Of all the many tales involving art and New Mexico, the most unlikely is perhaps that of the Santa Fe Opera. In 1957, at a time when opera had largely been the preserve of just a couple of cities in the US, John Crosby started an opera company right in the middle of the desert. Everyone in the company was under the age of 30 – except for Crosby, who was a ripe old 31.

Having bought an old ranch where the land had once been used to raise foxes and grow pinto beans, Crosby set out one day in 1956 to a hilltop in search of a suitable site. An acoustician from Boston fired a rifle again and again until they found a place where the echo suggested the ideal setting for an outdoor theatre.

The acoustics, as it happens, are fantastic at the reincarnated auditorium. Take your seat on one of the last nights of the season, after the setting sun and clouds have been drawn into shadow play against the mountains around you, and you can’t help thinking there are few places on earth where the reminders that nature nurtures the artistic temperament are as persistent as in the area around Santa Fe. The list of artists and writers who lived there includes Georgia O’Keeffe, DH Lawrence, Willa Cather and Bob Dylan.

Why? O’Keeffe paid tribute to the infinite amount of “sky …the best part of any place.” She first visited in summer 1929 and moved there in the 1940s. The monochromatic greenery of “Lake George [in upstate New York] is not really painting country. Out here, half your work is done for you”, she observed.

In photographs by Ansel Adams and others, O’Keeffe, with her striking angular features and severe long black dresses, came to look more and more like a native American chieftain. By the time she died in 1986 at the age of 98, and in the years since, she has become as much a part of our vision of that landscape as the flat-topped mountains she loved. O’Keeffe, who once said: “Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression …Since I cannot sing, I paint”, must have thought an opera company set amid the hills an entirely logical response to the beauty of the place.

Crosby had been obsessed with New Mexico ever since he was sent to school in Los Alamos as a teenager because a family doctor back in New York was convinced the dry air would help his asthma. Inspired by memories of his standing room view of Alfred Lunt’s wonderfully theatrical production of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte at the old Metropolitan Opera building in New York, Crosby wanted the productions to emphasise the drama of opera as well as the singing.

Crosby took his audacious plan to half a dozen Santa Fe businesspeople who were impressed both by his passion and the sheer detail of his vision. In 18 single-spaced pages, he even spelt out his estimates of the dry-cleaning bills for the choruses in that first season of 1957.

Today, as then, the starting time for performances at the Santa Fe Opera changes as the summer progresses to begin after the sun sets. Sunsets in New Mexico are melodramatic, Technicolored affairs: nature has to bring down its own curtain before the show can begin. In fact, the opera’s car park opens at 5.30pm so that patrons can arrive early for “tailgate” parties – dinners out of the backs of their cars and vans. At this laissez faire opera venue, everyone does their own thing.

People dress up but there is no dress code – or at least not one adhered to by the stylish septuagenarian cowboy who came in a red hat, red belt and red boots. Similarly, dinners eaten in the car park ranged from tiny fold-out tables and food served out of the containers from the local store’s deli counter to elaborate 12-person sit-down affairs with an accompanying guitarist.

My first evening there was spent watching a production of Così fan Tutte that was energetic, funny and brilliantly acted, especially by mezzo-soprano Suzanne Metzer, whose lewd hip gyrations as Despina delighted the audience. It is no surprise that Santa Fe’s operas attract younger crowds and many first-time opera-goers.

In many ways, this most American of opera companies is built on values the country’s founding fathers would have approved of. This is opera at its most infectiously enjoyable, a world away from the summer opera festivals of Europe such as Glyndebourne and Salzburg. In the early days, Crosby, who died a few years ago, would be seen driving a tractor around the ranch or mowing the lawn.

The collegiality and team spirit between the performers that develops over a summer of rehearsals outdoors is evident on stage. The main sopranos, for instance, all share a dressing room, furnished with a wonderfully eclectic flea market of chairs from previous productions. At a party to celebrate the end of the season on the last night, I happened to speak to James Westman, who had just been onstage as Marcello in La Bohème. He was looking forward to returning to his family in Ontario, he said, but after so many performances alongside Dimitri Pittas (as Rodolfo) felt as if he were saying goodbye to a brother.

