Fascism, the Musical: Ecology of the Santa Fe Opera, Part 9

[Editors note: misidentified as Part 9, this is actually Part 8 of Eric Shultz’s series. For quick access, here are links to the other installments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 ].

Clouds lifting over Los Alamos. Photo by Eric Shultz.

Three camps


          This is a setting worthy of opera, and the Santa Fe directors regularly use the surrounding mountains, the great expanse of darkening sky, or the moonlit hills to evoke an opera’s time and place – most famously in Madame Butterfly, when the shimmering lights of Los Alamos, twenty miles away in the foothills of the Jemez, suggest Puccini’s Nagasaki, ironically one of the towns nearly destroyed by the atomic bomb developed on that very mesa.

–Phillip Huscher[1]

The Santa Fe Opera is not in Santa Fe but a few miles north in Tesuque. That’s the village where I grew up. And we both debuted in the summer of 1957.

Like an alien spacecraft half-buried in the ground as if to base a semi-permanent colony, the Opera dominates the surrounding landscape. From the open-air seating you can see the lights of Los Alamos across the Rift, another semi-permanent colony, yet nearby Tesuque Pueblo and Río Tesuque village are hidden from the opera goer’s sight. Thus the architecture produces a separation from its surroundings, which is hardly surprising since a theater is an observatory of make-believe worlds if not an alienation factory pure and simple. And yet this theater occupies a definite place on the surface of the planet.

My earliest memories include the sounds of singers practicing al fresco a mile from my home. At such a distance, the voices arrived quite diminished and my childish imagination invented little cartoon animals that hammed in synch with the wisps of coloratura. The Opera occupies the property of a former dude ranch that was put up for sale when noise from the new highway destroyed any semblance of seclusion essential to the happiness of the campers.[2] But gone today is the clatter of Jake brakes on the big hill, along with the frequent sonic booms of the early Cold War decades, and an occasional explosion at the Lab. So also, Tesuque’s soundscape has left its age of bel canto behind, due to additions of indoor rehearsal space at the Opera.

Los Alamos figures in the Opera’s origin myth, as any source will note. Founder John O. Crosby first came to New Mexico in 1941 to attend the Los Alamos Ranch School. Since he came seeking relief from severe asthma, or so the story goes, that would make him one of our luminary lungers. In 1943, the federal government commandeered the school to site a secret project. By that time, cured of his asthma, Crosby had already gone back to Hotchkiss Academy in Connecticut. According to the New Mexican‘s lead story of August 6, 1945, headlined “Now They Can Be Told Aloud, Those Stoories [sic] of ‘The Hill’,” the secrecy surrounding ‘Alamos’ had bred rampant speculation:

          Under these conditions of secrecy rumors multiplied like maggots in one of Mel Hagman’s garbage cans. Gas warfare, rockets, jet propulsion, death rays and – atomic bombs – were among the guesses most frequently voiced. During the last Presidential campaign, Alamos – no foolin’ – was sometimes a Republican internment camp.[3]

The effects of Los Alamos have been central in shaping Santa Fe’s fascist mentality, initially by requiring our acceptance of police-state strictures around atomic secrets.

The same 1946 news article mentions “probably the strictest censorship ever imposed on the press of this state” under which the New Mexican‘s own B. B. Dunne – formerly Bronson Cutting’s secretary – “got tangled in the wringer for so much as mentioning that ‘there were a lot of scientists in town.'” Within a few years, the arrest and execution of the Rosenbergs – very much a Santa Fe story – would demand our acquiescence to State power at a new level. But in the quoted passage, the joke about Los Alamos being a Roosevelt administration internment camp for Republicans is especially rich, considering how we Santa Feans had already acquiesced to yet another demand of our meta-fascist National Security State: to host a concentration camp for people of Japanese ancestry. If the camp was putatively a measure to prevent strategic sabotage by “enemy aliens” and kin, then the Lab at Los Alamos – potential target par excellence – and the “Jap camp” in Santa Fe were two sides of the same National Security coin.

