WQXR / Aria Code
Philip Glass’s Akhnaten: I Am Your Sunshine, Your Only Sunshine
By Rhiannon Giddens
November 27, 2019
You may not have heard of the Egyptian king Akhnaten, but the young pharaoh helped shape modern religion as we know it. His revolutionary efforts to shift Egypt away from worshiping many gods to worshiping just one paved the way for monotheism and the major Judeo-Christian faiths. His desire to remake the world is the subject of Philip Glass's entrancing opera.
In this episode, host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests reflect on Akhnaten’s "Hymn to the Sun," an aria drawn from an ancient text of devotion. Akhnaten expresses his adoration of the sun and asserts himself as a prophet – a vision of his own power that eventually led to his downfall. At the end of the show, you'll hear countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sing the complete “Hymn to the Sun” from the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo previously sang the role of Akhnaten at English National Opera in London and LA Opera, and he now stars as the titular pharaoh at the Metropolitan Opera. Even though he has lived with the character for nearly four years, he still hasn't decided whether he sees Akhnaten as a visionary or cult leader. But that doesn't stop him from wearing an Eye of Horus necklace.
Kara Cooney is a professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA who spent years as an archaeologist in Egypt. At dig sites and in her research, Cooney has been able to uncover some moments of Akhnaten’s life, which still largely remains a mystery. Even she doesn’t quite understand her journey into Egyptology, she has always understood the world best through the lens of antiquity.
Karen Kamensek is conducting Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera. A self-proclaimed Glass groupie, she is our first guest who's been mentored by a show's original composer. The world-renowned conductor pays it forward by leading a number of youth orchestras.
John Schaefer is the host of the WNYC radio program New Sounds. For more than 30 years, he has promoted the work of contemporary composers and performers. In 1984, he jumped at the chance to premiere Akhnaten on the radio.
Special appearance by Rev. Paula Stone Williams, a pastor and LGBTQ advocate. As a transgender woman, Williams uses her experiences to foster more compassion in the world.
The New York Times
Body Wax and Karate Chops: How to Stage a Philip Glass Opera
“Akhnaten” is coming to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time.
Here’s what it takes to hold an audience’s attention for three hours.
By Joshua Barone
November 7, 2019
Everything about Philip Glass’s music seems to exist in extremes. As a listener, you either love it or you don’t. As a performer, you’re either flawless or a failure. Concerts can be transporting, near-religious experiences — or just an endless slog.
The stakes are even higher in his operas, especially the so-called Portrait Trilogy of “Einstein on the Beach,” “Satyagraha” and “Akhnaten” — which, 35 years after its premiere, is arriving at the Metropolitan Opera this month. These are long, meditative and largely plotless works that test the endurance and excellence of soloists and chorus singers, as well as the conductor and orchestra.
“It brings you back to the most fundamental things about your technique,” said the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who has starred in the title role of “Akhnaten” in all four iterations of the production since its premiere at the English National Opera three years ago. “And if your house is not in order, you’re not going to get through it.”
At the helm of the Met’s production is Phelim McDermott, who staged a mesmerizing “Satyagraha” there in 2008 and has received virtually unanimous praise for this “Akhnaten.” Here’s how he and his colleagues have prepared the opera for the Met.
Look for where to relax
If the opera’s many moving parts slip out of alignment, Karen Kamensek — the production’s conductor, and a Glass veteran who refers to his music as “my mother’s milk” — has a simple movement to bring them back together: a karate chop.
It’s a necessary tool with this score, which is more difficult than it looks. The music does, Mr. Costanzo said, give performers a lot of freedom, “because you have to make it come alive.” But it also resists ornamentation; misfires most commonly happen when people try to add to what’s already on the page.
Ms. Kamensek’s karate chop, though, is a reset button — one that everyone hopes to never see. “The more invisible she is, the better,” Mr. Costanzo said with a laugh.
