Conductor  Christopher  Keene

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Conductor Christopher Keene's life was tragically cut short, but the achievements in his 48 years were significant, and what he accomplished lives on in memory and recordings.

The text of the following biography has been adapted from the entry in Wikipedia.  Names which are links throughout this page refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.

Christopher Keene (December 21, 1946 - October 8, 1995) was a highly-acclaimed American conductor.

Born in Berkeley, California, Keene studied at the University of California, Berkeley. Associated with the Spoleto Festival from 1968 (and was Music Director there from 1972 to 1976), he was Co-Founder of the Spoleto Festival USA, where he was Music Director from 1977 to 1980. From 1969 to 1971 he was Music Director of Eliot Feld's American Ballet Company.

In 1969, Keene joined the staff of the New York City Opera, where he debuted the following year with Ginastera's Don Rodrigo. He was to conduct a great array of operas at that theatre, including the world premiere of Menotti's The Most Important Man in 1971, as well as La Traviata, Le Nozze di Figaro, The Makropoulos Case, Susannah, Tosca, Beatrix Cenci, Faust, Die Zauberflöte, L'incoronazione di Poppea, Ariadne auf Naxos, Médée (in the Italian version), I Puritani (with Beverly Sills), Salome, A Village Romeo and Juliet, La fanciulla del West, Andrea Chénier, L'amour des trois oranges, The Turn of the Screw, Schönberg's Moses und Aron, and Zimmermann's Die Soldaten.

Keene also conducted at the Metropolitan Opera during a single season, a double-bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in 1971. From 1974 to 1989, he was Music Director of the Artpark Festival in Buffalo, and from 1975 to 1985 held the same post at the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. He was Founder of the Long Island Philharmonic in 1979, and directed it until 1990. In 1976, he led the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Bilby's Doll at the Houston Grand Opera.

At the City Opera, Sills named him Music Director from 1982 to 1986, and he succeeded her as General Director in 1989, a position he held until his untimely death. Keene had undergone treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center, and died from lymphoma arising from AIDS, at New York Hospital, at the age of forty-eight. His last performance, at the City Opera, was of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler.

He was seen over PBS conducting The Consul (1977) and Vanessa (1979) from Spoleto USA, and Frank Corsaro's City Opera productions of Madama Butterfly (1982) and Carmen (1984). Keene's discography includes the first recording of Philip Glass' Satyagraha (for CBS/Sony, 1984), and John Corigliano's score to Ken Russell's film Altered States (on RCA, 1980).


A Memorial Tribute, which was published at the time of his death, is included at the end of this webpage.

This interview was recorded backstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago in October of 1987, while Keene was conducting Satyagraha by Philip Glass.  Besides my regular radio work on WNIB, Classical 97, I was also a regular contributor to several magazines, including Wagner News, which is why we also discussed those works in some detail.

The conductor had finished a five-season tenure as Music Director of the New York City Opera the previous year, so we began right there . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you glad to be rid of the administrative tasks?

Christopher Keene:    Absolutely.  I think that you would find in the history of eminent and semi-eminent conductors that they all have periods of trying to administrate opera houses, and they all run away from it as soon as they possibly can.  There’s a story of Sir John Barbirolli meeting Arturo Toscanini on the street sometime around 1938.  Barbirolli said, “My God, maestro you look fantastic.  What’s your secret?”  Toscanini said, “Five years and no opera!”

BD:    Is conducting opera invigorating rather than bewildering?

CK:    Yes, conducting opera is thrilling, but having the administrative responsibilities for 140 performances a year under circumstances that cannot always guarantee a quality performance is very trying.  Every night you need a tenor and there aren’t that many good tenors to go around; there aren’t that many front-rank sopranos and baritones, especially under the City Opera’s financial circumstances.  Very often we’d have to put on performances that we knew in advance were not up to the standard we wanted to represent.  I think that’s true of every opera house.

BD:    Should the position of Music Director be filled by a working musician, or, rather, by a professional administrator?

CK:    I think it must be filled by a working musician.  Whether it’s possible to have a full-time career as a conductor and tend to the artistic fortunes of an opera house full-time is a question you go back and forth on.  Certainly the insights and practical knowledge of a conductor are indispensable.  The other side of the question is whether it doesn’t finally put such strain on you so you can’t enjoy conducting and devote yourself to it and make as much of a contribution as you’d like.

BD:    Has it at all made you a better conductor having sat in the administrator’s chair?

CK:    I think it has made me appreciate every minute I spend in the pit as an artist.  Absolutely.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

CK:    Yeah.  Conducting is incredible fun.  It’s the most fun you can have in your whole life!  It occupies you on so many levels of your imagination and your thought process.  You have to be hearing what’s happening, preparing what’s going to happen, be thinking about what has happened and what has to be fixed.  At the same time you have to be sensitive to what is the larger spiritual picture of the music as well as the whole energy profile of the event itself.  It’s incredibly stimulating, and physically very invigorating, too.  This piece, Satyagraha, is brain-pulverizing, or rather stimulating in ways different from any other piece I’ve ever done.  For one thing, I count all evening long, which is something most musicians are able to give up after grade school.  You learn the music and then you conduct the music; you conduct the phrasing.  Here there is no phrasing as such.  There are just large blocks of geometric progressions.

BD:    Have you ever thought of having an assistant prompter just to count for you?