No inquiry into Santa Fe’s equanimity if not enthusiasm for things fascistic could ignore the camp. For starters, we should note that our attitude was not always one of passive acceptance. Historian Suzanne Stamatov relates how in the Spring of 1942, “when news of the Bataan Death March had reached Santa Fe,”

a mob of angry Santa Feans, armed with shotguns and hatchets, converged on the Santa Fe Internment Camp. The camp commander convinced the mob that any violence against the prisoners would result in retribution against New Mexican POWs in the Philippines and Japan.[4]

The prisoners in Santa Fe were clearly not guilty of war crimes against American POWs in the Philippines, in fact they had airtight alibis. For friends and relatives of the Bataan victims to threaten the camp prisoners betrayed a thirst for vengeance tinged with racism. But responsibility increases as you go up the ladder of authority. In February of 1942, the man responsible for the defense of the Pacific Coast, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. “In the war we are now engaged,” said DeWitt,

racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race, and while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.[5]

Racism informed America’s official view, which DeWitt restated even more succinctly: “A Jap’s a Jap and that’s all there is to it.”[6] Nor was racism the exclusive property of American reactionaries. As D. W. Brogan has observed, “in the years between the wars, the United States was only outdistanced by Germany as a market for race theories, some of them crude enough to have suited Hitler.”[7] That even President Roosevelt was a racist and eugenicist is evident in his consultation of Smithsonian anthropologist Dr. Ales Hrdlicka:

Although not endorsing Hrdlicka’s extremism, FDR did ask him in the early weeks of the war to undertake a study of race-crossing of Asian and European stocks. If the Japanese could be driven back to their islands, Roosevelt believed, perhaps their aggressive characteristics might be bred out of them.[8]

Racist beliefs even at the highest levels of the government and society produced an atmosphere in which Americans were encouraged to view all “Japs” – even their fellow American citizens – as collectively guilty of the most heinous evils.

The fascistic nature of America’s concentration camps extended beyond merely depriving people of Japanese ancestry – both U.S. citizens and non-citizen legal residents – of their freedom. Those expressing awareness of and resistance to the injustice of their imprisonment, at the Tule Lake camp among others, were segregated in penal stockades. Tiring of such treatment – and of their situation in general – Tule Lake prisoners staged a demonstration, predictably called a ‘riot’ by their jailers, with severe consequences. “Some variation from the normal procedure of questioning was necessitated by the circumstances,” according to the November 8, 1943 Military Intelligence Service (MIS) report on the incident.

Mr. Schmidt, head of the Internal Security WRA [War Relocation Authority, the main agency in charge of camps], choked Bob H…, scared him and twisted his arm. In this manner he obtained the name of Tom Kobiyashi as being one of the leaders. This Japanese [actually a United States citizen] was also in custody and so he, in turn, was interrogated. Mr. Payne and Mr. Lewis, both officers of Internal Security WRA, hit him in the face with their fists until he succumbed, then they proceeded to kick him until he revived. This procedure continued until Kubiyashi [sic] was induced to reveal further information (unknown to this Agent). The interrogation lasted until approximately 0400, 5 November 1943. All Japanese held in custody [in connection with the ‘riot’] were questioned in approximately the same manner…. All Japanese persons apprehended were placed in the hospital after the interrogation.[9]

For B. J. Glasgow, the MIS agent who wrote the report, to say that all were interrogated in “approximately the same manner” is somewhat euphemistic. In some instances, a baseball bat was used.[10] The reader is encouraged to consider the in-depth study of this incident in Richard Drinnon’s Keeper of the Concentration Camps.

An unimposing monument just outside the dog park commemorates Santa Fe’s concentration camp for people of Japanese ancestry in use during WWII. The camp itself occupied the nearer part of the distant background, today the Casa Solana neighborhood and shopping center. Acknowledging the camp’s existence is only the first step toward our assuming responsibility for what we collectively have done. Photo by Eric Shultz.

The Santa Fe camp was run not by the WRA but by the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service and was intended initially not for U.S. citizens but ‘enemy aliens.’ But in late 1944 and early 1945, the camp also accepted U.S. citizens. Specifically, 366 of the most recalcitrant Tule Lake “troublemakers” were transferred to Santa Fe, where they proceeded to protest with a demonstration, sorry, a riot that left another four prisoners (Mitsuo Hirashima, Akira Osugi, Gentaro Ono and Isamu Uchida) hospitalized.[11] The Santa Fe camp’s historian (Culley) does not provide details on the nature or causes of the four’s injuries. It is notable that the sources consulted report no instance in the entire relocation process of an internee injuring a camp official or employee.

