Opera conductor broke the gender barrier

I wrote a story for the San Diego Opera program in 1999 about Karen Keltner, the resident conductor, who stood at 5 feet 3 inches. It was appropriate to title the profile “Big Step to the Podium.”

Indeed, it was a big step in 1980 when she dared to consider a conducting career in opera.

Keltner received the opportunity to pursue her goal when she became the only female member of the first class of the Young American Opera Conductors program, started by San Diego Opera.

Fast forward 35 years for the veteran senior staff member who carried over from the leadership of Tito Capobianco.

Keltner’s post as resident conductor came full circle when she stepped down at the end of her performances for the beginning of the 50th anniversary season.

“La Bohème” will be Keltner’s 40th opera conducted for the company.

How did she start this journey? While attending Indiana University, she took a year to study in France. Keltner’s goal was to teach French, but she still had an interest in music developed as a child.

As a performance requirement for her master’s degree in music, she joined the Indiana University choral group and became the opera chorus master. After completing dual master’s degrees in French and music, and a doctorate in music, she took a job as chorus master for the Orlando Opera Company.

It was here that she learned of the San Diego Opera master classes for young opera conductors and filed an application.

“I was the token woman for the program,” she said. There were five students in the first year of the program, including Andrew Litton and Scott Bergeson. Litton became a symphony conductor and Bergeson was an assistant conductor at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Despite the absence of female opera conductors, the second year of the young conductor’s program included Carol Crawford, who became director of the Tulsa Opera.

Susan Haig, in the third and final class, conducted opera and symphony in Canada and the United States.

Today there are several female opera conductors, including several who have performed in the San Diego Opera orchestra pit.

“The Young American Opera Conductors program was a unique open door to a professional opera company and a wonderful opportunity for me to become a conductor,” Keltner said.

Leaving her post at San Diego Opera is not a sign of retirement. Preferring to call it “stepping down” as resident conductor, Keltner will take the podium at the Utah Music Festival, Carolina Opera and Anchorage Opera.

Looking back over her 35-year tenure, what were her favorite operas?

Of course, the French repertory is always appealing, but some of the contemporary American operas were Keltner’s most memorable.

“Working with a living composer is a special honor, but sometimes intimidating,” she said.

Among those in her repertory were Carlisle Floyd (“Of Mice and Men” in 1999 and “Cold Sassy Tree” in 2001), Myron Fink (“The Conquistador” in 1997), André Previn (“Streetcar Named Desire” in 2000), Tobias Picker (“Thérèse Raquin” in 2003) and the most challenging of all, “Wozzeck” in 2007 by Alban Berg.

I was reminded during the Metropolitan Opera broadcast Dec. 27 that several prominent international opera stars who died in 2014 had sung in San Diego. The Met recognized those artists by playing recorded arias.

Among the names I recognized, the oldest opera diva appearing in San Diego with the San Francisco Opera in 1955 was Licia Albanese, who sang in “Faust.” Also appearing during the San Francisco Opera tours was Janis Martin, who sang in “La Sonnambula” in 1960; “Gianni Schicchi” in 1964; and in the SDO production of “Tannhäuser” in 1969 as Venus.

Included in this program of recognition were arias sung by Rita Shane, who appeared here as the Queen of the Night in “Magic Flute” in 1968; Irene Dalis in the SDO world premiere of “Medea” in 1972; and the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who appeared in the first Verdi festival of 1979 in “I Lombardi” and a Verdi concert.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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Elizabeth Hiteshew 9:46pm January 24, 2015

Excited to be hearing Keltner conduct on Tuesday. Ford always does a great job enhancing audience anticipation.