Glass’s music is removed from many conventions of Western music, so Ms. Kamensek has worked with the orchestra to break from tendencies such as lurching toward the downbeat. “This music is strongest when you let the structures speak for themselves,” she said. “A lot of it is about finding where we can relax. When there’s nothing to do, do nothing.”
Don’t be too literal
The “portrait” operas could never be read as rigorous biography; Glass treats each of his subjects poetically, abstracting them for grander meditations. Mr. McDermott’s approach as a director is similar, grazing historical accuracy but never adhering to it.
He described his aesthetic for “Akhnaten” — with costumes by Kevin Pollard and scenic design by Tom Pye — as “a weird fever dream” of ancient Egypt and the Victorians who excavated and fetishized it. “I didn’t want ‘Aida,’ something gold and glitzy,” he said.
Instead, the production is much scrappier, as if assembled from a thrift store shopping spree. The royal robe worn by Mr. Costanzo is adorned with the faces of dolls. If you look closely, you may notice that some of the costumes are made from wet suits.
Now juggle, too
The singers in Mr. McDermott’s staging are almost never still. But their motion is extremely slow, so he spent his first rehearsals with the cast teaching them movement qualities — a method borrowed from Michael Chekhov — that he said keep them from “looking like robots.”
This ensures that everyone onstage has something to do at all times. And, Mr. Costanzo said, if a movement quality “is all you’re focused on, it gives you plenty of mental space to focus on the music.”
A dozen jugglers — led by the production’s choreographer, Sean Gandini — provide a fleet counterpoint to the singers. “The performers may be doing a slow rhythm,” Mr. McDermott said, “but the juggling can reflect the internal psychological rhythms.”
The challenge has been to make it not mere window dressing, but more like a layer of the music. “I could make movement to Philip Glass all day, it’s so juggleable,” Mr. Gandini said. “So it’s been a question of trimming and trying to take the tricksiness out of it.”
He has even gotten the chorus to take part, as if it weren’t difficult enough to just sing the music. But, Mr. Gandini said, they’re so used to multitasking that it didn’t take long for them to master the skill.
Bare it all
Early in the production’s development, Mr. McDermott asked Mr. Costanzo whether he would be willing to shave his head. “I’m not a real method person,” Mr. Costanzo recalled, “but I thought O.K., it’s just hair: What do I have to lose?”
Then Mr. McDermott had another question: Would he consider entering naked?
Not interested in sensation for its own sake, Mr. Costanzo asked why, and was told that it could form a connection with the audience — seeing this vulnerable, teenage boy taking the throne in a transformation from total nudity to layers of robes and gold.
He said yes to what may be the most outwardly daring quality of the role. Mr. Costanzo has densely furry arms, a full head of hair and the permanent shadow of a beard. It all disappears with each staging of the opera.
There can be no tension when naked onstage, he said. “But if you stare the audience in the eye and release every muscle in your body, they can’t look away,” Mr. Costanzo continued. “And in that moment there’s a kind of reverence that can last for the entire show.”
On a recent Sunday at Haven Spa in Manhattan, he spent a couple of hours having every corner of his body stripped of hair. It’s just one of many ways he has given himself over to what has become his signature role.
“There’s definitely no phoning it in,” he said. “I have to fully commit to it on every level.” That has meant no drinking, a full night’s sleep, a restrictive diet (no sugar or carbohydrates, mostly), rigorous exercise and a lot of turning down invitations.
“You become a different person,” he said. “You contain the rest of your life so that the explosions can happen onstage.”
News and Tribune
NAHS graduate builds career as renowned conductor
By Brooke McAfee
December 9, 2019
NEW ALBANY — Karen Kamensek knew she wanted to become a conductor since she was 11 years old, and as a kid, she would often watch broadcasts from New York City's Metropolitan Opera on television.
As she grew up in New Albany, she consistently pursued her passion for music, and over the past few decades, she has become a celebrated conductor of opera and orchestra.