The Santa Fe Opera may be 50 years old but in many respects it represents the future of opera. When, by the end of the 1990s, Crosby’s vision for the company was flagging a native Briton, Richard Gaddes, set the tone for the 21st century. He took over in 2001 as general director (and retires at the end of the 2008 season) and energised the company, offering Baroque operas and commissioning new work.

In 2007, for instance, old favourites by Puccini and Mozart were balanced with the US premiere of a lavish production by the well-known Chinese composer Tan Dun (composer of the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) of the opera Tea. (The spectacular costumes alone by Japanese designer Masatomo Ota would make most fashionable men want to consider wearing a kimono.) The well-funded company also had room for productions such as Platée by Rameau, this season’s surprise comic success.

Inevitably, purists grumble that a widening of the audience has diluted the experience; you are not likely to hear passionate arguments about composers and which singers seem destined for future greatness during the intermission. Instead the concerns of the metropolis sometimes crowd in.

Tourism and travel almost always change everything they touch, and Santa Fe and the surrounding area is no exception. Back in 1930, O’Keeffe was grumbling about all the bickering that took place in Taos, just a few hours drive from Santa Fe. That pristine idyll, with its green fields and wild flowers growing by the road, that looks like an Alpine village miraculously transported to the south-west of America, suddenly became a magnet for the artistic community in the 1920s and 1930s and plenty of back-biting quickly followed.

Santa Fe itself is facing a future of ever more celebrity second homes in the area. Its new hipness, circa 2007, is defined by recent newspaper and magazine articles applauding the number of swish galleries there – higher per capita, I would guess, than just about any place in America other than Monterey and Carmel. Then, there are restaurants – or at least one – endorsed by Gourmet magazine as among “America’s 50 best”. (Never one to resist the herd instinct, I called for a dinner booking at Trattoria Nostrani and was rewarded with one – at 5.30pm.)

Such metropolitan obsessions with lists, however, are what many of us go on holiday to escape. In Santa Fe, this could not be easier – drive in just about any direction from the city centre, which is dominated by art galleries and boutiques selling silver-and-turquoise jewellery, and worry instead about ranking some of the World’s Best Hikes.

Drive to nearby Tent Rock Canyon, a national park named after thousands of years of geological fireworks forged a canyon with pointy-headed tents like the teepees used by native Americans. Hiking there one afternoon, I began to appreciate how the blueness of the sky and the extraordinary light can play tricks of perception. As we drove into the park, and looked up at this miracle in stone, they looked just like, er, tents.

But halfway into the hike, while making my way between the narrow interstices of the canyon that adults have to walk single-file through with walls sometimes 200ft high, I had felt as if I was walking in the jaws of a dead dinosaur. A couple of hours later, looking down at this view, I thought they looked like a cachet of warheads, temporarily displaced from nearby Los Alamos. Looking at them on the way back, I could have sworn they looked like a skyline of minarets. If these metaphors collide, that is because New Mexico’s landscapes are a kind of multiple choice examination, a travel writer’s daydream – or nightmare – come true.

O’Keeffe would probably have had sympathy for this predicament, not least because, on a much more elevated plane, it was her own as well.

This summer, the O’Keeffe museum was celebrating its tenth anniversary with an exhibition entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling around Abstraction. O’Keeffe is photographed in front of her one of the best paintings in her “pelvis” series. The painting is on an easel with a view of the desert beyond. My first impression was that the painting looked nothing like the desert scene in front of it, but that is almost certainly not how it seemed to her.

Escaping the infidelity of her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s passion for the landscapes around Santa Fe and Abiquiu bordered on what most would accord a lover. When her sight was failing, a friend took her out to the patio of her home at Ghost Ranch and asked if she could see the mountain she loved. “No,” she replied, “but I know it’s there.”

We might not develop quite the same anthropomorphic affection for the region as O’Keeffe did but most travellers to New Mexico would find the exploration of its mesas by day coupled with Mozart by night in summer more than ample compensation for any perceived shortage of Michelin stars.

On the one-hour drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, I found myself strapped tight into my seat in an airport shuttle bus yet scribbling away indefatigably as the landscape changed and changed again during the drive all the way to the airport. When I looked at it later, none of these images made sense. Abstract art would have been a more sensible response: even a few days in New Mexico provoke a desire to describe or photograph or paint its otherworldly landscapes – or even to sing in the midst of them. In this setting, art must always have seemed as natural as breathing.

Rahul Jacob is the FT’s travel, food and drink editor

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