CK:    When we did Akhnaten at the City Opera, I tried the system like they have in a bakery
"Now serving number 63"because the biggest problem is just keeping track of where you are with all of the repeats.  But I insisted on doing it myself, at the right psychological moment pushing all the buttons, and I got confused and couldnt erase it.  It was a terrible mess and I got rid of the bakery sign as fast as I could. 

BD:    Would it help to have a screen, like the one for the supertitles, on which your score would move along so you
d always be seeing the right place?

CK:    It wouldn
t help me because now I conduct this piece more or less from memory.  And everyone has a different reading speed and a different fall-back speed where the eye goes backwards.  In this piece, youll often appear to be stuck in a loop for sixteen or twenty repeats which can be as much as a minute and a half of time.  If you were at the mercy of the moving screen, youd find yourself like a drowning man; you’d miss the rhythm of it and then it would be very difficult to get back on.  It’s not as difficult as it sounds.  It’s difficult to execute at first, and for the musicians it’s extremely maddening.  But if you talk to them after the first rehearsal and then after the last performance, you’d find two very different responses to what the experience of performing this music is like.  At the beginning they find it impossible, destructive, maddening...

BD:    How destructive?

CK:    Your fingers get tired; your arm gets tired; it's like a stationary bicycle at times.  People try to play it very heavily at first, especially string players who dig into the forte passages, and then it becomes extremely taxing and tiring.  They
’re shaking their hands as if they’re suffering from tendentious.  Finally they learn to stagger, to play eight bars then rest four bars while their stand partner spells them for that period, but it all has to be worked out.  It’s extremely technicalas you can imagine if you simply tried to sing the same four notes over and over again 150 times.  It takes tremendous technical control.  After a while you lose all sense of pitch, you lose all sense of number of repeats, all sense of timewhich is partly Glass’s intention in this kind of mantric music, to overwhelm your ordinary musical expectations and make you shift onto a different plane of perception. 

BD:    Was this all true as well when you made the recording of this opera?

CK:    Yes, but the recording was made under strange circumstances.  The recording was supervised by Phil Glass
’s recording team, which has made all his pop records and all the recordings that have established his reputation on such a wide scale.  They are accustomed to working in multi tracks.  In other words, for a four-minute song they'll record the rhythm first and the guitar second and finally the vocal track gets laid on top of it.  The complete recording of Satyagraha was made on this basis, so there was a whole day of string basses and then we did the violas and we did the cellos; we did the chorus separately and finally the last thing to be added was the singers on top.  So, all the forces were never in the room at the same time. 


BD:    I would think that would be maddening for you to try to coordinate it all.

CK:    It was very maddening, and we all had a click-track which had been laid down by the composer himself.  We listened to the click-track which kept the beat, and the result is that the recording is exceedingly accurate in terms of lining up the notes
probably more accurate than we could ever conceive of it being done in live performance... though I must say that here in Chicago we’ve attained a high level of accuracy thanks to the excellence of the chorus and orchestra!  So the recording is accurate, but it doesn’t represent any performance that ever took place.

BD:    It lacks heart?

CK:    I don
’t know that.  I know that when I hear it, I don’t identify with it as a real experience.  It is thirty-five separate experiences of the thirty-five tracks that were laid down.  Ordinarily you’d go into a room with all the forces and do large chunks of the opera, if not in sequence, at least in some kind of intelligent sequence.  This was done in a completely abstract and technical manner. 

BD:    Having performed it, though, at least you were able to keep some of it together, and you knew where all the pieces were to drop in.

CK:    Yes, although I
’m not sure it would have mattered because the track itself was laid down by the composer.  All the rhythms were pre-determined, all the ritards were pre-determined, and all of the balances were adjusted by machine rather than by the conductor.  So much of what I ordinarily do was superfluous.

BD:    Have you kept those composer-supervised intentions in your head for these performances here in Chicago?

CK:    No, absolutely not.  I think that every performance is different.  Every acoustic demands a different set of tempi; every set of soloists is different, and vocal weight determines how fast you take things.  How large the hall is also determines how fast you take things.  How large the chorus and orchestra are, and the requirements of the staging and the energy support levels that the music requires to give the staging life and a platform on which to appear changes from performance to performance.  The staging here is very different from any we have done before, and, of course, the recording wasn
’t tied to any staging at all.  So the repeats are different in the recording from what we do in the theater.  There are fewer of them.  The music which makes some sense in the theater when accompanied by action simply would sound too repetitious if you’re only listening to it on a recording, so we eliminated a lot of repeats on the recording which we restored for the theater performances.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    As the conductor in the theater, is all your work done in rehearsal or do you leave something for that spontaneous spark in performance?

CK:    I would say 100% is done in rehearsal and an additional 100% is done in performance.  The goal of rehearsal is to bring the forces to the point where they really don’t need you,  That is to say, the piece will run from start to finish fairly accurately and tightly whether you’re conducting or not.  That is the goal of every rehearsal period, and leaves you free to add the spiritual impulse which comes with every performance.  If you’re still worrying about holding it together in the performance, then the rehearsals haven’t reached the proper goal.

BD:    Can a piece be over-rehearsed?

keeneCK:    Oh yes.  Not a piece like Satyagraha, although a case could be made that a piece like this would be at its best if you got a fabulous orchestra and chorus together and sight-read it.  A funny cycle occurs in putting a piece together.  Generally you read a piece at a very high level of concentration.  Everybody has their feet on the ground and looks ahead and goes, and you often achieve results in that first reading that it takes you a long time to get back.  The minute you start working on details, things start to fall apart and get worse and worse for a while.  Then by dress-rehearsal and performance things get back together.