As deplorable as the Santa Fe mob’s spontaneous threat of retribution for Bataan may have been, it pales in comparison to the violative and violent racism of the Roosevelt administration’s official and systematic treatment of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry – most of them United States citizens – in concentration camps despite no incident of sabotage or espionage ever having been committed by any one among them.

The question I pose is: what does ‘Japanese internment’ have to do with my contention that Santa Fe as a community has been friendly toward fascism – broadly speaking – as exemplified by the Santa Fe Opera and its production of Menotti’s The Last Savage? Obviously Santa Fe’s citizenry by-and-large did not participate in whatever happened within the confines of the camp, although the mob incident says that some of us would have been capable of worse. The acquiescence mentioned earlier is certainly something to contemplate. But the key – and until the research for this essay, I was as guilty as anyone – is our complacency to say “oh, yeah” in acknowledgement that there was a camp here, but not to consider what that means. The recent revival of issues such as “indefinite detention” and “enhanced interrogation” are nauseatingly stark proofs of the truism that people who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it.

If by facing our history resolutely, we might better guard against our government overstepping the principles Americans hold dear, still we would be fools to think that fascism is purely a matter of certain past foreign governments or freakish present-day skinheads. Los Alamos represents a new era of State power, not only in the form of the weapons it developed and develops, but also of the concentration camps justified and widely accepted as protection of installations such as Los Alamos itself.

I open this segment with a quote from the Santa Fe Opera’s official history, which echoes perfectly our nation’s official history. To assert that the U.S. government “nearly destroyed” Nagasaki suggests a cataclysm narrowly averted. Whew! That was close! And while the spectator of Madama Butterfly may have cause to reflect on the arrogance of an American that leads to tragedy, responsibility is hardly clear since the title character dies by suicide as required  by a rigid and backward culture. Puccini and those staging his play keep racism alive as a viable interpretative frame. But the fact that the Santa Fe Opera’s productions of Butterfly use the actual lights of Los Alamos  to represent Nagasaki is only the most obvious irony. As the audience gazes toward the twinkling city in the distance, it keeps its back to the site of the concentration camp just a few miles away on the north edge of Santa Fe. From the music camp, do we really see the science camp unless we turn around and face the prison camp, not merely to acknowledge where it was but to understand what went on there? Simply to say “Oh, yeah. There was a camp,” or to say “Oh, yeah. They make weapons,” or “Oh, yeah. That composer was a fascist,” all amount to the same willful blindness that is perhaps the most pervasive symptom of fascism in America today. Between believing what we are told (or accepting what we are not told) and bothering to learn the truth lies a vast and open field of action.

[1]   Huscher, Phillip. The Santa Fe Opera: an American pioneer. Santa Fe: The Santa Fe Opera 2006, p. 84.

[2]  Huscher, p. 34.

[3]  Quoted in Oliver La Farge. Santa Fe: The Autobiography of a Southwestern Town. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1959, p. 363.

[4]  Stamatov, Suzanne. “Japanese-American Internment Camps in New Mexico 1942-1946.” Posted at the New Mexico Office of the State Historian website: http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails_docs.php?fileID=453.

[5]  Quoted in Geoffrey S. Smith, “Racial Nativism and Origins of Japanese American Relocation” in Japanese Americans from Relocation to Redress, Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor and Harry H. L. Kitano, eds. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press 1986, p.82.

[6]  Smith, p. 82.

[7]  Ibid., p. 84.

[8]  Ibid., p. 84.

[9]  Quoted in Richard Drinnon’s Keeper of the Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism. Berkeley: University of California Press 1987,pp. 137-38.

[10]  Ibid., 142-43.

[11]  Culley, John J. “The Santa Fe Internment Camp and the Justice Department Program for Enemy Aliens” in Japanese Americans…, pp. 64-65.


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