By Erica Miner
This season’s San Diego Opera opening production of Puccini’s La bohème also serves as Resident Conductor Karen Keltner’s swan song with the company. Since her beginnings with SDO in 1982, Keltner, who was instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling for women in her field, has evolved into a valuable presence, conducting a wide variety of repertoire, from her beloved French operas to groundbreaking premieres of contemporary works. In this interview she discusses her panoply of experiences with famous directors, conductors, and opera luminaries like Dame Joan Sutherland.
EM: Congratulations on your wonderful opening night!
KK: Thank you. It was exciting wasn’t it? The adrenaline of the moment. There was a whole difference in the feeling with the excitement of this opening night from the uncertainty of those last performances of Don Quichotte last season (http://www.laopus.com/2014/04/furlanetto-conquers-la-mancha-with.html). It was a wonderful opera to do in those circumstances because Quichotte wasn’t a man who was going to give up, even in death. At that time we weren’t sure whether death was imminent. What an honor and privilege to be working that particular show with that particular artist (Ferruccio Furlanetto) in those circumstances. And then, par contre, last Saturday night. Everybody felt that kind of build up when we were busy rehearsing, but the actual night - I had just gotten word as I stepped onto the concourse that we were sold out. That can definitely help raise your spirits. It was ebullient, exhilarating. The atmosphere out there was electric. Vendors and food and mobs of people.
EM: Like the second act of bohème.
KK: Yes, what a wonderful comparison!
EM: How did you feel about ending with bohème given your love for French opera?
KK: As a child I was adopted but I actually was half Italian. I feel I have a Latin - be it French, be it Italian - temperament to a degree. So it’s fantastic doing bohème as the final one in my tenure as a full-time member of this company. I love that opera. I always have. I never in my wildest dreams could choreograph the setting where I would get to do this. It all just came about. I enjoyed tremendously working with Isabella (Bywater, bohème director). We come from such different traditions but her energy, her passion, her freshness, her engagement with what she did I found wonderfully refreshing. The show appeals so much to the audiences and the way the set works - no long gaps of curtain down, stage set change - the evocative quality of it. I almost smelled Gauloises cigarettes as I was rehearsing. That has not happened to me in a bohème before. And she designed all the costumes.
EM: I was very impressed. To do something like that with basically one set was brilliant. I’m usually very skeptical of non-traditional period settings, having come from the Met, but I think I like this production even better than the traditional. If you know Paris and know French, it works. Like Midnight in Paris.
KK: Yes! It put me in the setting much more than any other of today’s productions.
EM: In addition to congratulating you on opening night, I wanted to congratulate you on your imminent…
KK: Stepping down? [Laughs] Retirement to me it has such an ominous sound. I don’t plan to retire. To me somebody who retires backs off, sits on the couch and doesn’t do anything. 35 years of music administration - it’s fine, I did well - but doing anything for 35 years is grinding after a while. I’ve been using all sorts of euphemisms but what I’m hoping is to back off of doing that. I was at a university before I came here and then teaching assistant at Indiana (University). It’s been a long haul so I’m going to take at least two weeks and pretend it’s a vacation. [Laughs]
EM: What are your plans?
KK: My aspiration is to continue conducting, in collaboration with SDO and other companies. I’ve always said that if I die I hope it’s on the podium - at the end of an opera rather than in the middle! It will probably be difficult and challenging but I’m hopeful. I’m looking forward to continuing as senior conductor of the Utah Opera Festival, opera and music theater. This is going to be my 19th summer as one of two conductors. I’m hoping to do more conducting of opera around. I feel excited because there are so many things that could happen. I’ve dreamed of writing. I want to look around and see and feel and experience and do. There are people I want to catch up with. The whole reason I have a career is that it takes a village for all of us. A lot of those people who gave me chances are still around. Richard Bonynge called me the other day. He’d just heard about my retirement. It was wonderful talking to him. I’d love to catch up with him again. Eduardo (Mueller, former SDO Music Director) - we spoke a few weeks ago - he heard about opening night and said it was wonderful that the company was continuing. My conducting mentor, Fiora Contino, who I think is going to be 90 - I’m going to see her in the spring.
EM: What will you do at the Utah Festival?
KK: Musicals - Carousel and La Mancha. I love musicals. I grew up in a house where we had records of musicals - it was not an “opera” house. When I heard my first opera I was enchanted. At Indiana I became a devotee, admirer and “practicer” of opera. But I have two sides of the coin, which are very much a part of my heart. Musicals are American, our contribution to the musical world, but of course I hope I can continue to do opera because I really love it with all my heart.
EM: As do we all.
KK: As someone who’s always sought out the wisdom of older people, I’m starting now to discover how wonderful it is also to be around and interact with younger people. I’m looking forward to finding ways to do that too, because it’s important. And I don’t know how it happened - I turned around and a decade or two have passed. There may come a day when I really will miss making budgets, making sure the pianos are tuned and arrangements are made, communicating cuts with other conductors, organizing the rights and royalties to use for certain works we’re doing. But it might be a little while.
EM: It’s probably a long time in coming. What are some of your fondest memories at SDO?
KK: The first opera I conducted was Barber with Hermann Prey. I was a green kid, and I made arrangements to meet him at his hotel a day or two before rehearsals started. I remember knocking on his door and being nervous. The door opened and there was this wonderfully engaging smile. We sat down and started discussing the part. He said, “You know, I have never been conducted by a… woman .” I said, “Believe me, I’ve never conducted Hermann Prey.” He was one of the most generous collaborators. You learn from someone like that musically and as an artist, but also about the art of being a wonderful human being. Susanne Mentzer was the mezzo - I adore Susie. It was a wonderful production. I will always have it etched in my heart and mind. I first came as a pianist-music assistant and was supposed to play, in my fashion, and I did, Werther with an Argentinian conductor, and in my nervousness every blue note I hit I can still see him going [grimaces]. Poor man. My first assistant conductor assignment was to Richard Bonynge in Fledermaus with both Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills.
EM: What a way to start.
KK: I remember sitting in the house taking notes, then going to Bonynge’s dressing room and saying, “At rehearsal #32, the orchestra kind of…” I faltered and he said, “Well spit it out, darling, that’s what you’re here for [Laughs]. I said, “I couldn’t hear Dame Joan.” He said, “Well thank you, that’s what we’ll do.” They’ve become dear friends. I sat with her in their chalet in Switzerland once and sewed curtains with her.
EM: I loved watching them work together at the Met, all the repartee.
KK: I remember her saying to him once, “Well you don’t have to sing it, do you?” [Laughs] Can you imagine for a kid coming in to be around that? I loved it. They were just gracious. They’d stay after performances to sign programs and records for their public. She’d been standing with sixty pounds of costumes on her. I said to him, “Both of you are so gracious.” He said, “Darling, I was a fan once. I still am.”
Next, Part 2: More opera stars, Keltner memories and thoughts
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at email@example.com