Behind the Scenes of Santa Fe Opera: Daniel Zillmann


July 2018

Words by
Emer Nestor

Photos by
Frances Marshall

Founded in 1956 by conductor John Crosby, Santa Fe Opera has become one of America’s finest Summer Opera Festivals. Enveloped within the captivating vistas of New Mexico, the opera company has become a ‘must have’ destination on the calendar of the discerning opera-goer. Santa Fe Opera’s Director of Media and Public Relations, Daniel Zillmann, takes us behind the scenes to chat about his work, the challenges of keeping opera relevant, and the thriving classical music vibe in New Mexico.

Very quickly, my involvement in choirs, band, and other instrumental ensembles took over my previous aspirations, and I changed to a music major."


Take us through your journey from St Olaf College in Minnesota to a career in Arts Administration.

Initially, I registered for pre-Med, and then enrolled as a Political Science and French double-major when I arrived in the fall of 2000! Very quickly, my involvement in choirs, band, and other instrumental ensembles took over my previous aspirations, and I changed to a music major. However, music majors were required to choose a concentration. I was behind in music theory. I was too much of an ensemble player/singer to make it in performance studies, and I had no interest in composition. My advisor Dan Dressen, who became Chair of the Music Department during my second year, pushed me towards a major that has since disappeared from the College altogether – Interdisciplinary Fine Arts – which combined all the performing and visual art forms into a major that made me quite marketable in the arts world. Along with (part of) a concentration in Arts Management, I was involved in student government. I was also co-chair of our LGBTQ organisation on campus, and I oversaw Student Activities by my Senior Year.

During the summer months of my college years I worked at a public radio station (a founding member of NPR), helped with St Olaf Summer Music Camp, worked at my uncles church organ company, and eventually became a box-office supervisor at Minnesota Orchestra. My first taste of Marketing and Communications came from a semester-long internship at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

On my way to New York and the Met Opera, I spent time at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I fell in love with both the city and the company, and ended up spending five seasons there. After a brief stint back in Minneapolis in corporate America at Best Buy, where I kept close to the artistic types of the company by supporting the leadership of the design team, I landed at Minnesota OperaHere, my role as Communications Manager, as well as nearly a decade of vacationing in Santa Fe, set me up for my current role as Director of Media and Public Relations – a position I have relished for four seasons. It has been an absolute dream job.

Daniel Zillmann – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview
Daniel Zillmann – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview

Why is opera important to you?

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved stories. Opera can be the most powerful storyteller. Evocative love stories and tragic endings to relationships have accompanied the ups and downs of romances in my own life. Domestic and world politics have been underscored by the cautionary tales explored in some more obscure or contemporary repertoire. Personal triumphs and tragedies have been mirrored by the action on the stage.


From a PR perspective, how difficult is it to entice new audiences into the world of classical music?

Bringing new audiences into the world of classical music is a challenge, but a delightful one. Because my role pivots towards hospitality on performance nights, and in Santa Fe we have press and media on nearly every performance night, I tend to ask random people in my social sphere to attend with me. The greatest promoters of opera are these random and often first-time opera-going guests. Watching the performance through their eyes, rather than my own, helps me to keep my promotional efforts relevant. 


What is the most unusual thing that you have had to do as Director of Media and PR at Santa Fe Opera?

If I were to list out all the functions I have filled in my communications and PR roles, my résumé would be three times as long (and three times as interesting). Just recently, I had to safely escort a singer, a photographer, and a makeup artist to the roof of our orchestra rehearsal hall, while carrying camera equipment on my back, wardrobe selections in my hand, and a hat from the costume department on my head…all up 20 rungs of a very narrow ladder through a hatch in the roof. I have been a hand model, an actor, a key grip, a makeup artist, a chauffeur, a light walker, a gopher, a caterer, a photographer, an extra, a videographer, and so many other things in my nine years in this role.

Top 5 things that you love about your job?

1 Working with world-class artists.

2 Building relationships with all the strange and wonderful personalities in the press and media industry.

3 Making my own version of art with our photographers and videographers.

4 Sharing the art form with new people and watching their reactions to it.

5 Spending nearly every night of the summer in the theater with some of the best produced opera in the world.


Do you have a process when planning for a new Season?

The PR plan is extensive and it begins from the day the work is announced to the public. I have a wonderful videographer, several fantastic photographers, and a team of people who help plan our social media strategy – all of whom are incredible collaborators. The planning with all of them is seemingly endless. Of course, there is the higher-level leadership planning. We have a standing bi-weekly in which almost everything goes through our General Director, Charles MacKay.


Tell us about the classical music vibe in New Mexico.

In the summertime, classical music is omnipresent. The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, The Desert Chorale, and Performance Santa Fe, along with The Santa Fe Opera, present some of the finest classical music. Unfortunately, Im rarely able to see any of the other ensembles in action because of the busy summer.

In the non-summer months, there is a wonderful opera company (Opera Southwest) who stages some unusual and challenging repertory. The Santa Fe Symphony, with whose chorus I’ve become a contracted singer, has very well-attended concerts. Performance Santa Fe hosts a great variety of performances, and the Lensic has an extensive year-long concert series.

Daniel Zillmann – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview
Daniel Zillmann – Final Note Magazine interview – Final Note Magazine interview

Describe a night at Santa Fe Opera to potential concert-goers.

Come early and stay until the end. A huge and entirely organic draw to come early has been the phenomenon of tailgating pre-performance in our parking lot. My partner and some of my friends put together my very first tailgating experience on my 40th birthday this past summer, and it was truly wonderful. If people dont care to bring their own picnic, food is available at our dining kiosk. Our sunsets are also a great draw for hordes of onlookers and photographers. Every night is completely different. I like to say that the sun setting is our house lights going down. Performances go on, rain or clear, often enhancing the experience with an occasional downpour or thunder and lightning off in the distance (best if during a Verdi opera).


How do you and the company set about ensuring that opera remains relevant within the cultural psyche of America?

I would say that we ensure opera remains relevant by presenting the very best art, and by creating a good mix within each of our seasonshonouring the tried and true warhorses” while presenting rarities and new worksThe new works continue to keep opera relevant. Without them, opera is a museum piece.

The new works continue to keep opera relevant. Without them, opera is a museum piece."


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