Today, the New Albany High School graduate leads major operas and orchestral performances across Europe and the United States. In November, Kamensek, 49, made her Metropolitan Opera debut with the Philip Glass's opera "Akhnaten," which concluded its run Saturday.
THE EARLY DAYS
Kamensek's musical training started early. She was born in Chicago and began playing piano at age 4. Her family moved the next year to New Albany, where she attended Mount Tabor Elementary School. Kamensek started playing violin, and one thing led to another, she said.
"When I started on violin, I was 8 and could already read music," she said. "I was telling the other kids in the orchestra class what they were doing wrong. So I think in order to save me, [my music teacher] put a drumstick in my hand and said, 'you’re going to beat time.' I was like, this is a really dumb thing, but then he said, 'you have the temperament to be a conductor, you’re going to be a conductor.' That really sowed the seed in my head."
For Kamensek, her time in public schools in New Albany helped her grow as a young musician, and she describes the school system's string programs as "a treasure chest." Starting in elementary school, music was part of her daily life; she continued performing in programs at Scribner Middle School and NAHS. She sang and performed piano accompaniments in the high school choir, and she performed in both her schools' orchestra programs and the Floyd County Youth Symphony.
She was about 13 when she first visited the Metropolitan Opera on a trip with the youth orchestra. The group saw a variety of shows in the city, including an operatic performance at the famous New York City institution. She would later write a "cheeky" essay about her experience.
"I said, 'the next time I come back to the Met, I’m going to come back through the stage door,' so it must have been a dream from an early, early age," she said.
Linda DeRungs, retired NAHS choral director, has many fond memories of working with Kamensek. Her former student was an extraordinary musician from the start, DeRungs said, and they "latched onto" each other. The retired teacher had just started working at the school when she began teaching Kamensek.
Kamensek was adventurous and precocious as a young musician, DeRungs said, and she was impressed with the teen's sophisticated musical abilities. They worked together frequently, and for school musicals, she would perform in the pit orchestra as DeRungs conducted.
"I learned a lot from her," DeRungs said. "Hopefully she learned something from me —I don’t know — but I gave her every opportunity I could in high school."
Joanna Goldstein, a professor of music at Indiana University Southeast, was one of Kamensek's piano instructors as a teenager. She remembers working on advanced repertoire with the talented student, and although Kamensek was serious about the piano, she was already showing her passion for conducting.
"I'm delighted that she made a success for herself and is doing this big Met debut," Goldstein said. "I think it says a lot both for her abilities and her perseverance."
Kamensek recalls that she was a "horribly shy kid except when it came to music." She was always practicing music and taking on many endeavors, and she is grateful for the guidance she received from her teachers as a student in New Albany, she said.
"I was kind of a little weird kid with a professional mindset for music when I was young," she said. "Without those teachers, I don’t know, I might have gotten lost in the fray or something."
HER CAREER TAKES OFF
After graduating from New Albany High School in 1987, she attended Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where she received degrees in orchestral conducting and piano performance. She was introduced to the music of Phillip Glass at IU, and she fell in love with the music immediately, she said.
At age 19, she met the famous composer when Dennis Russell Davies, a conductor she was assisting at the university, introduced them. It was the beginning of a long musical partnership, and over the years, she has worked with Glass on a diverse array of projects. He is both her friend and mentor.
Like many musicians, Kamensek struggled for a while in New York City. She got a job assisting acclaimed conductor Simone Young on several projects, and eventually, she conducted the opera "Don Giovanni" at Vienna's Volksoper. She was soon offered the job of resident conductor at the Vienna opera house, and it was the beginning of a long career in Europe.
For five years, she served as music director and chief conductor at the opera house in Hanover, Germany, between 2011 and 2016. Now, she has a busy schedule as a critically-acclaimed guest conductor with an extensive repertoire.
"I talk to a lot of European people as well, and they generally have to leave their country to become successful, and the Americans find that, too," Kamensek said. "Many of us have to leave the United States to come back at some point. I don’t know if that’s a general global culture thing where you have to do that — you can see it across the board in a lot of things."
