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Kathleen Kelly
11 Jan 2016

A Chat With Up-and-Coming Conductor Kathleen Kelly

Kathleen Kelly is an internationally renowned pianist, coach, conductor, and master teacher. She was the first woman and first American named Director of Musical Studies at the Vienna State Opera.

A Chat With Up-and-Coming Conductor Kathleen Kelly

An interview by Maria Nockin

Above: Kathleen Kelly [Photos courtesy of Kathleen Kelly]


While there, she was the recitative accompanist for new productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro. She has curated recital series at both the Vienna State Opera and Houston Grand Opera. Last year she joined the faculty of the University of Michigan as that school’s first Coach and Conductor of Opera. She will conduct Cosi fan tutte there in March 2016.

MN: Kathleen Kelly, does one call you Maestra or Maestro?

KK: I prefer Maestra. Either word means teacher. When I was studying, the convention was to call every conductor “Maestro.” “Maestra is what you call your elementary school teacher!” said one of my mentors. Well, not if that teacher is a man! In my opinion, that old convention was a way of saying that men should not be teachers of little children, and women shouldn’t be on the podium. Old sexism was reflected in the language, but the language itself doesn’t make the sexism. The Italian word for teacher is a noun that shows gender, nothing more. And my gender is female, so I’m proudly Maestra Kelly.

Classical music is an inherently conservative art that preserves the music and traditions of former times. Maybe that is why change is so slow in our profession. But change does happen! I remember when I was ten years old, my Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota had its first female pastor. I remember all the talk, pro and con, about her. Such a controversy—and now, a generation later, female pastors are everywhere. Classical music is slower than the Lutheran Church. Wrap your head around that!

MN: Tell me about how you got started as a musician.

KK: Growing up in Northfield was such an important part of my musical life. The first great music I heard was from the St. Olaf Choir. I loved its sound quality and the expressive way the singers used words. We moved to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was a junior in high school. After that, I attended Arizona State University from which I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. I feel fortunate to have gone to college in the nineteen eighties when tuition was low. To support myself, I had the usual array of freelance piano gigs, voice lessons and church jobs. I always found myself drawn to work with singers.


MN: Are there some artists of the past whose work has influenced you?

KK: I’m joining a not-very-exclusive club when I say Leonard Bernstein. He commanded all styles. He was a fantastic pianist, a great musical theater composer, and a wonderful conductor of serious music. He was a renowned music educator. He wanted to bring knowledge of the repertoire that he cared about to everyone. He remains the great beacon of the classical tradition in American culture. Who does not hold him in front as a standard?

MN: Who were your most influential teachers?

KK: One was Patrick Summers, the artistic and general director of Houston Grand Opera. He was the very young music director of the San Francisco Opera Center when I joined that company as an apprentice. He was instrumental in introducing me to opera. I had always played for singers and I was a good pianist, but I didn’t know the opera repertoire or how to approach it as a coach. He was one of my most important mentors in that regard. He taught me how to study a score, study a language, and study a character. He showed me how to put it all in historical context. Also, I learned a great deal from Kathy Cathcart who directed the Center. Later, I worked with James Levine at the Met and learned even more from him.

Sylvia Debenport was the head of the opera workshop at ASU during the late seventies and eighties. I played for a couple of operas during my last year at that school. That is where the opera bug first bit me. Sylvia was a magnificent teacher and one of the most innovative that I have ever seen. She did not merely translate. She used specific coaching and acting techniques to consolidate a language into students’ bodies. A true taskmaster, she had very high standards. She was kind but exacting. I admired her enormously and she remains a model for me.

MN: Where do you now teach?

KK: Now I am very happy to be the first Conductor of Opera at the University of Michigan. I also coach at the Michigan Opera Theater’s new resident artist program, which is right in the university’s backyard. I’m also a regular guest coach for the Domingo-Cafritz Program at the Washington National Opera. I regularly make my way around to YAPs at Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, and Wolf Trap. Now I’m adding universities to that itinerary: Vanderbilt, Baylor, Western Ontario, Toronto. I love being the regular teacher in one place, and the visitor in many others. It keeps the blood flowing!

MN: What did you learn from your teachers that you are passing on to your students?

KK: I want my students to engage in a successful method of combining their text with its music. They need to understand how the composer was inspired by the story, the words, and how the words drove the musical line. Human beings have so many coloristic and expressive resources that are hard wired in us. Think of how much variety there is in the expression of human speech. We don’t plan that variety. It comes out as we are inspired by what we are saying as each of us follows our own creative spark. In a way, as re-creative musicians, we work backwards from the result to the inspiration. We replant it back into all those hard wired processes. What we want to have come out the other side should feel like a spontaneous creation. It’s hard work but it’s endlessly interesting. It’s the work of a lifetime. If I can help people engage in that, to me that is the essence of teaching and collaboration.

MN: How much work did you have to do to make Emmerich Kálmán’s Arizona Lady ready for performance by Arizona Opera?

KK: A lot! The premiere in 1953 occurred during a still-difficult time in post-war Europe. There were things to be addressed in the orchestration that certainly were addressed at the premiere but which weren’t reflected in the orchestral material. There were problems with making the piece ready for American audiences, too. The second act has a ton of dialogue and very little music. That can work in a small theater, with stars that are well loved by the audience, but in the big barns where we perform in the United States it could be deadly!

For Arizona, we consolidated some characters and eliminated others. We moved a duet from Act I to Act II and interpolated some music from the appropriate era into a party scene, much as many companies do with Die Fledermaus. I adapted almost all the dialogue and lyrics into English, but with the help of the poet and fellow ASU alumnus, Alberto Rios, we also had some dialogue and lyrics in Spanish for the Mexican characters, and left some in the original German for our heroine, Lona. All of this was done with the goal of helping the audience connect with the piece in a more personal way, which is part of the tradition of operetta.

MN: Do you have an anecdote from the “Opera Wars” for us?

KK: I don’t like to tell tales out of school! We’re so intimate in our work with one another, that we have the chance to see each other at our most vulnerable, and sometimes at our worst. A creative rehearsal space has to have room for that, and I feel strongly that we must protect this. I will take this opportunity to talk about one thing, which is the increased tightening of rehearsal time in our profession. Much of that is simply due to financial constraints. However, another factor is plain old boring money. Singers and conductors at the top of the profession, because they can draw audience, have the chance to fit as much work in as possible. They often join the rehearsal process late. This forces the music toward an ever more safe and conservative middle road. There’s no substitute for taking time to know each other, experiment, take chances, fail, and find the road. The world is a huge and diverse place and there are so many interesting artists out there. I hope we continue to invest in creating chances for their voices to be heard.

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