There’s no real doubt as to which production is the star of the season in this year’s Santa Fe Opera: that title is claimed by the world première of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain. Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer are standing on the shoulders of giants: Charles Frazier’s novel won the U.S. National Book Award, and Anthony Minghella’s 2003 movie won an oscar for Renée Zellweger as well as a boatload of other nominations. Higdon’s music has impressed our reviewers with its sheer energy and her ability to develop conversation between soloists and orchestra, while the harrowing story of a Civil War deserter desperate to return to his loved one should be perfectly framed by Santa Fe’s spectacular setting.

Whatever opera is being staged, that setting is one of Santa Fe’s trump cards. The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette describes “a shining white cloud in the red hills” and “a natural pageant of cloud and wind, sunset and the occasional thunderstorm”. The sunsets over the red mountains can be as dramatic as anything dreamed up by the most extrovert of operatic set designers.

But this festival is about far more than its exotic setting. What’s notable is that all five operas presented are new productions, each with a director eager to make their mark. The operas span the old and the new, the famous and the less familiar, the scandalous and the light hearted.

The oldest opera in the festival, the least often performed, and the one composed at the youngest age (Mozart was just 18) is La finta giardiniera, combining the talents of highly experienced conductor Harry Bicket with a young and exciting cast. La finta giardiniera's delicious music and madcap farce delighted audiences at Glyndebourne last summer, and director Tim Albery promises to delight Santa Fe audiences with an opera that he describes as a “crazy maelstrom of youthful emotions” and “a perfect piece for people who don’t know a lot about opera”.

High in both the “light hearted” and “famous” categories is Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment. Director Ned Canty has good comic credentials with the 2011 The Last Savage: he talks about wanting to reclaim the soul of the piece and show it as “a great work of art”, complaining that most productions cut the piece to ribbons by removing a great deal of the dialogue, taking out all the sentiment and leaving in only the frothy comedy. For him, it’s a unique opera in showing “people a generation older finding the second chance at love” in parallel with the more common tale of young lovers. Conductor Speranza Scappucci, making her Santa Fe debut, is relatively new to the opera podium but brings years of experience as a repetiteur, so expect the voices to be well drilled!

Opening on Independence Day, this year’s Rigoletto sees Santa Fe debuts from another young conductor, Jader Bignamini, and from two U.S. singers who have been impressing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey has sung notable renditions of the jester’s blistering Act II aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” both in Canada and at English National Opera, while Georgia Jarman, who sings Gilda, captivated the critics in this year’s Król Roger at Covent Garden, “throwing her voice with aplomb” around Szymanowski’s high wire coloratura. Jarman, a recent parent herself, is particularly taken by the characterisation of Rigoletto as the over-protective parent. Kelsey and Jarman are joined by seasoned Santa Fe performer Brian Hymel, one of the top lyric tenors on the circuit.

The story of a very different sort of father-daughter relationship is provided with Salome. Conductor David Robertson is fascinated by the virtuosity of Richard Strauss’s orchestration, galvanised by the way the orchestra behaves as one of the protagonists telling the story, and enthuses about many different ways in which Strauss treats the voice. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny has sung Jochanaan over 200 times, but this is his Santa Fe debut. Both Robertson and McKinny note how appropriate the Santa Fe setting is to Salome, an opera taking place in a rich garden in the midst of desert.

And that’s a phrase that can apply to Santa Fe Opera as a whole: a rich cultural garden in the midst of stunning desert landscape.