DeRungs has followed Kamensek's career over the years, and she has watched her conduct performances in places such as Vienna, Copenhagen and San Diego. She recently watched as the Metropolitan Opera's "Akhnaten" was broadcast live in cinemas. She describes her as "brilliant conductor" who is "cool under pressure."
One of the most touching moments as an educator was her first trip to Vienna to visit the young conductor. She was observing a rehearsal with a chorus for an opera, and as Kamensek spoke to the ensemble, the conductor told the ensemble about her former teacher.
"I have so much trouble saying this, because I almost cry — [Kamensek] said the nicest thing that any student has ever said to me in all my years of teaching," DeRungs recalled. "She said, 'what I just told [the ensemble] is that Linda is one of my former music teachers, and she's one of the reasons I'm standing here today.'"
Kamensek expressed her appreciation for the support of her teachers throughout the years, including those who were involved in her early training as a musician growing up in New Albany.
"Being a musician is kind of like being an athlete — you need a team of people around you to kind of build you up, and we seek recurring contact with people that we trust," she said. "So I've kept in touch with so many of my teachers, even from elementary school and junior high school."
She has reached one of her major bucket list items with the production of "Akhnaten" in New York City. But that's not the only reason her recent debut is significant — according to a Dec. 5 article from the New York Times, Kamensek is only the fifth woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.
Although she has remained calm and focused for the opera, she and her colleagues have been "a bit giggly" with their happiness about the performance, which has been popular with audiences. She is happy to have realized a dream she's had since childhood, she said, but these days, her dream has become the next step she is taking.
"I imagine [Saturday] when I get on the plane, I’m going to have a glass of champagne and say, ‘wow, you did it'...I haven’t really allowed myself to go to that ultra happy place yet and say, 'wow, you did it. And with any bucket list thing, with any dream that’s come true, then you’re like, now what?"
The Jerusalem Post
BIZET REBARRED: Karen Kamensek will conduct ‘Carmen’,
the Israeli Opera’s last production of the season
By Barry Davis
July 4, 2018
If you’re looking for entertainment of an operatic nature, you don’t have to look much further than Bizet’s Carmen.
The forthcoming rendition of the perennial favorite at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv, which offers 11 shows July 13-28, is nothing short of a blockbuster.
The rendition feeds off of the Metropolitan Opera’s larger-than life production, with revival director Gadi Shechter following in the grand footsteps of, possibly, the most spectacular of all operatic renderings of all, after the version crafted by that most expansive and expressive of producers, now 95-year-old Franco Zeffirelli.
The stellar cast features the likes of Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova and her Israeli counterpart Na’ama Goldman in the title role, with tenors Gustavo Porta and Najmiddin Mavlyanov, from Argentinian and Uzbekistan respectively, splitting the role of Don Jose, and Israeli soprano Hila Baggio and Russian-born Alla Vasilevitsky as Micaela.
The staging grandeur doesn’t faze Keren Kamensek, who will be on the conductor’s podium for the entire Israeli Opera House run.
“This my sixth production of Carmen. Most have been revivals and I think I have done two productions of my own,” notes the currently German-based American conductor, when we met in the initial stages of the rehearsal process.
Despite the repeat performances, there is little chance of Kamensek becoming jaded and less than completely interested in the operatic proceedings. “In 2016 I worked with [Galician musician and multi-instrumentalist] Carlos Núñez,” she says. “I hired him to do a Galician evening in Hannover [Germany]. He came with his band and blew the roof off the opera house.” Galicia is a region of northwestern Spain which has roots in the Celtic culture.
In addition to giving the Hannover Opera House crowd their money’s worth and then some, Núñez gave Kamensek something of a wakeup call, helping to galvanize her approach to her work. “I listened to him speaking with my orchestra, a German orchestra, trying to play this [Celtic] music which wasn’t very difficult for them, but was lacking a little flair.”
There is more than one way to up the energy ante. “Flair doesn’t always mean just being more rhythmic,” continues Kamensek.
