Soprano  Anne  Marie  Ketchum

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Music Director and Founding Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum has been the conductor of the Verdi Chorus since its beginning in 1983. Well recognized as a singer, conductor, stage director and educator, she taught on the voice faculty of Pasadena City College for 34 years until her recent retirement. In 1996 she began an opera program at the college, which at the time was one of only two opera programs in community colleges in Southern California. Since then several other programs have been established in two-year schools using the Pasadena program as a model. During her tenure at Pasadena she directed a full opera each spring to critical acclaim.

As a singer, she has appeared internationally and is well known for her performances of contemporary art music, vocal chamber music, solo recitals and opera. She has made several recordings of contemporary music (RCM, Orion, North/South Consonance, RYCY, and Raptoria Caam labels) in addition to a CD of vocal chamber music, a collaborative project that she launched with the Los Angeles based Viklarbo Chamber Ensemble. Her recordings of Morten Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones and of Aurelio De La Vega’s Recordatio were both honored with Grammy nominations. She has premiered numerous works by such composers as Ernst Krenek, Aurelio De La Vega, Shulamit Ran, and Hans Werner Henze.

A well-known interpreter of contemporary art music as well as twentieth century Latin American art music, Ms. Ketchum has appeared at the Tenth International Forum of New Music in Mexico City, the Santa Fe chamber music series, the Southwest Chamber Ensemble, the Monday Evening Concerts series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella New Music series, and Los Angeles County’s Sundays Live series. Her various performances with Long Beach Opera include the U.S. premiere of John Cage’s Europera 4, which was subsequently released on CD. Also, for five years Ms. Ketchum was the Stage Director for the Metropolitan Opera National Council – Western Region Showcase Concerts in Palm Springs.

Among Ms. Ketchum’s creative activities is This and My Heart: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson in Text and Song – a concert/theater piece which she co-wrote and performs with actress Linda Kelsey and pianist Victoria Kirsch. This was first presented as part of Grand Performances in Los Angeles and made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Affairs Department of Los Angeles.

Ms. Ketchum and the Chorus have received commendations on several occasions from the county of Los Angeles and from the city of Santa Monica.

==  Biography from the Verdi Chorus website
==  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD

ketchum Bruce Duffie:   You’re a singer who seems to have done quite a bit with twentieth century music.  What is it about new music that intrigues you?

Anne Marie Ketchum:   It’s never been before!  It’s like taking something that doesn’t exist and creating as you go along.  I love working with composers for that reason.  If you sing something that has been in the repertoire for centuries, or for decades, a lot of other people have done it before you, and there’s a set way of doing things.  But when you take a new piece, it has never existed before, and it’s like finding something absolutely beautiful and making it come alive.  I find that to be really exciting.  I love doing it.  It’s a challenge because modern music, new music, is usually more difficult to sing.  Very often it’s atonal, so you have to work to learn the ‘melody’, and find it in your voice.

BD:   Do you find it in your voice, or do you put it in your voice?

AMK:   That’s a good question!  I’m not sure.  Part of it is learning how to hear things a little differently, particularly in atonal music because you’re not hearing a key center, so melody becomes something different from what it used to be.  It doesn’t center around one particular harmonic idea.  You begin to hear melodies in a different way.  Talk to any singer, and they’ll say the first time you sing a piece it’s more difficult than after you know it.  You don’t know where it’s going to go, so the voice doesn’t automatically go there comfortably.  It’s a little more difficult when you’re doing something where it doesn’t do what you think is obvious.  It is different, so the voice doesn’t just doesn’t follow right in it.  It takes a little longer to get the voice to be comfortable with it.

BD:   Is it your responsibility to make it comfortable in your voice, or is that the composer’s responsibility?

AMK:   It’s both, but if someone hires me to sing a piece, and it’s not written well, then it’s my responsibility.

BD:   You’re talking about working with composers and creating new pieces.  Do you work directly with the composer, and perhaps alter the melodic line just a little bit to make it better?

AMK:   Occasionally.  When there’s a new piece that’s never been done, very often when a composer hears it, he will hear things differently from what he heard in his head.  So, with the voice it’s very interesting, because with the piano, it has a huge range, whereas the voice has maybe two and a half or three octaves.  The difference in the color of the voice between one note and another an octave away is tremendous, especially in the soprano voice.  So, sometimes they’ll hear something harmonically, and then when they hear the voice, the color of the voice is so different that they need to change something.

BD:   Do you surprise them with what you can do?

AMK:   Yes, sometimes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   I hope you surprise them in a good way.

