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The Secrets of Leadership from Santa Fe Opera's Beloved General Director Charles MacKay

Dario Acosta
Charles MacKay

People light up when you recognize and value them. To have high regard for the individual and to understand their contribution: that’s been my guidepost. If people feel they’re striving for the same goal as everyone around them, it creates a wonderful sense of unity.”

So says Charles MacKay, outgoing general director of the Santa Fe Opera.

Listen to the full interview with Debra Lew Harder and Charles MacKay before his final season as General Director, and view scenes of the magnificent Santa Fe Opera:

MacKay's sense of financial discipline and foresight has helped continue the legacy of a thriving arts organization with a multi-million-dollar budget, with numerous recent successful capital campaigns, and 60 years of operating in the black.

But his belief in following one’s heart creates a sense of purpose that permeates every aspect of his leadership style. He knows the name and face of each person who works for the Santa Fe Opera, whether they are a member of the backstage crew, an apprentice, or an opera star. His appreciation for people and for community has helped build a volunteer force of 1400 for the Santa Fe Opera, in the state of New Mexico alone.

WRTI’s Debra Lew Harder had a chance to sit down with Charles MacKay before his final season as General Director of the Santa Fe Opera. They talked about his career (which started with his playing French horn in the offstage band as a teenager,) to continuing the mission of its founder John Crosby, and how to lead from the heart.

Read an edited and condensed version of the interview:

Why step down now?

Serve that which you love and care about, and have the openness to learn and to discover, and also embrace change as it comes in your life, in your career, in the world, and in the art form.

This marks the 50th anniversary of my first summer at the Santa Fe Opera. I decided that was a good round number. It completes 10 years as General Director, and 20 years of cumulative service. I always had the idea that I wanted to step down as an impresario when I was feeling on top of things.

What’s the importance of promoting new work? What do you do when you believe in a work but critical reception is mixed or negative? 

For me, the most important marker of a work’s success is audience response. Madame Butterfly, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville didn’t have immediate good receptions but have gone on to become classics. Nixon in China at its world premiere received a pretty negative review in the New York Times saying it would never make it into the repertoire. History proves that wrong.

What’s exciting is to be able to draw new audiences to opera and to open a door, to present opera as vibrant, living art form, which is what we need.

Let’s talk about the legacy of the founder of the Santa Fe Opera, John Crosby. What specific things about his vision was it important for you to carry on?

Throughout my career, I’ve tried to use John Crosby’s mission statement for the Opera as my touchstone: to present varied repertoire of classical or traditional opera, along with rarely performed and new works. Having that kind of varied mixture has proven to be very successful for the Santa Fe Opera, and it’s been a formula that’s been widely imitated. 

Also, in the discovery of new talent. Each year we present a whole array of artists who are new to our audiences. People can say, “I remember when Susan Graham made her debut.” It’s really thrilling to me that people in our audiences are discovering new performers who will be megastars of the future. 

I had the good fortune to work with John Crosby at the very beginning of my career. Somehow he recognized I had potential I didn’t even understand or comprehend. And he kept advancing me and giving me additional responsibilities. I started as a French horn player in the orchestra at 18, playing in the offstage Band in Der Rosenkavalier. I was determined that I would play in the opera orchestra, and I did that within a few years, graduating to the real orchestra pit.

My real responsibility was being the orchestra librarian, known as the “pit boy” — sweeping out the pit, putting out the music, arranging the chairs, doing odd jobs, operating a spot, being an assistant stage manager. I sort of learned the operation from the ground up, and crossed over into the business office. I later managed the box office, then was put in charge of fundraising and marketing by the time I was 28. And then I embarked on my career by going off to the Spoleto Festival, and then became General Director of Opera of St. Louis — to come full circle back to the Santa Fe Opera. 

So it’s really important for us to advance people who are promising, who are excited about this art form, and to remember that we are handing over our organizations to the next generation. 