BD:    Is that
getting-back-together better than that first sight-reading?

CK:    Yes – one would hope so… or you’ve wasted a lot of everyone’s time.  But a piece can be over-rehearsed, though it’s never happened in my lifetime simply because complex operas never have really enough time.  In Chicago we had a luxurious amount of time, but certainly not too much.  That’s something admirable about this company, that it gives the artists the time that they need to do their best work.  We were certainly never rushed through any period of the rehearsal, not the orchestral preparation, the choral preparation, the staging, nor the putting-together of the stage and the performing forces (which is usually where opera companies run out of time).  In the theater there is never enough time to get everything right.  Yet, nothing was wasted.  You could use a hundred rehearsals for the lighting alone.  Karajan was famous for his extensive lighting rehearsals.  In the theater there is never enough time to get everything right. 

BD:    As the conductor of the orchestra, how much influence do you have on the stage action or the lighting and other technical elements?

CK:    In the initial stages of a new production, especially in an opera such as Satyagraha where there is no real plot, the collaboration between myself and the stage director is very intimate.  In a reprise of an old production that is being somewhat revised, I have less input into what the director’s thinking is.  If there is a problem that the staging is causing the music, it’s the obligation and the prerogative of the conductor to speak up and ask for an adjustment.  If the climactic scene has the chorus 60 feet upstage and facing away so that they can’t get any sound and can’t see you and can’t sing together, it behooves you to ask the stage director to consider an alternate pattern of movement.

BD:    Have you ever been involved in a production where the producer was completely wrong-headed about the whole thing?

CK:    No, because if I was involved from the very beginning, we would work that out along the way, so that by the time the performances came there would not be situations that made it impossible.  One always wishes to give the director the benefit of the doubt and assume that you can find a way to achieve the musical result and still give the director his artistic freedom.  That way you grow and discover things and learn that certain actions are not impossible.  Singers can sing lying down and ensembles can hold together while not looking at the conductor, but sometimes they are impossible and you have to get the director to budge.

BD:    Do you like the trends in operatic staging these days?

CK:    If we say that the day of the conductor-as-God in opera is passed and we now have the director-as-God, I certainly cannot applaud that trend.  I think that the desire of directors to make opera visually and dramatically interesting is to be applauded, but not when it’s at the expense of musical values or of vocal values.  When casting decisions are made primarily for the way a person looks and moves rather than the way he or she sounds, the opera is probably going to suffer.   When damage is done to the intrinsic vision of a composer by changing the music or changing the period in a way that does not illustrate that the composer had in mind, then damage is being done to the music, also.  It may be that you can set Rigoletto in the 1920s and make an interesting statement about it, but if you have to twist the story from what Verdi set out
and he was a very specific composer about relationships and dramatic valuesthen you’ve gone too far.

BD:    So where in opera is the balance between the music and the drama?

CK:    The definition of opera is “dramma per musica” which means that the drama is achieved through the means of music.  As a conductor, I would say that the music is always paramount.  If you shut your eyes, the music should convey 99% of the dramatic content, whereas if you closed your ears and merely watched the stage, the quintessential element of the opera would be lost.  You’ll have to talk to the directors to get the other side of the perspective.  I can only argue one side at a time.

BD:    Is the style of Philip Glass one of the major directions music is going today?

CK:    There’s no way to answer that.  My view of contemporary music has always been that there’s no way for us to know what will survive and be played 100 years from now.  It’s very important that we play as much new music as we can, because if it’s not played now it certainly won’t be played later.  Music needs to be born, it needs to live, it needs to breathe and have a chance to find its own destiny.  If every piece was left to float on its own after the first performance, music today would be very much poorer than it is.  It’s a myth to think that every great masterpiece was instantly acclaimed at its birth.  That’s just not the truth.  Many of the most often-played pieces today were resounding failures, or at best mediocre successes at first
Carmen, Bohème, Butterfly, Barber of Seville to name just a few; Traviata also.  What fascinates me about Satyagraha is that it has been such an instant hit.  It’s always been a hit everywhere it’s been done. 

BD:    Does that worry you?

CK:    No, it fascinates me because in this day and age so little new music succeeds on any level.  It rarely succeeds at the box office, it rarely succeeds with the public, it almost never succeeds with critics, and rarely with musicians themselves.  The fact that this one fills the theater and does well at the box office is fascinating to me.  It’s producible without overtaxing the resources of a first class opera house.  I’m not a success worshipper, but I’m fascinated by the success of this music.  I
m very interested in the phenomenon of a composer who seems to be able to do what composers did in the past, but so few seem to be able to do today.

BD:    Who is it that makes the decision whether an opera gets done a hundred years down the line
– is it the composer, the public, the critics, management?

CK:    It's certainly management.  There are any number of revivals that are self-indulging on their part that are not supported by the box office or the critics.  Very often they are vehicles.  If Miss X wants to do Adrianna Lecouvreur, that is often the reason for a revival.  There are a number of pieces which are not of the first rank that managers have the commitment for and enthusiasm to bring back. 

BD:    Should we only put on the masterpieces?