AMK:   I hope so, too!  [More laughter]

BD:   Are the composers generally accepting of your suggestions, or do they say that you must do it the way they wrote it?

AMK:   It depends.  I’m very, very tentative with my suggestions to a composer, because I believe that the composer is really the creator and I’m the interpreter.  But if there’s something that’s very awkward vocally, or something that is extremely tiring, maybe something else can be used, and very often that happens.  A composer will write something, and it stays well up in the top, high tessitura for a long period of time.  Then, the voice tires very quickly, and, in that case, I’ll suggest that maybe it’s going to be difficult to put across, and ask if it can be adjusted.

BD:   [With a wink]  But it’s so easy on the piano!  You just move your hands a little bit to the right...

AMK:   [Laughs]  Exactly!  That is not so easy on the voice.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to be thought of as some kind of mechanical instrument???

AMK:   [Laughs]  Sometimes the voice is treated mechanically, and that’s fun to do once in awhile.  I’m always human, so even when it does get treated mechanically, it’s still human.  But sometimes it’s fun to do those contrasts, to make a voice sound very romantic, or lyrical, and then to make it sound not so romantic, and very angular.  I enjoy doing all the color changes and attitude changes.

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BD:   You mentioned interpretation.  How much of you have you put into the music, and how much is just the pure music that you convey?

AMK:   It becomes a combination.  When I’m singing, whatever is on the page is somehow changed through me, or comes through me, and becomes all me... at least I feel that way.  If I am completely on, it’s completely me, but someone else wrote it.  Someone else gave me the raw materials, but if I don’t completely become involved internally with a piece, then I don’t think I’ve done my complete job.  I’m a singer who gets really involved in poetry.

ketchum BD:   Too involved?

AMK:   I don’t think so.  The only way you could get too involved is if you lose control vocally or emotionally.  When you lose control, then you’re too involved, and that doesn’t happen to me.  But it doesn’t have to, and it’s a really beautiful combination if I can get so tuned into a piece that it becomes really my personality.  It’s as if it’s being said for the first time as it’s being sung.

BD:   Then, is it better or worse when you sing it for the second time, or the fifth time, or the eighth time?

AMK:   It’s better the fifth time, and it’s better the twelfth time.  Every singer and every player knows this, because each time you do a piece, you find something else to do.  Also, you’re in a different place yourself every time you sing it, even if it’s five minutes later.  People don’t have the same attitudes or emotional feelings minute to minute to minute.  We change, so each time you do it, you’re coming from a different place.  Maybe your voice is working better, or maybe it’s working worse.  It’s always going to be different, but it’s usually better as you go on, because you find more things to do, and you internalize it more.  It gets deeper inside of you.

BD:   You don’t have to mention any specifics, but are there perhaps some pieces that you get into, and you have found everything, and there’s no more depth to plumb?

AMK:   Happy Birthday would fall into that category [both laugh], although that could depend on who you’re singing it to, so even that could continue to grow.

BD:   Is this what you look for in pieces
the real depth of meaning?

AMK:   Oh, yes.  The unfortunate part is that when you’re doing contemporary music, quite often you don’t find real depth, because we’re looking at music that’s written right now, and a very small percentage of it is going to last for another fifteen, twenty years, not to mention another century.  A lot of the music that’s written now is not all that great, so there are some pieces that don’t have as much depth as others.

BD:   But you feel it’s your responsibility to give each work its shot?

AMK:   Yes, and to try to find that depth.

BD:   Are there some pieces that you sing which you know are going to last?

AMK:   Yes!

BD:   Is it pleasing to know that you have created, or have been an early performer of something that is going to last?

AMK:   Obviously, yes, except that art is such a funny thing, because you don’t ever know if it’s going to last.  You have a feeling that this is maybe a great piece of music, but history is a funny thing.  There are a lot of great pieces of music that have been written and completely lost, so you never know.  But you can feel if it’s shallow or simple, or if there’s not a lot there, or if there really is a great piece of art there in form, in color, in philosophy, and the feeling in its humanity.

BD:   Then let me ask a very easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

AMK:   [Laughs]  The easy answer is to enrich our lives.  It makes you see life in a different way.  It makes us see life more intimately, or more objectively.  It changes the way you see the things that are around you, and the experiences that you have.

BD:   I assume those are the things that keep you with it?

AMK:   Yes, I suppose.  I don’t know if I could actually put it into words, except that it’s something I have to do.  I have to be involved in art.  I have to be involved in music, and I think everyone else does, whether they know it or not.  A lot of people don’t know it, but I know it, and we artists know it.

