As casino takes shape, operagoers sound off

Some worry about project's proximity to performance space, while others choose to reserve judgment

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Kiley Lawrence lived out a lifelong dream Wednesday from a seat in the nosebleed section of the cavernous Santa Fe Opera.

"I wanted to come to the Santa Fe Opera since I was a kid," Lawrence, 26, said after settling into her seat in a far corner of the second to last row of the world-famous opera house with breathtaking views of Northern New Mexico's alluring scenery.

"I had always heard that this was one of the most beautiful venues in the country and that they always have really stunning productions, a really beautiful background," she said.

Unbeknownst to Lawrence, who was visiting Santa Fe from San Francisco, the background now includes the shell of a casino.

While Lawrence's focus was on the stunning architectural features of the open-air opera house instead of the narrow view of the construction site next door as seen from balcony seat E41, some of the opera's regular patrons grit their teeth at the mere mention of what is going to be a 72,000-square-foot casino bordering one of Santa Fe's premier cultural attractions.

Others, however, say they will wait before drawing final conclusions.

The casino, a multimillion-dollar project by Tesuque Pueblo, is being built on land that housed a flea market for many years. Construction has been moving rapidly since it started in earnest earlier this year, and the casino is expected to open this fall.

Exactly what the finished product will look like -- or how it will affect people's experience at the opera -- is a big unknown because the project is still in the works.

The New Mexican interviewed a mix of operagoers before Wednesday's sold-out production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly to gauge their opinions about the opera's new next-door neighbor. Opinions were as mixed as the people who were interviewed.

Adam Dooley of Taos described the casino as an assault on the senses.

"It looks like [expletive] -- you can quote me," Dooley said. "It used to be a nice thing coming from the north and seeing the opera house here sitting on the hill. The flea market was always there, but it was always, 'Hey, cool, we're here.' "

But Gino Barcone, a donor and longtime opera patron, said he's taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We have no idea, and we will not make a judgment on that until it's done," he said. "I don't see anything that's really going to bother the opera, but who knows?"

The Pueblo of Tesuque Development Corp. said in a statement Friday that company officials meet regularly with the opera's management and board members "to coordinate construction activities with the goal of minimizing the impact on the Opera's operations."

The company also said it is "strongly committed to preserving the natural beauty and atmosphere of the area and working together to provide an enhanced entertainment experience for both Opera goers and Casino customers."

"We are working closely with our neighbor, The Santa Fe Opera, to address their concerns and explore opportunities benefitting both operations," John Kubiak, board chairman, said in the statement.

Grace Swoveland, who was visiting New Mexico from Tucson, Ariz., said she and her friend went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the opera Wednesday morning and were informed about the casino project next door.

"They told us that the casino is working closely with the administration here and they have a good relationship," said Swoveland, a retired widow who has made the trek to the Santa Fe Opera for three consecutive years.

The opera and Tesuque Pueblo are, in fact, making history together.

For the first time ever, dancers from Tesuque Pueblo, joined by members of neighboring Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos, performed onstage Saturday before and during the debut of Doctor Atomic, an opera about the lead-up to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, developed in Los Alamos in the 1940s, at Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico.

According to the opera, the performances of the sacred Corn Dances, which are expected before and during every production of Doctor Atomic, mark the first time members of the three pueblos have danced together.

In a statement, the opera said its relationship with Tesuque Pueblo, as well as with Santa Clara and San Ildefonso, "has deepened" through their collaboration on the production of Doctor Atomic.

"The Pueblos have given us and our audience the gift of sacred Corn Dances, both pre-performance and within the context of the opera. The diplomatic, social, and spiritual meanings of this event are powerful. It has launched a new era in the relationships with our neighbors," according to the statement.

"I honestly believe that relations between the Pueblo and the Opera have never been stronger," Charles MacKay, the opera's general director, said in the statement. "We look forward to a long and mutually rewarding relationship with our neighbors. We also look ahead to building upon our long association through the Pueblo Opera Program, which is now in its 45th year, and exploring new ways in which we might work together in the future."

The opera said it has "deep respect" for Tesuque Pueblo and recognizes that is is a "sovereign nation whose history goes back centuries."

"Despite conjecture, the relationship between the Pueblo of Tesuque and The Santa Fe Opera has not been on 'tenuous footing' since the announcement of the construction of the casino complex," according to the statement. "For nearly two years, we have been in regular contact with Pueblo of Tesuque tribal leaders and the Pueblo of  Tesuque  Development Corp. officials. We truly believe they understand our concerns -- preservation of our beautiful sightlines, conservancy of our dark night sky, and mitigation of ambient sound. Construction has advanced briskly with no apparent impact to our audience members' experience, performances on the stage, or the daytime rehearsals on our lower grounds."

Leslie Hinton, who has lived in Santa Fe for three years and attended the opera each of those years, said her initial thoughts about the construction of a casino adjacent to the opera was that "it was not very tasteful."

"I didn't like it," she said. "I think that the two don't match."

But so far, she said, the casino doesn't appear to be affecting the opera.

"If I have to be honest with you, it's not a distraction for me," Hinton said. "I thought it would be and I would have some interesting thoughts about that, but I don't. I looked over a while ago and in fact, I thought maybe it's distanced enough."

Santa Fe City Councilor Signe Lindell, who attended Wednesday's performance of Madame Butterfly, said the Native American dances before and during Doctor Atomic show goodwill between the pueblo and opera officials.

"We find a way to be good neighbors with everyone, and I have complete confidence in the opera and the tribe to find a way to make this work for everybody," she said.

While the casino may be visible to some patrons, "it's gorgeous here, and there's nothing that will happen here that will diminish how gorgeous it is," Lindell said.

"In some ways, it's like when a housing development gets proposed next to someone's house or a neighborhood and they're so distraught about it, but the truth is that we're neighbors and we find a way to make these things work and it's usually for the benefit of everybody," she added.

The casino project, at least in its current state, is visible only from certain seats in the southeast section of the balcony, as well as the Wyncote Opera Club. Even then, only portions of the construction site are in the sightline.

"If you go up there, there are about four or five huge trees that you do not see that building from there, but we'll have to see what happens," Barcone said, referring to the views from the opera club. "I just hope it works out all right so they can do their thing and we can do our thing."

Taos resident Beth Barnum-Robinson said the opera or the tribe should consider planting "fast-growing trees" between the two properties or installing a large solar array at a slant to screen the casino from the opera.

"Some sort of screen I think is the only answer because you have to deal with tribal sovereignty," she said. "If they're within their rights to build it there and there's no height restriction, then it's just unfortunate."

Michael Boyle, who also lives in Santa Fe, said he looked toward the horizon when he attended his first opera of the season.

"You can see what's going to be a parking lot, I imagine," he said while tailgating in the parking lot of the opera before the start of Madame Butterfly. "I assume it's going to have lights, so that's going to be very distracting, frankly."

Opera lover Lea Soifer said the effect of the casino on the opera remains to be seen.

"The reality is that we will have to wait and see what will be," she said.

Manuel Avalos, who lives in Portland, Maine, said he lived in Albuquerque from 1978-84 and that he was surprised to see so many casinos in New Mexico.

"It's like there's one every half-mile," he said.

While he didn't notice Tesuque Pueblo's new casino when he took his seat at the opera, Avalos said, "I can see how many of the patrons would not be terribly thrilled with this."

But at this point, there's not much anyone can do.

"Of course, we would've liked to see the view rather than to look at another casino and lots of cars parked here," Soifer said. "But that's the reality and you live with it."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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