CK:    No, absolutely not.  This preoccupation with masterpieces is one of the biggest obstructions to a really vital musical life that we have in this country.  The fact is that we have more opera houses and orchestras playing more performances of fewer and fewer works.  If you look over the brochures of the major orchestras in this country, you’ll discover that the repertoire is shrinking at a frightening rate.  You see more and more performances of the same fifteen pieces.  The same is true in opera companies.  We see more and more companies restricting themselves to those four or five pieces that I mentioned before as being such failures at their premieres.

BD:    OK, how do we break the cycle?

CK:    That’s up to the conductors, especially in the symphony orchestras.  They’ve simply got to refuse to give the public the same pieces that they think they want over and over again.  Nobody that I know of reads only masterpieces all the time, only the 100 great books, nor do they read only books in one tone.  Most people have a variety in what they read.  There is a truism in music that you must end a concert with a piece that
s loud and fast and brilliant and optimistic, otherwise you'll lose your audience.  But nobody reads a book on that basis; no one reads all heavy philosophy or all light entertainment.  There has to be a balance in what we read; we have to have a sense of adventure.  I don't know anybody who goes to look at the same ten pictures in a museum all the time.  It's only music which seems to be afflicted by this kind of ossification of the repertory which is very damaging.  Its damaging to young players and it’s especially damaging to young singers who are malleable, and could be trained to become the standard-bearers of a new kind of more versatile music theater.  But they ask why they should learn these new works and techniquessuch as quarter-tones and acrobaticswhen their profession is presenting fewer and fewer operas.  It takes the same amount of time to learn a role, and it’s a better investment for them to learn parts they will sing many times, such as Traviata, rather than something they will only perform once or twice.  It’s a big problem and it’s a pity because the sense of adventure has gone out of concert life.

BD:    Have you picked up the banner of new music?

CK:    I have always carried it, not to the extent that I would like to because you must strike a balance between the militancy of your own interest in esoterica and what you can expect your public to tolerate.  It isn’t just new music that isn’t played; it’s meritorious corners of old music that are ignored.  How often do we hear performances of Beethoven
’s Second and Fourth symphonies, for example, which are both masterworks, yet we can hardly go a season with hearing the Fifth and the Seventh and the Ninth drummed into our heads until we’re ready to shriek.  We very rarely hear more than the occasional Mozart and Haydn symphonies to say nothing of the early Schubert symphonies.  There’s an enormous amount of music that nobody plays that should be played and that audiences do enjoy.  Audiences do respond very favorably to what I call the "Classic American School" of Piston and Harris and Hanson, whom I love, personally.  He has gone out of fashion lately, but I play his symphonies occasionally and audiences always enjoy them.  Even the orchestra grudgingly admits that they’re full of great beauty.  What’s happened is that the conductors have become timid.  If you look at the repertory of Koussevitzky and Mitropoulos thirty and forty years ago, it was infinitely more adventurous than what we have in today’s concert halls.  You can’t tell me that at that time audiences were more sophisticated and more receptive.  I assume they were probably less, but the conductors felt less inhibited by the audience’s lack of adventure.  Perhaps, for them, America was such an un-formed country musically anyway that they simply had to forge ahead on the new frontier.  But the fact is we’re still on the new frontier as far as musical life goes.  It still has a fairly shallow history and tradition in terms of general consciousness.  The more we know about music and the more opportunity we have to hear it, the larger our framework of enjoyment is bound to be.


See my Interviews with Vincent Persichetti, Milton Babbitt, David Diamond, and James DePreist.

BD:    How has the impact of recordings changed the receptivity of the audiences?

CK:    It ought to have increased it, but it doesn’t appear to have.  In every musical community there is a small cadre of real connoisseurs who know a lot of music, and there is a much larger group who are devoted to the idea of symphonic and operatic music, but their knowledge and experience is conditioned by their social perception of the evening.  People want to have a good time, and they’re terribly concerned that everybody else is having a good time.  There have been studies that show 98% of the people who attend a symphony concert or opera performance want to “have fun.”  You get down to how many want to have a provocative or stimulating evening and it becomes one tenth of one percent.  So, conductors have become concerned that fun is had by all.  I know one well-known conductor who, when he plays the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, he reverses the last two movements so it can end with the big march.  It’s completely contrary to Tchaikovsky’s wishes, but it’s a wonderful way to get applause and the audience goes away very happy.  I suppose there are number of works with which you could take that approach
end Aïda with the Triumphal Scene so as to go out with a big bang.  [Both laugh] 

BD:    Lots of operas wind up with someone dead at the end.

CK:    Yes, there
s a lot of death.  Opera is a bloody battle field when you’re done.  I think that opera is even more of a dinosaur than symphony in a repertory sense.  There are probably about 100 symphonies and concertos that can be called “standard repertory,” but there aren’t more than 10 operas that are holding up the whole edifice of operatic activity this country.  Perhaps those works should be mandatorily retired for a few years on a rotating basis.  Rigoletto should be put away for five years; Carmen should be put away for ten years.  Everyone would benefit, and when they were brought back we would appreciate anew their greatness and freshness.  Who would do this is a problem since they are in public domain and publishers cannot control them and license them.  I do think we would all be much happier if that were the case.  We could go a long time without hearing those same pieces day in and day out. 

keeneBD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

CK:    I’m not pessimistic, but I do feel we have major cultural problems that have to be confronted on a broad institutional level.  Hindemith remarked that the real index of a country’s musical culture is not the amount of professional music-making that goes on, but rather the amount of amateur music making, meaning the number of non-professional people making music for their own instruction and edification and love; "amateur" comes from the word "to love."  Right now, it seems that we have more professional organizations producing a higher level of performance than at any previous time in our history, but we're producing it for an audience which is increasingly passive and uneducated in music themselves, and uncommitted in the sense that they have not devoted their physical and intellectual resources to mastering instruments or singing or dancing. 