BD:   We’re the lucky ones because we’ve figured it out.

AMK:   We are.

BD:   Is it part of your job to help other people figure it out?

AMK:   Obviously.  That’s why I teach.

BD:   Are you teaching general music, or voice studies, or what?

AMK:   I teach voice, vocal technique, vocal interpretation, and I run an opera workshop at Pasadena City College [about ten miles from downtown Los Angeles].  I get a lot of wonderful feelings from doing that.  It’s a great thing to be able to do
to take young people and turn them onto something that is just incredible.

BD:   How do you balance your career between the teaching and the performing?

AMK:   It is a balancing act.  It’s not easy, but I manage to do it.  I don’t know how.  I sometimes have to skip classes, and sometimes I have to bring the class to a performance, but that really enriches both sides of life.  It makes a big difference.  I feel like I teach better when I’ve been singing.  I have more to say, and am more excited about what I’m telling them.  It’s more vivid, and when I’m teaching, all the technical things are right on the top of my head.  So, they help each other out.

BD:   Are these students from California?  Are they all laid-back California-types?

AMK:   No.  [Laughs]  That’s not exactly always true!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean, stereotypes don’t hold up all the time???

AMK:   Not exactly, no!  [More laughter]

BD:   You obviously have students then who are quite young.  Have they had any kind of classical music experience, or training, or are they coming to classical music for the first time?

AMK:   For most of them it is their first time, and this is the unfortunate situation.

BD:   So how do you get them into enjoying and appreciating it?

ketchum AMK:   You play it for them.  They see that you get excited about it, and they do, too.

BD:   [Mildly suspicious]  So they do get excited?

AMK:   Oh, yes.  How can they not?  How can you play the first act of Bohème and not hear something special?  You’d have to be half-dead.

BD:   [Trying not to be snarky]  Yes, but some youngsters these days are sort of half-dead.

AMK:   [Sighs]  I guess they are...

BD:   Seriously, I’m looking for the secret to catching more of them.

AMK:   I’ve gone to teachers’ conventions, and we all talk about it.  I think a lot of those people are kind of half-crazy themselves.  There are a lot of music faculty members, and I wonder if they really believe in what they’re doing.  Once I went to a music faculty convention, and they were talking about how to do a music appreciation class for non-music majors.  They were talking about how they could get students to be really excited about The Rite of Spring by first playing the soundtrack to Jaws, because they would recognize that rhythmic idea.  [Both laugh]  If they heard that, then they could play The Rite of Spring, because the students could relate to it, and they would appreciate it.  I remember being so angry because The Rite of Spring is so much better.  [Both laugh]  It’s so much more exciting, and it pulls you into it so much more strongly.  So, why go through this other thing?

BD:   You want the music to stand on its own, rather than needing another hook?  [Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my interviews with Bernard Rands, Roque Cordero, Bruce Saylor, and Max Lifchitz.]

AMK:   It’s been my experience that if you play music for non-musical people, maybe with a little explanation you play it, and they listen, and they’ll see your own excitement.  That has a lot to do with it.

BD:   You have to be personally contagious?

AMK:   I stand up in front of a class and play La Bohème and cry.  I cry in front of my classes all the time.

BD:   Do you tell them a little bit about it, and relate the story, so they know that these two unmarried people are going to shack up?  Might that intrigue them a little bit?

AMK:   Yes, but it’s not so much that these two unmarried people are going to shack up, but that they have fallen in love.  The first time I did the opera was when I was going to school.  I was playing Musetta, and I was sitting out in the audience while the Mimì and Rodolfo were working.  We’d gone through all the rehearsal process before we finally had the orchestra, and I kept thinking that this doesn’t make any sense
that these people fall in love so fast.  It doesn’t make any sense at all.  At the first orchestra rehearsal, the orchestra was terrible, and the singers were kids.  I was a kid, but they played, and all of a sudden Puccini’s music made sense of falling in love so fast that it all came together for me.  So, I tell my students just listen to the music, and then it all makes sense.  They sit there in class and bring their hankies out!

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BD:   How do you divide your time between concerts and operas?

AMK:   For some time now, because of my school schedule, my performing in operas has been lessened.  It’s just harder to take off a month, or a month and a half.  I’ve done a few things recently with the Long Beach Opera, because my schedule can work, and I can put the two things together.  But it’s been more and more difficult to do that.  I’ve been doing a lot of chamber music, and a lot of modern music, as well as a lot of Latin music, Spanish music, and Latin-American music.  Those are loves of mine, so I’m traveling around doing things that don’t take me away for too long.

