge always will be to maintain artistic excellence in organizations, which translates to being kind of expensive in terms of rehearsal times and production values and to run companies as businesses. You can have great artistic vision, but if it isn’t grounded in a business sense, that can be dangerous. The key is that an opera company must really connect to its community. That is the basis for ensuring the future by bringing in new people, new audiences, all the time.