BD:    Is this a problem for people in music, or just a problem of society in general?

CK:    The problem is that our society is becoming increasingly passive, and increasingly willing to accept technological representations of an experience rather than the experience itself.  The CD is an example of this.  I'm told that the CD is actually a great threat to symphony orchestras in that people don
’t want to leave their homes and go downtown and deal with parking and stand in line and sit in a hall when they could sit at home and listen to it all on a CD.  This is actually being said.  This is, of course, a very serious development.  I actually heard an advertisement on the radio for a "Live from Lincoln Center" broadcast which said, "Stay at home and hear the best performance in the world by the best performers in the world.  Don’t go downtown, don’t expose yourself to the risks of going out at night, don’t worry about parking.  Stay at home and have the best right in your living room."  This is a disastrous development if we are going to encourage people to hide from the experience of music and not to seek it out actively as participants.  Going to a concert means you have to engage yourself.  You have to decide to go there, you have to transport your body to that place, you have to engage a baby-sitter, you have to save your money for the ticket, you have to choose the program. 

BD:    You have to focus on the event.

CK:    Right.  And to the extent to which you enter into the experience, you derive something from it.

BD:    And at home there can be so many distractions.  You can go to the refrigerator, change the channel...

CK: on the telephone, fill out your income tax form, write a letter, decide to hear fifteen minutes of it tonight and the rest tomorrow
or never if it doesn’t grab you.  You can also go back and forth between conductors and do A and B comparisons, and do all kinds of things that have some validity as research, but can be frightening if they allow you disengage yourself completely from going to a place, entering into a spiritual relationship with 2000 people sharing with 100 performers the re-creation of one of these intellectual and emotional intersections which the resurrection of music represents.  Music is like a hologram where you call up these sounds out of the ether from composers who are mostly dead for many years.  That’s a recipe for an experience which only happens when people come together.  That is an essentially civilizing moment.  It’s a ritual that brings us all together in the miracle of human beings, and to dispense with that because of technological convenience is an insidious and dangerous development.

BD:    In the past, though, doom-sayers have said that radio – then TV, then recordings – would be the death of concerts, and just the opposite has happened.  Concert and opera attendance has increased as the sales of “conveniences” have also increased.

CK:    That’s true and I hope you’re right.  You can’t turn the clock back and stop technology once it’s there; we are going to have to deal with it.  The downside of the technology is also going to have to be recognized.  Television is a great tool for education, but it's also a great tool for the opposite, for stultification of human beings.  It’s going to take us another few years to assess the situation and prepare for damage-control, and turn these devices to assets instead of the drain they are on our spiritual and cultural life.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Wagner.  You’re involved with the Ring at Artpark...

keeneCK:    This year we do Götterdämmerung and in June of 1989 we do the entire cycle.  It has been a great experience for me.  An American conductor has almost no opportunity to conduct Wagner in general and the Ring in particular.  On the rare occasions that it’s produced here, almost always a German conductor is imported on the theory that only he would have enough experience and background to be able to handle that immense structure; and that’s a reasonable presumption.  Amongst American conductors, very few of us have actually had the opportunity to do the whole cycle more than once, if that.  So that
’s been a tremendous privilege.  I’ve done Rheingold several times in the theater, and I’ve done Walküre before in concert.  I’ve also done most of the big moments of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in concert.  The cultural climate has switched around to where it’s possible to look at Wagner again as an artist rather than as a kind of political/sociological artifact.  Immersing yourself in the man’s life and music is really an overwhelming experience.  Simply the physical effort of conducting Siegfried, which starts at 6 PM and goes to 11:15, is staggering – especially as the last time I did it, the temperature was 92 degrees in Lewisohn.  That approximates the classical vision of purgatory.  The audacity of the man’s vision, and the single-mindedness with which he carried it out, and the immense tenacity and complexity of his musical thinking is like climbing Mount Everest when you deal with it.  I can’t wait for the whole cycle to be over so I can look forward to doing it again sometime.  When you climb Mount Everest for the first time, all you think about is getting to the top.  The next trip you begin to observe the beauty, so by the tenth trip you begin to feel you know your way around.  Just surveying the territory is an enormous undertaking the first time around for the conductor.  You feel like you’re standing at the bottom of this immense, immense peak which you hope you’ll get to the top of. 

BD:    Was Wagner right in his decisions and demands?

CK:    He never demands anything that can’t be executed because he was a fairly practical musician.

BD:    Tell that to the guy singing Siegfried!