It is incumbent on us to nurture the very best talent onstage and offstage, to ensure that our organizations can survive and thrive into the future.

In addition, Mr. Crosby loved the physical plant at the Santa Fe Opera, which is unique in the world —  on top of a mesa, overlooking two mountain ranges with beautiful fresh mountain air, sunsets, rainbows, an incredible sensory experience just walking into the theater. 

He was always intent on improving the experience for artists and for audience members. During my tenure, I’ve worked hard to honor him and that tradition he established. We’ve undertaken a lot of improvements to the facility. We’ve doubled the size of the backstage. We’ve done a number of basic things, such as increasing the number of restrooms for the public by 50%, offering more dining, concession, and picnic opportunities around the theater, to really enhance the experience for anyone who coms to the Santa Fe Opera, be they an audience member, an apprentice, a technician working backstage, or the star performer.

I think this is a question that a lot of arts organizations are curious about -- Santa Fe Opera has operated in the black for 60 years, except for the one season when the opera house burned down. How have you been able to accomplish that?

It’s a combination of a lot of hard work and good fortune. We have a very loyal public who care about this organization, believe in its mission and want to help, whether as contributor, ticket buyer, or volunteer. We have 1400 volunteers in the state of New Mexico who participate in various activities, raising funds, providing services. 

It’s also the result of a very strict budgetary discipline: we go through round after round of budget forecasts. We’re working now on 2020 and soon will start on 2021, just so that we begin to understand the implications of repertoire that might be contemplated, and to get an idea of where we can find major underwriting and to project to the best of our ability how ticket sales are going to be. In 2017 it was most gratifying to have 7 sold-out performances of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates (the most performances of a new work ever presented by the SFO.)

I think this shows the excitement around doing new work, doing things that are different and unusual. I have the sense that our public is really in sync with the mission of the company, and wants to see this company thrive and succeed.

So it’s a combination of heart and head. 

Absolutely correct, thank you.

People I’ve spoken with here have said that you are an ideal boss. Creative people love to work with you, from the musicians in the orchestra to the people in the office. Did this leadership style come naturally? 

I can’t say that it came naturally but it’s as if everything fell into place. When I started out as a kid, I felt very humbled to be part of this great organization. I never had the idea that I would end up being the General Director. But I tried to apply myself as diligently as I could, and to treat my fellow workers with respect, to have the understanding of their contributions to the organization. 

One of the things that I strive to do each year is to learn the names of everyone who works for our company. I put a lot of practice into that -- a lot of flashcards, with photos and names and which department and so forth. I really enjoy getting to know the people who work backstage who are starting out, and it is my hope that this experience will be indelibly imprinted in their life experience, and they will look back and say, “You know, that summer at the Santa Fe Opera was fantastic, and you know what, the General Director even knew my name.” 

It’s thrilling to see how people light up when you recognize them and value them. That has really been the guidepost to my management style: to have high regard for the individual and to understand their contribution.  Where appropriate, to say, you know, I think we could do this a little bit differently, to give a little pointer here and there. If people feel they are striving for the same goal as everyone around them, it creates a wonderful sense of unity. 

When I think about your story, from the time you were young, playing in the off-stage band, to becoming the General Director of this legendary opera house, what advice would you give somebody who’s 18 years old and starting out, and hoping to make something of their life, whether it’s arts administration or any other field?

To me, it’s really to follow your heart. To serve that which you love and care about and to have the openness to learn and to discover and also to embrace change as it comes in your life, in your career, in the world, in the art form. You do have to pay attention to your head also — but to me it’s most important to follow your heart.

And following your heart, what will 2018 look like for Charles MacKay? 

I’m just going to take a deep breath and enjoy the last year of my tenure as General Director of this wonderful organization and do everything that I possibly can to position the company for even greater success. There are a few things on my check list that I didn’t quite get to, and I would like to set those things in motion if I can. I think it’s going to be a great ride.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.