“Carlos taught me, again, a word I’d forgotten from my music history class, called the anacrusis,” she laughs. “The anacrusis is usually the pickup to the next beat, or for me it can also mean the turning point of a phrase. That can often get taken for granted.”
Taking a leaf out of the Galician musicians’ book can help to solve the get-up-and-go conundrum.
“Celtic musicians love to turn on the crowd. They’ll take one curve and go voom,” says Kamensek, demonstrating the dynamics with a rapid arm swing. “And then the crowd goes ‘yayy!’.”
Kamensek duly took the Celtic continuum on board. “I started incorporating that into my own classical music thing. I thought why does a phrase go dead there? How can we re-energize that? So, part of it is that.”
There was also more familial guidance to be had. “Carlos’s brother Xurxo is a phenomenal percussionist on all kinds of different ethnic instruments, and also the Spanish military drums. I listened to his flair and where the release of the tension is. I started incorporating this in my last production of Carmen.”
That’s one way of keeping the project in hand fresh, and keeping performers and audiences alike – not to mention the lady with the baton – suitably enthused. “Generally, western classical music is very downbeat, first beat, oriented.
Especially with the strings – they want a down bow on the downbeat.
So I’ve turned it around a lot. I’m going to try it out on the orchestra here, and we’ll see how we do.”
Kamensek is not exactly taking a shot in the dark here. She has, successfully, been there and done that. “In Sweden we managed it,” she notes, referring to her last performance of Carmen, in Gothenburg. “Many orchestras play this over and over again, and it gets a little ingrained and a little heavy, and us conductors can get a little bored.
So I took a fresh approach, and looked at it from the folk music perspective.”
Anyone who has perused Kamensek’s bio should not be surprised by her left-field take. Her operatic repertoire takes in works by Britten, Debussy, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, as well as more contemporary material by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and 81-year-old Philip Glass. The latter co-wrote a fascinating work, called Passages, together with late iconic Indian musician and composer Ravi Shankar.
Shankar’s daughter, sitar player Anoushka, also helped to open Kamensek’s eyes and ears to other rhythmic possibilities. “I learned to get rid of the bar lines. I actually rebarred Passages, because it was based on Indian notation. Other works of Ravi Shankar like the Symphony, which I’m doing in London in two years with Anoushka, and the sitar are all written in a kind of Indian notation, so it’s in all in two [tempo]. But, because I’ve done [music by] Phillip Glass, [71-year-old American composer] John Adams and Stravinsky, and that sort of thing, I can see mixed rhythms on the page differently.” Then again, there is a framework anchor to be referenced.
“I thought I couldn’t physically conduct it [Passages] in two[-time].
But, if you see Anoushka playing crazy rhythms, you just see her foot going one-two, one-two. So I thought, that’s OK.”
Kamensek says she has no problem with bridging the seeming cultural and disciplinary gaps. “It’s all just music,” she observes. “It’s like with anacrusis. It’s a matter of going with the flow, and not with the beat.”
Opera regulars should prepare for a Carmen-based trip down memory lane, but with more than a modicum of spice.
For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-op
By Anne Midgette
November 3, 2017
Here are some women who are following in the footsteps of Marin Alsop, JoAnn Faletta, Simone Young, Jane Glover and others, to establish significant international conducting careers.
Speranza Scappucci. The 44-year-old Italian, a former assistant to Riccardo Muti who has conducted at the Vienna State Opera and the Washington National Opera, took over this season as principal conductor of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liege, Belgium.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. At 31, and in her second season as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra after two years at the Landestheater Salzburg and as associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, this Lithuanian conductor is viewed as an impending superstar.
Susanna Malkki. The 48-year-old Finn is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and a principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She conducted Kaija Saariaho’s “L’amour de loin” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016.