CK:    It’s like everything else.  He wrote it and they said it couldn’t be done, and within ten years it was being done all over Germany.  He made extreme demands, but they were not demands that were inhuman.  The most inhuman demand, actually, is upon the endurance of an audience.  Unless you can understand every word of it, a great deal of it seems unendurable.  We use surtitles at Artpark and that makes the whole experience of a Wagner opera something new for people.  I can’t imagine sitting through the second act of Walküre
with Wotan’s endless narrativeswithout knowing what is being said line by line; so I think the surtitles have been a tremendous aid to the audience being able to experience Wagner somewhat as he wanted them to.  He himself said it should be performed in translation.  He was absolutely in favor of translating so the audience could comprehend what he was talking about.  As we know, he felt the texts of his operas were by far the most important element, and music – strangely because he was such a supreme musician – was much less interesting to him.  Remember, he never conducted the mature operas, but he did stage them.  He seemed to have dealt with music as an automatic process.  Even though he grew enormously, it didn’t seem to cost him a great deal of thought and difficulty.  But he did spend years and years refining the texts and getting them right, and then the music seemed to have taken place by a kind of automatic writing.  This, of course, was different from Beethoven for whom the music was paramount.  He spent years and years hammering away at the musical content until it reflected the kind of inevitability he was seeking.  It makes Wagner a puzzler for many musicians to understand.  He seems to have been concerned with something larger than music and to be less a musician.

BD:    Are there any mistakes in his scores?

CK:    He says that he himself thought his early works were weak, but the weak efforts of a genius like that are stronger than the strongest of many composers.  We’re talking here about Rienzi and Liebesverbot, but he revised Tannhäuser so obviously he thought he’d made some mistakes there.  How would I judge if Wagner made mistakes?  He wrote things that are difficult to understand and difficult to achieve, but that is probably our fault. 

BD:    Most composers I
’ve talked to say that a conductor who is working with the score knows it better than the person who wrote it. 

CK:    Practical help from a conductor is often very appropriate, especially with brand new works, but I try to resist that. 

BD:    Not just exigencies for practicality, but real strengthening of the work.

CK:    I still try to resist that.  Most conductors dabble in orchestration or composition, and we all think we know
better than the composerand we are often rightbut I try to resist my own impulses and just present what the composer has written as best as I can.  With living composers, if there’s a real problem I will see how they respond to a suggestion.  I’ve worked with the most intransigent, such as Samuel Barber, who was not interested in suggestions about anything, to Menotti who will listen to almost anything and be delighted to have ideas he didn’t think of.  So composers fit into all places between those two extremes.  Stravinsky would bite off the head of any conductor who suggested anything.  He never spoke to Ansermet again after he made an unauthorized cut in Jeux des cartes

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you decide which operas you will do and which you will postpone or even bypass completely?

CK:    I’m now 40 and I’ve conducted over 150 different operas.  When I began, I would conduct anything because there was always something to be learned.  There still is a great deal of merit to the idea that you can’t judge a piece until you’ve performed it.  There are still funny gaps in my repertoire and a few I may never get to do.  I’d love to learn Die Frau ohne Schatten, but that is so enormous that I can’t conceive of learning it unless I was being paid to conduct it.  I've never done Parsifal, and strangely enough I've never done Peter Grimes which is an opera I adore.  I've never done Mathis der Maler of Hindemith, but these are just ones I've not had the opportunity to do yet.  There are others, but I’ve conducted nearly everything in the standard repertoire.  And you make strange discoveries about yourself.  Things you thought you’d do well you don’t, and things you didn’t have any sympathy for prove to be good pieces for you.  These days I’m not so much interested in doing a huge number of different pieces in the opera house, but taking second and third looks at things I think are right for me and where I think I have something to contribute.  I like to conduct music that needs me.  I still want to do new pieces, and the ones I will forgo will be those everyone else does.  The Beethoven symphonies are here to stay; Aïda is here to stay; Carmen is here to stay.  They have been done and will continue to be done by conductors better and worse than me.  Those operas don
’t need my help.  There is other music that needs menew music and other parts of the repertoire that needs a champion.  That’s a role that I fancy, just as Beecham was a champion of Delius.  Piston and Barber are a particular crusade of mine, also Harris and Hanson and Schuman and Mennin.  There’s a whole world.  In the 1930s and ’40s, American symphonists made the largest contribution to that form of any national school, yet it’s totally unknown to Americans now.  We’re such an enormous country, yet we don’t lobby for ourselves.  If we were Finland, we would know every one of our symphonies.  If we were Estonia, we’d play all ten Edward Tubin symphonies all the time, but we’re not.  Nobody plays those American works, and for the most part they’re not even available on recordings.  You have to really search to find a record of the Piston Fourth and it’s a splendid piece. 

keeneBD:    Is this, then, fertile ground for you to make first-recordings?

CK:    It
’s certainly what I would like to do a lot more of because there, recordings have an absolutely indispensable role of documenting large-scale activities of creative product.  We are hampered by the fact that we don’t have an archival access to a great deal of our musical history.  A lot of it isn’t available in any form.  You can’t find it, or if it was once recorded it’s now out of print.  There’s no central access to it.  We don’t really have any way of surveying the colossal creative achievement that has taken place in this country in the twentieth century.  The sonic documents aren’t available.  So recording is extremely important, and I’m hoping we’ll see an advance in opportunities for orchestras to record new music as it comes along and make important documents of the American past.  There ought to be some kind of grant system from the federal government for the recording of American music.  In the current political framework there’s not going to be, but things change thank goodness. 

BD:    Should there be an audio wing of the Smithsonian?

CK:    That would be the appropriate venue, as a matter of fact.  New World Records, which did great service, would license symphony orchestras.  They
’d say, "If you will perform this work during your season, we will give you the grant to record it."  By that mechanism we were able to get excellent recordings of a number of outstanding American pieces, but some such granting and coordinating institution is urgently needed today. 

BD:    I think they also license things from major labels for re-issue.

