Breaking Traditions: Karen Keltner
San Diego Opera Resident Conductor Karen Keltner knows about pushing envelopes. One of the few female conductors to hold that position in an opera company, in the U.S. or overseas, she always knew the path to becoming a conductor would be uphill, but also recognized that for a woman, that road would consist of more bumps than a mogul ski run.
Such obstacles did not stop Maestro Keltner, who first felt the call to the podium as a student at Indiana University in the 1980s. Recently she and I sat down to discuss her background, as well as some landmark characteristics of composer Jake Heggie’s powerful opera, Moby-Dick, which the maestro will be helming for its San Diego Opera premiere on Feb. 18, 2012.
EM: When, why and how did you decide to become a musician, and especially a conductor?
KK: At Indiana University I was a double major in French and piano, and I felt torn when it came time to choose between them. I had learned a tremendous amount accompanying vocal students in (renowned opera singer) Eileen Farrell’s studio at IU and had always loved theater; and since my birth father’s roots were in Calabria, opera ran through my veins. Conducting opera seemed the perfect way to fulfill my passion for both theater and music.
EM: Given the many barriers facing women in this profession, especially at that time, were you hesitant to pursue your calling?
KK: When you have a passion, you don’t see the obstacles.
EM: Once you recognized your desire to conduct, how did you go after that passion?
KK: My mentor and first major musical influence was Fiora Contino, who as a woman conductor at IU was way ahead of her time. One day I summoned up my courage, knocked on her door, came in and said to her, ‘I want to conduct.’ There was a very long silence. Then she said, ‘You’d better start.’ And we did.
EM: What came next?
KK: After that unique opportunity to access Maestro Contino’s amazing musical mind and instincts, I earned my B.A. in French and B.S., Masters of Music and Doctorate at IU and studied with the great Nadia Boulanger at l’École Americaine de Fontainebleau. Then I taught at the University of Central Florida and was accepted at the San Diego Opera-sponsored Opera Institute for young American conductors. I was their token woman (laughs).
EM: Did you confirm your passion for the theater while you were in the program? Who did you work with there, and who were some of your young colleagues?
KK: I found that I not only loved, but also ADORED, the theater. Maestro Edoardo Müller, who was a wonderful teacher, especially in the Italian operatic tradition, ran the program. One of my colleagues was Andrew Litton. I believe you’ve worked with both of them as a violinist at the Met.
EM: Yes, and coincidentally it was Maestro Müller who conducted my last performance there. But tell me, how does it feel to be a female in the mostly male world of conductors? Any experiences you’d like to share?
KK: In past decades, female conductors were ‘off the radar’ though not so much anymore. When I started out with the SDO program, they said, ‘You’re our first.’ Sarah Caldwell was a pioneer; she had a great sense of theater, and enormous courage. Marin Alsop is another ‘giant’ among women on the opera podium.
EM: Let’s talk about your helming of Moby-Dick. Do you approach an opera differently when the composer is still living?
KK: Well, yes, he is there, after all, to consult with and ask questions. Jake is very approachable. And he speaks eloquently about his work.
EM: What are some of the unique qualities of his music?
KK: Jake has a gift for poetic language. His music is not only dramatic, but also picturesque; it captures the imagery of the drama. He understands the theatricality of opera, and is the epitome of the composer as ‘stage animal.’ The music for Moby-Dick is eminently recognizable as Jake’s own, and not someone else’s. It’s organic to who he is. The music flows in a natural way; it’s sophisticated rhythmically, and has its own distinctive style. Jake has a beautiful, unique skill for his art; his passion is perhaps more deeply felt than that of other twentieth-century composers.
EM: I personally think San Diego will love Moby-Dick. Do you agree?
EM: What makes this opera attractive to audiences today?
KK: The world premiere in Dallas in 2010 was a smash in every way. The production is stunning to behold, and our cast is sensational. The music is seductively beautiful, its depth is palpable. For the audience it’s a gift, a banquet for the ears. They will be pulled in, put in touch with their emotions, with their own ‘true heart’… Not everyone has the patience to read the novel, but Gene Scheer’s compelling yet accessible libretto captures the essence and thrust of the book, with its themes of obsession and tragedy. The opera has everything: passion, character intrigue, and a gripping plot. From the beginning, the music, with its ceaseless sense of sea, puts the people right there. They will not just be listening; they will be feeling.
EM: Recently you’ve conducted numerous French operas at SDO such as Don Quichotte, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and Samson et Dalila. Do you have a special fondness for French repertoire? Which other French opera or operas would you choose to conduct at SDO?
KK: I love the French repertoire, but it’s very challenging. You must combine great passion with accuracy and transparency. I’ve also enjoyed conducting such American operas as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ I would love to conduct Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des ‘Carmélites’ someday.
EM: That sounds eminently doable, Maestro. Thanks so much for all your insights.
KK: You are very welcome.
Photos by Karen Almond / Courtesy of The Dallas Opera