The Santa Fe Opera Tailgate

by Willy Carleton · Photos by Douglas Merriam

Tailgating spread by Maya Fuentes and the Tafoyas.

I stepped out of my truck and immediately heard the pop of a bottle opening. More than two hours before the opening-night performance of Die Fledermaus, the parking lot already brimmed with operagoers. “Champagne or prosecco?” I heard someone ask. “Actually, I think rosé,” was the response. All around me, tailgaters in an assorted mix of tuxedos and masks, operatic costumes, cowboy hats, and elegant dresses set up white-clothed tables, often with exquisite flower arrangements and tall candlesticks, against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos. Curious about the food on the tailgaters’ tables, I began meandering through the surreal maze of vehicles and diners to absorb the spectacle and, perhaps, meet some of the faces behind the masks.

My minor worries that the sea of strangers would prefer not to chat soon dissipated as I walked through the parking lot, greeted with nothing but smiles. I soon came across a family seated beneath a large umbrella next to a tailgate brimming with food. With a congenial handshake, Norman Tafoya explained that the impressive spread on the tables behind their car included pâté, shrimp, kale salad, carrot cake, and fresh cherries. He and his family come every year to take in the full atmosphere of the opera and the tailgate. “You walk around the parking lot and you hear so many different languages . . . and so many people are all willing to share their food and drinks here,” explained Tafoya with a wide smile. “It’s just beautiful.” Indeed, as I continued to make the rounds, I saw what he meant: people shared food and stories generously at every table where I stopped.

clockwise: Tailgater popping champagne; Jennifer Padilla; tailgaters dine in front of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; Khristaan Villela and Ellise Pierce.

I soon discovered an unanticipated creative side to the food at the opera tailgate. Stopping at a long table of operagoers, many of whom were wearing clothes fitting for an eighteenth-century castle, I met Michael Nunnally, wearing a festive tricorne, who explained that not only were their clothes in theme with the opera, but so was their food. The fare, inspired by the night’s German opera, included two types of sauerkraut, red cabbage with apples, assorted European cheeses, a German-style potato flan, and a delicious blackberry cobbler, which the group kindly shared with me.

Other groups also shaped their meal around the night’s opera. Not far from Nunnally’s group, a boisterous crowd sat around a white-clothed table with large candlesticks in the middle. “Please try some of our fried bat,” offered one of the tailgaters. On the table, amid a large spread of food, lay a dish with a crispy and cooked winged animal covered with a deep purple sauce. I offered a skeptical smile and a nervous laugh. “Don’t listen to him,” replied another, “he just likes to spin yarns.” The “fried bat” was actually a grilled cornish game hen doused with a blueberry and apricot balsamic glaze—yet another Die Fledermaus inspired dish (die fledermaus is German for “the bat”). “They were fun to make,” explained tailgater Toni Martorelli. Like many others, the group makes opening night at the opera, decked out with meals inspired by the night’s performance, a tradition. “We’ve come to every opening night for the last twenty-five years,” explained Richard Romero of Albuquerque.

As I made the rounds, I found that no two tailgates were the same. Some set up tables in the back of their pickups and drank salt-rimmed margaritas, some dined on simple cheese plates and red wine, and some drank beer and ate sandwiches. I saw a solitary man, dressed in a Batman mask and cape, contently reading a newspaper after a simple meal at his small folding table-for-one. Not far away, a particularly lucky group of tailgaters feasted on a five-course menu prepared by Chef Susan Anzalone of Gold Leaf Catering. The exquisite fare, paired with several wines and port, included homemade Scottish salmon gravlax with chive cream cheese on endive; halibut carpaccio with shaved fennel and pickled cucumber; sliced beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms; and chocolate panna cotta on cornmeal cookies with a cherry compote. Elsewhere, I spotted people dipping strawberries into chocolate fondue, some eating oysters, and still others camped out with chips and salsa. All picnic fare, from the over-the-top to the bare-bone basics, is fair game for the opera.

Top left, clockwise: Tailgate spread; tailgaters (left to right) Ellie Gray, Michael Nunnally, Marcia Emmerton, Lucy Bronfman; tailgater Bill Kuhn.

If preparing a tailgate is not your thing, however, there are plenty of other good ways to enjoy the night at the opera without succumbing to a growling stomach. For the past thirty years, the Santa Fe Opera has offered its popular preview dinners, which include a multi-course opera-themed meal, wine, and a pre-performance talk in the beautifully landscaped opera rehearsal grounds. If you’re in the mood for simpler fare, the opera also offers pre-ordered picnic meals, ranging from a local cheese box to steak dinners, as well as salads, pasta boxes, assorted desserts, or espresso from the Vladem kiosk. All the food is prepared by Bon Appetit catering, which works with Squash Blossom to use local ingredients, and the opera provides two sections of picnic tables so that you can dine with a view.

In case you haven’t gotten your fill at the tailgate, there are also plenty of drink and snack options inside the opera house. The signature drink of the current season, the “Nut Job,” is a take on a Manhattan that consists of Atapiño liqueur and Colkegan single-malt whiskey from Santa Fe Spirits, orange and walnut bitters, and sweet vermouth, finished with a cherry. The opera has been working with Santa Fe Spirits for several years, and each year develops a drink to match the spirit of the season’s performances. The name “Nut Job” alludes to two of this year’s productions: the famous “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor and the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

As I continued weaving through the pre-opera parking lot scene, I mused on both the practical and extravagant side of tailgating at the opera. “Tailgating is a long-standing tradition at the opera,” Santa Fe Opera Director of Administration Tom Morris later explained to me. “I’d say it probably goes as far back as 1967, maybe longer.” Its deep roots likely derive from the opera’s location; unlike the vast majority of opera houses, this venue sits outside of town. Prior to there being many available food options at the opera itself, such as the preview dinners, operagoers had to be creative about their dining options. The necessity of eating before the show evolved into the tailgating scene of today, where the food provides a creative way for the crowd to make the most of their night and cook for friends and strangers alike. Tailgating offers more than a practical way to eat before the show; it is a highly social event that allows the dramatic spirit of the opera to suffuse the parking lot and build collective energy for the performance.

When the shadows on the distant hills grew longer, and the expansive blue New Mexican sky began to blush orange and pink, the crowd packed up their food and flowers, folded their linens, and stashed their tables in their vehicles. The sounds of the birds, wind, and steady stream of distant cars once again took over the airwaves above the asphalt. Like that, the parking lot returned to its standard function—accommodating cars—and the collective mass of opera fans, sated with decadent and imaginative food, fluttered into the open-air opera house for the show.

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