CK:    Yes, and that
’s the other problem.  CRI is the only label which is absolutely committed to maintaining an issue in print as long as they survive as a record company.  It doesn’t do any good to make the recording if you can’t get your hands on it and hear it.

BD:    For you, what are some of the things that contribute to making a piece of music “great?”

CK:    When you’re conducting, you don’t think about that very much.  You’re kind of like a lawyer in that you have got to be an advocate and make the most persuasive case you can for a piece of music.  It’s not really appropriate to be thinking about its merits.  While I’m doing it, it’s a great work.  It
’s like flying an airplane.  While you’re flying it, that’s what you do because it takes 100% of your concentration, and afterwards you don’t have much of an identification with it, either.  Only when listening to it later do you form some kind of opinion about it.  But to decide that a piece is truly great you have to hear it a lot, and people are too preoccupied with whether a piece is great or even a masterpiece.  How much music will be alive 1000 years from now?  How much music do we know from 1000 years ago?  Almost none.  The ultimate survival of music is something we know very little about.  Usually if it has interest and color and contrast and emotion and form, that’s enough for me.  I can listen to a piece with very little investment in my own opinion of it.

BD:    It sounds like you’re making music transitory.

CK:    Music is transitory.  That’s the whole essence of it.  It’s something that can only be experienced at the time.  There’s no way to call it back without experiencing it again
at least for meand it’s that whole experience of listening to the music which makes music such a unique art form.  You cannot compress the time it takes to comprehend it.  You have to spend 20 minutes to hear a 20 minute piece.  You can rush past a painting or speed-read a novel, but to my knowledge there is no mechanism to compress or accelerate the amount of time it takes to travel through a piece of music.  That’s one of the things that’s beautiful about it.  It’s immutable.  It’s the fourth dimension, and there’s no altering it.  I’m sure they’ll come up with a method of snipping all the silences out so you can hear all of a famous piece while jogging.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to Wagner, will you eventually get to all of the operas?

CK:    I haven’t done Meistersinger or Parsifal at all.  I have done large parts of
Dutchman, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser in concert.  The Götterdämmerung this summer will be my first time to do the entire monstrosity.

BD:    How do you see the Ring – as one piece?

CK:    Certainly.  He saw it that way.  He wrote it backwards.  It started life as one opera about Siegfried’s Death, which became
Götterdämmerung.  Then he wrote The Young Siegfried, and his uncompromising nature made him feel that those would not be complete without an explanation of how it all took place, so he added Walküre, and he needed a framework for the whole thing which became Rheingold.  Thus the text was written in reverse order and he then wrote the music in the forward order over a period of twenty years.  What’s really fascinating is that he maintained the text with very slight alterations over those many years of creating, while changing his entire philosophical outlook from one of optimism to total pessimism.  Brünnhilde and Siegfried were originally welcomed into Valhalla by Wotan with open arms.  Only later did Wagner decide that everything had to be destroyed before any kind of pure love would redeem any possible future for his mankind.  So while keeping the basic narrative structure, he did a 180 degree reversal in his outlook.  There are very few intellectual creative feats to rival that.  Perhaps the Orestia or the Sistine Chapel or War and Peace of Tolstoy, but there are very few works that maintain the kind of energetic level of creative output over such a vast scale.

BD:    What is the best layout for the cycle – Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday?

CK:    The ideal would be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – four days in a row as it was done in the very first production at Bayreuth.  Obviously the singers can’t sing that way and the orchestra can’t play that way and the conductor can’t conduct that way.

BD:    Can the audience sit through it that way?

CK:    You’d have to ask them.  If you
’re trying to attract a tourist audience, then four days in a row allows them to spend one less night in a hotel and the package can be economically more attractive.  But we’re going to try to do it Tuesday, Wednesday, break, Friday, break, Sunday.  Actually you really need two days off in between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, but that’s too much time. 

BD:    Didn
’t Hans Hotter ask for a day between Walküre and Siegfried?

CK:    I don
’t doubt that.  The Siegfried Wanderer is a killerit’s low, whereas the Walküre Wotan is high.  They really almost call for two different singers, which is the way we’ll do it.  You need two Brünnhildes and two Wotans.  The same singer cannot do all three Wotans because the vocal demands are totally different.  It’s one area where Wagner seems to have not given much practical thought to what he was doing.  They call for three different voices, basically. 

BD:    Should the Dutchman be done in one piece or three?

CK:    He intended it to be done in one piece, and that was not an aberration on his part because he did the same thing with Rheingold.  The change in Dutchman was for the comfort of the audience.  In Italy, Rheingold does have an intermission.  They make a strange sort of full-close as they descend into Nibelheim.

BD:    Have you done Tristan?

CK:    We will do it at Artpark in an "easy" year.  Wagner thought of it as his light, Bellini-esque opera, and that
’s how we’ll do it.  He wrote Tristan because he was tired of people saying his operas were huge and cumbersome and unproducable.  It was supposed to be a little, light opera that could be produced by the smallest provincial opera house.  He was uncompromising, and nobody paid for it more than he did.  He simply responded to what he thought were his creative impulses and necessities.  The thought of simply writing all the notes of Götterdämmerung is staggering, to say nothing of conceiving of it and composing it. 

BD:    Perhaps it
’s easier to start writing it when you don’t know how long it is going to be.

He knew how long it would be because he had written the text, and he had a very clear idea of how long it was going to take him.  It isn’t as if it got out of his control.  It was very tightly controlled, and he wrote composition sketches of it very quickly.  He laid down the harmonic structure and the relationship of the words to the music itself in a matter of weeks or months.  It took him much longer to complete the full scoring. 