BD:   Do you find that having worked with living composers directly helps when you are working with a composer who is no longer alive?

AMK:   Yes, I think so.  What it has really done for me, which I feel is important, is that when I pick up a piece of music as a singer, my job is to figure out where it was coming from.  What did this guy, or this woman, have in mind?  What were they trying to say with it?  Look at all the little indications there.  Why is this a dotted quarter, and the other is a triplet?  If you really ask those questions, and you find out where this person was coming from, your own performance is enhanced.  It’s easier when you’ve got somebody right next to you saying this is what he had in mind, and he’d like you to do it this way, but what that’s done for me is to pull it back to the importance of the original creator, which makes me work harder to dig through a piece of music.  I find out really what it has to say.  Someone asked Maria Callas, when she studied a character, has she read the book that the opera was based on?  She said she didn’t have to because it’s all written in the music.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  That, of course, assumes that the composer understood the book, and then made it into the music.

AMK:   Yes, but then the piece becomes something new after the composer has gotten his hands on it.  So, maybe it’s something completely different, and that’s okay.

BD:   When you’re standing out there on the stage, are you conscious of the audience, or do you block them out and just sing?

AMK:   I’m very conscious of them before I sing, and absolutely not conscious of them while I’m singing.  [Laughs]  When I walk out, I’m extremely aware of all those people out there, and I am happy to see them, actually.  But while I’m singing, no.  There’s far too much going on.  You can’t be aware of them, unless you’re singing something that is intended to be directed at an audience.  Occasionally there is a piece like that, but in general, no.

BD:   Working so much with new scores, are you optimistic about the future of music?

AMK:   [Thinks a moment]  Hmmm, that’s a tough one.  Lately, composers more and more are going back to lyrical writing, with beautiful music, because they can only go so far with atonality.  So, in that way it seems to be turning in a good direction.  I’m hoping that it does even more, because it got to a point where music became less human.  You can only go so far until you have to come back to who we are, and it seems that many composers are doing that, and for that I am very hopeful.

BD:   [After taking care of a few technical details, and daring to ask her birthdate!]  Are you at the point in your career you want to be at this age?

AMK:   [Laughs]  I don’t know.  There are some really good things about being this age, and there are some really lousy things about it, too.  You always look back and think you could have done this right, or what I might have done, but one of the really good things about being this age
as I was saying to my sister the other dayis that that I don’t have to listen to what everybody else thinks anymore.  If I feel like singing this piece, and somebody else thinks it’s not really in my fach, or my voice type, I say that if it feels good, and it sounds okay, I’ll sing it.  When I was younger, I couldn’t do that.  There is this thing about singers... everybody wants to tell them you have to do this, and you can’t do that, and there is something good about that when you’re young.  You need some direction, but I don’t have to listen to that anymore.

BD:   Now you can take more risks?

AMK:   I can!

BD:   Do they usually pay off?

AMK:   Usually they do.  I’m a musical risk taker.  I tend to take on jobs that are maybe a little bit crazy sometimes.  One of the craziest things was the Berg Seven Early Songs.  It was scheduled for performance on a Tuesday, to be sung by someone else, and on the Sunday before that, the soprano was ill and couldn’t sing.  They called me, and asked if I knew the piece.  I said I would have to check my schedule.  I didn’t know this piece, and it is very difficult.  I checked my schedule [laughs], which meant that I went to my library, pulled down the score, and listened to a recording.  I called them back about fifteen minutes later, and said I’d been able to work my schedule out, and I’d sing it on Tuesday.  I called the accompanist, and we rehearsed it immediately.  It was for voice and piano, and we did it, and I got one of the best reviews I’d ever got in my life.  It was insane, but that’s fun.  [Laughs]

BD:   You were living on emotion and adrenaline?

AMK:   Oh, no kidding!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are they as nice as you thought they were going to be?

AMK:   They were better.  They are incredible.  I sang them again last Fall in recital, and found more and more things. It was with a different accompanist this time, which is always an interesting thing to do, and he was marvelous.  His name is Philip Young, and he’s an incredible musician, and very good to work with as a singer.  He really tuned into the singer’s psyche.  It was really beautiful to go back to this work, and find much, much more.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer, and bringing all of your enthusiasm to it.

AMK:   I can’t help it, but thank you for saying so.

BD:   I look forward to playing more of your recordings.

AMK:   Good.  It’s been a pleasure.



© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 17, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.