Xian Zhang. Named associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 2005 by Lorin Maazel, the 44-year-old conductor, who studied in Beijing and Cincinnati, is now music director of the New Jersey Symphony, having held the same post with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. She is also principal guest conductor of the BBC National
Karen Kamensek. The American conductor, 47, was for five years general music director of the Hannover Opera, having previously held the same title in Freiburg as well as the associate music director position in Hamburg. A Philip Glass specialist, she led an award-winning production of “Akhnaten” for her English National Opera debut in 2016.
Anu Tali. The Estonian conductor, 45, is music director of the Sarasota Orchestra. In 1997, she and her twin sister, Kadri, founded the group that eventually became known as the Nordic Symphony Orchestra, with whom she made a couple of notable recordings.
Joana Carneiro. Music director of the Berkeley Symphony, the 41-year-old Portuguese conductor is also head of the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa.
Oksana Lyniv. A Ukrainian conductor who has assisted Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera, the 39-year-old Lyniv has just taken over as the chief conductor of the opera and orchestra in Graz, Austria.
Joana Mallwitz. Now 31, the German conductor became Europe’s youngest general music director in 2014 when she took over the theater in Erfurt. She will take over the same role in Nuremberg in 2018.
Alondra de la Parra. Born in New York, the 37-year-old Mexican conductor gained attention with the Mexican American Orchestra, which she founded in 2003. She took over this fall as music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia.
Keri-Lynn Wilson. Formerly chief conductor of the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, the 50-year-old Canadian makes guest appearances at the English National Opera, the Zurich Opera, the Bavarian State Opera and other international houses.
Karen Kamensek - A Young Conductor Who Knows Herself
By Erica Miner
February 13, 2014
Conductor Karen Kamensek exudes authority, gives off a distinct overachiever vibe and projects wisdom beyond her years. The sparkle of her eyes, her upbeat attitude, and her infectious enthusiasm for her craft point toward an intriguing debut this Saturday, February 15, in San Diego Opera’s romantic comedy Elixir of Love. As current music director of the Staatsoper Hannover in Germany, she has had wide experience conducting a vast array of opera genres.
EM: It's a delight to welcome you here for your debut in this Donizetti classic. Do you feel comfortable in that genre? Do you prefer comedies to dramas?
KK: They're different. I've done this piece often, so it's really "programmed in" for me. We have great singers with great comedic timing. I haven't met the orchestra yet, so I'm hoping they're also lighthearted. This is like the Gilbert and Sullivan of Italian music, so hopefully it will be light enough, and happy. Important in comedy are quick tempi, too. Of course with a piece like this you have to have a mastery of the language and know how to react to things. Daughter of the Regiment is different because it's in French, at least we did the French version in Hannover. And Maria Stuarda is totally different, it's light, but it's a drama. I sometimes laugh about Verdi and Donizetti and Bellini, they're talking about death and blood and still it's (sings) very lighthearted and in major keys (laughs), but that's the paradox of it. There's no recipe to emotion.
EM: And yet you're doing Tannhauser here next season.
KK: (laughs) Yes. Totally different.
EM: Tell me about your background. You're originally from the Midwest?
KK: I was born in Chicago, raised in southern Indiana. I went to IU (Indiana University), then I moved to New York and gigged and struggled like everybody else. Then in 2000 I went to Europe, got a lucky break.
EM: Did you always want to be a conductor?
KK: I did. I'm a product of watching the Met broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, a crazy eleven year old in front of the TV.
EM: Was music in your background at home?
KK: My parents are from Slovenia, they immigrated just before I was born. Mom was a musician, a flutist and conductor and had a children's chorus, but gave all that up when she came to America and raised us. I started very early, piano at four, violin at eight. I had a great musical background in my public school. We had our own little sistema there. That's very popular now, but we had it back then. I had a lucky break with teachers. Orchestra and chorus every single day. I played violin in the orchestra. I had a tough choice to make in college, but it was clear I wanted to conduct so I got a piano degree first and then conducting. But my string background comes in very helpful. I often correct my own parts or ask if we can do something a certain way. The musicians see through me pretty quickly, though. They ask, "Did you play violin?" (laughs).
