An inscription over the main entrance of Joe Illick and Gina Browning’s Santa Fe home both defines their lives and acts as a dedication of purpose for their house:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams.
They’re lines from Ode, a well-known 1873 poem by the English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.
Some homes seem to have destiny built into their foundations. In Illick and Browning’s home, destiny and history fill the living space with harmonic beauty.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the main house’s common room, the first room visitors enter and the only one that many get to see. For decades after the home was built in the 1920s, this large space was used as a one-room schoolhouse. Later, American poet Winfield Townley Scott and his wife, Eleanor, called the house home until his death in 1968. A couple of other owners came and went, and the original house was expanded. But it patiently awaited a return to its original mission.
When Illick and Browning bought the house in 1999, they brought the one-room schoolhouse alive with music — and filled it, again, with students.
“This room is used for practicing, teaching and performances,” says Illick as he opens the door. “We like to invite people here for living-room concerts presenting from one to as many as 10 performers. We can seat up to 65 people.
“But mostly, we both give lessons in this room, so it is back to teaching.”
Scoring a place in their home as a concert guest or a student is a privilege. Husband-and-wife Illick and Browning are an American opera power couple. Illick, a trained concert pianist, has served as artistic director for prestigious opera companies, including those in Miami and Pittsburgh, and he has conducted operas on stages around the world — among them, Vienna, London and San Francisco.
Since 2002, Illick has been the music director of the Fort Worth Opera; he’s won critical acclaim recently for performances of La Traviata (2015), La Bohème (2013) and Silent Night (named by the Star-Telegram as the best classical music event of 2014). He will return to Bass Hall in the spring to conduct The Barber of Seville, one of three works in the 2016 Fort Worth Opera Festival.
Browning, a soprano, sang professionally for 23 years, including leads with houses in Europe and throughout the United States; her signature roles included Violetta (La Traviata), Musetta (La Bohème) and Pamina (The Magic Flute). She also created a number of roles in contemporary operas, Illick says, and she was a regular soloist with the Austrian Radio Orchestra.
Illick and Browning met in London in 1978 when she was taking voice lessons in the studio where he was an accompanist at the Royal College of Music.
The couple lived in London for five years, and in Vienna for four, before returning to the United States. Browning had been an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera and Ilick later worked there as a rehearsal pianist, and they both fell in love with the New Mexico city well known for its arts and culture — including one of the best opera companies in the world.
Illick and Browning travel around the globe many weeks of the year but call this house in the heart of Santa Fe home. Their “living room soirees” are part of the community outreach efforts of Performance Santa Fe, of which Illick is general director and Browning is education director.
Three buildings make up their estate — the main house and two smaller structures, which were a chicken coop and horse stable in the 1920s. The compound sits on three-quarters of an acre and includes nine gardens. “The architectural style is called ‘Territorial,’” Illick says, “with canales (rain spouts), adobe-colored stucco, vigas (beams) and latillas (small beams). We still have some real adobe walls with huge mud bricks.”
The living room’s center of attention is a gleaming grand piano by Bösendorfer, considered the best piano maker in the world. “We brought this with us from Vienna,” Illick says, referring to the years when he was a graduate student in conducting at the Vienna Conservatory. “They made us an amazing deal on it.”
Behind this public room is a large, professionally appointed kitchen. A cobalt-blue stove and refrigerator add a touch of whimsy, as do blue paint accents throughout. “The kitchen was painted blue by previous owners, and we loved it,” Illick says.
An extensive collection of shining steel pots and pans hangs from the ceiling, proving that the space is not only decorative but also eminently practical. Like every other corner of the house, the kitchen is immaculate but not in a stiff, take-your-shoes-off-at-the-door manner. Every room feels comfortable, lived in and livable — perfect for the gracious, unassuming couple, who regularly offer their home to out-of-town guests. There’s not a whiff of the snobbishness often associated (however unfairly) with “opera people.”
Throughout the main house, artwork covers the colorful walls — many are portraits of Browning performing — and fascinating objects abound. A column in the center of a red, domed room is a working fountain.
“The artwork is eclectic; the unifying theme is that we found something inspiring, moving, beautiful or whimsical about everything we have in our house,” Illick says. “We are not art collectors.”
Out of sight from the public areas is a labyrinth of living areas that were added on one at a time. First-time visitors become slightly disoriented as narrow corridors open into larger rooms. One pathway, a secret passage of sorts, winds past one of the original stucco walls — with the straw still visible — and suddenly opens into the couple’s split-level bedroom. The upper level has the actual bed, and the lower level is a more private living room.
Another path leads to Browning’s office. Farther on, it winds through a small room — more like a widening of the corridor — filled with a stunning collection of intricately adorned religious objets d’art from India.
“Since we met in London, we are fascinated by India,” Illick says. “We have been there a number of times, but it will take many more trips to begin to really see what is there.”
Outside, each of the nine gardens is compact but displays its own identity. The first has a two-person swing tucked in the foliage. “We bought this in Santa Fe,” Illick says, “but it was made in India, so it fit in naturally with our decor.”
One striking element in this garden is a sculpture of a woman emerging from a larger tree stump. “The outer tree was so rotten that another tree was growing in it, so we asked a sculptor to carve something out of each tree,” Illick says.
All of the gardens feature much greenery, and one even sports a lush, golf course-worthy lawn. There are two self-maintaining ponds with flowing water, one with large carp — not a landscape one might expect to find in the Santa Fe desert. But none of this is the result of a profligate use of city water.
“When Gina began the garden project,” Illick says, “I laid a drip system that winds through all of the greenery. Also, on the other side of that wall, we have a series of water holding tanks that contain many thousands of gallons of water. It collects the rains, and we use it when water is scarce.”
The back porch and adjacent intimate gardens are part of the house that the public never sees. A covered outdoor living room is tucked into a corner of the gardens. A small adobe fireplace is built into one corner.
“When we bought the house, the Realtor called it a ‘fixer upper,’ so we were warned,” Illick says. “It was the biggest fixer upper ever!” One of the ceilings was falling in, he says, the walls were cracking, and nothing was growing but buffalo grass. And then there was this problematic chimney. “Before we built a fire in it, we had a fireplace guy come out to look at it. He told us that he had condemned it years ago,” he says. “Fortunately, it was fixable.”
One unusual sight in the gardens is a series of treehouses hidden in the branches. These were built for their son, Eric, who was 3 when they moved in and is now a teenager.
“Right after we moved in, Eric discovered a 50-foot well in the back of the compound and was just about to climb down to explore it,” Illick says. “After the city told us that it couldn’t be used, we reluctantly filled it in. The treehouses gave him somewhere safer to explore.”
Around a corner, two very active beehives come into view. “Our bees are very happy,” Illick says as he motions to take a closer look. “Bees do a dance when they come back to the hive to say, ‘Honey is here.’” (I take his word for it.)
A small satellite building that once housed a chicken coop is now a cozy guesthouse. And the old stable became a bright and airy studio for Illick, complete with another grand piano and an extensive library of books and scores. A peek inside reveals a score for Fort Worth Opera’s Barber of Seville, as well as a manuscript of a new work Illick is composing.
Upon leaving down the dusty road and back into the heart of Santa Fe, a backward glance at the home and its poetic beauty brings a smile. One can’t help but think that the rest of Ode might be as fitting an anthem for these music makers as those first famous lines:
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.