CHRISTOPHER KEENE:  A Memorial Tribute

by Marge Betley

Christopher Keene, who died on Sunday, October 8, 1996, was best known as general director of the New York City Opera, a post he had held since 1989. His tenure there was fraught with financial, administrative, and personal challenges, including a musicians’ strike in his first season, a $2.9 million deficit in 1992, treatment for alcoholism two years ago, and, most painfully, a diagnosis of HIV and lymphoma.

Keene, however, was a constant warrior, possessed of energy, vision, and integrity. His greatest legacy is his work as a champion of 20th-century music. Born in 1946 in Berkeley, California, Keene began producing and conducting opera as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Even there, the proclivity for 20th-century music that would form the touchstone of his career was already evidenced by a series of productions that included Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, von Einem's Trial and Britten's Rape of Lucretia.

In 1966, Keene became assistant conductor of San Francisco Opera at the invitation of Kurt Herbert Adler; in 1967, he held the same position at San Diego Opera, where he worked on the American premiere of Henze's The Young Lord. The following year saw his European debut conducting Menotti's The Saint of Bleecker Street at the Spoleto Festival, where he eventually held the positions of music director and general director. As music director of the American Spoleto Festival, he conducted new productions of Weill's Mahagonny, Berg's Lulu, and Barber's Vanessa. Other guest engagements included the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the Deutsche Oper of Berlin, and the Vienna Volksoper.

Keene was a renaissance man of the music world, extending his talents far beyond the domain of opera. An active symphonic conductor, he was founder and director of the Long Island Philharmonic and led many of the major orchestras of North America and Europe, including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Berlin Radio Symphony, and the orchestras of Bonn, Basel, Nürnberg, and Düsseldorf. He was a steadfast presenter and recorder of the work of American composers, among them Philip Glass, Keith Jarrett, William Schuman, John Corigliano, and David Diamond.

As music director of Eliot Feld's American Ballet Company, Keene composed music for Feld’s ballet The Consort. He wrote the libretto for Stephen Douglas Burton's The Duchess of Malfi and was writing the libretto for Charles Wuorinen's Celia the Slave at the time of his death. Among his other published works were translations of the libretti of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Henze's El Cimarron and Natasha Ungeheuer, as well as numerous articles for publications around the country.

Ultimately it was as general director of the New York City Opera that Keene faced his greatest challenges, celebrated his most glorious victories, and survived what some would call his biggest failures. A frequent conductor there during Julius Rudel's and Beverly Sills’ regimes, he joined the staff as music director under Sills from 1982 to 1986, and assumed the general director's post in March, 1989. City Opera has often suffered in the shadow of its overwhelming Lincoln Center neighbor, the Met. It has been further challenged by a theater ill-suited to opera and unforgiving to the voices of the young singers that the company has tried to encourage. Part of City Opera's mandate has been to offer productions from the standard repertory at prices more affordable than its neighbor's, and Keene was actively engaged in the ongoing process of replacing some of those productions, which had gotten a bit shabby over the years.

Clearly, however, Keene's greatest joy was commissioning new works and producing the seldom-seen. Some of these, like Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron and Zimmermann's The Soldiers, were undisputed triumphs. Others, like this year's productions of Hindemith's Mathis the Painter, Ezra Laderman's Marilyn, or Jay Reise's Rasputin, garnered criticism that ranged from middling to venomous. Nonetheless, Keene's loyalty to contemporary opera and composers was unwavering. “Lots of producers commission new works because they think it's the right thing to do,” says Opera News editor Patrick J. Smith, “but when the bad reviews come in ... Christopher was willing not only to commission a piece, but to stand behind it. He was very interested in new work and young composers, and not just as window-dressing.”

Keene's stamp is all over this year's City Opera line-up, which includes Mathis — Keene conducted the opening night despite having only recently completed his radiation and chemotherapy treatments — and the American premieres of Mayuzumi's Kinkakuji and Meier's The Dreyfus Affair, along with Verdi's rarely-produced Attila. Unfortunately, his longtime dream of producing Janáček's Excursions of Mr. Broucek was postponed several years ago due to financial difficulties, and the work never made it back on the roster.

According to Bernard Holland in the New York Times, “Keene had a way of staking his opera house on ventures that never had much chance of succeeding in the first place, but ones that had to be tried just the same ... These new operas freed us, for a moment at least, from the masterpiece syndrome, the rather addled modern expectation of genius every time out.”

Keene was a big-picture thinker who had faith in the cumulative achievement of generation after generation of 20th-century composers. Just a few months before his death, in an interview by James Oestreich for the New York Times, he said: “I’ve always been a long-, long-, long-term planner. I had a plan for life ... which went all the way until I was 90. And I was pretty well on track. I don’t think in those terms any more.” Christopher Keene was 48 years old when he died, truly in his prime as a champion of new work. The world of contemporary music and opera can only imagine what might have emerged from this visionary life cut short — and mourn.

Marge Betley, who is managing director of the New Music-Theater Ensemble (Twin Cities) and a freelance writer, has worked in a variety of areas in opera and music-theater.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 17, 1987.  Portions were used on WNIB (along with musical examples) in 1989, 1991 and 1996.  A transcription was made in 1988 and published in Wagner News in September of that year.  It was re-edited and posted on this website in October of 2008. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.