EM: As a violinist I always appreciated a conductor who knows string playing. Tell me about New York.
KK: I started working at the Met, I was coaching a lot, worked with Philip Glass, did the New York City Opera tour of Bohème, then ran into a dry patch and got a little bit desperate, didn't know if anything was going to happen. Then I got a lucky break assisting (conductor) Simone Young. Her manager saw me conduct and that was the end of all the assisting.
EM: I really enjoyed working with her at the Met. Do you think women conductors are beginning to get their due, or at least gain a foothold?
KK: I think so. One likes to focus on conducting because it's such a public job. I don't think it's any different than other "male dominated" professions. I know just as many young male conductors struggling to get in as female conductors. You have to be tenacious enough to follow through. I think females naturally ask themselves the question, "Is this the kind of life I want?" It's a very aggressive lifestyle, a lifetime commitment, a lot of responsibility. And there are more opportunities for conductors in Germany. Especially if you have piano skills. If you don't, it's tough to break in to that profession. But I got lucky.
EM: Describe some of the responsibilities you encounter as a conductor.
KK: You have auditions, administration, negotiations, publicity, programs. Planning, hiring, soloists et al. And interminable amounts of meetings. Of course you have a whole hierarchy working for you but still you're the decision maker and that takes up a lot of time.
EM: Do you find all of that challenging, or would you rather just focus on the music?
KK: Mixed. I'd like to be able to focus on one project at a time and not twelve at one time (laughs). As a music director in Germany my weeks are easily sixty hours in the theater, and that's a lot.
EM: As a conductor you're just hitting your stride. You have forty-five years to go, hopefully.
KK: Great! (Laughs.) We'll see. I have over fifty operas in my repertoire, which is fantastic for me.
EM: Do you play all of them too?
KK: If I wanted to, yes, but I hardly get any time at the piano. I played cembalo for my own Mozart operas. I coach when I can, do a little chamber music here and there.
EM: You've worked in Europe, Malaysia, and also in the States. How would you compare them? Any particular area that you enjoy more than anywhere else?
KK: Different. I haven't conducted much in America. This is my first opera premiere in America here in San Diego. I'll be back again next season for Tannhauser, and in San Francisco for Susannah in September. So these are my first experiences. Rehearsal time is limited in the States, and we have a luxurious amount of time in Europe. For operas we have an immense rotation in the orchestra, sometimes you're rehearsing three fully rotated orchestra for one production. That's a bit stressful because you're chronically repeating yourself and getting criticized for it.
EM: As an orchestra player, I'm familiar with that syndrome.
KK: You learn your repertoire very fast here in the US. We're putting this (Elixir) up in two weeks. For a new production in Europe I would have fourteen rehearsals from beginning to end. Here I have five.
EM: Is that because opera is more subsidized there, or because of the mindset?
KK: Both. From what I've heard, American orchestras are much quicker. Their sight reading capabilities are much higher. It's more of a competition here. Positions in Europe are tenured, there's a certain amount of security that comes with that, a mentality. More of a sense of tradition there, too. They play behind the beat. Generally I'm surprised by how quickly American orchestras react to the stick. Both have pros and cons. My experience up until now with American orchestras is, "My God, she's going to rehearse. Most people let us out a half hour early," and I use rehearsal time until the very end.
EM: Are you excited about your SDO debut?
KK: I am. I'm very much an "in the moment" kind of person, I've seen how precipitous events have brought me here. The years when I was desperate for work I thought I couldn't make the apparatus move to push in the direction I wanted to; but looking back I wish I'd been a little calmer about the process. That's what I mean about tenacity. In the moment where I actually gave up and said, "I'm done," the universe sort of shifted and said, "All right, you mean it this time." And then everything in quotes came to me. But I was very tenacious. If it weren't for Simone giving me a chance and actually saying okay, I'll take the risk, who knows where I would have been? Things came together the right way at the right time.
EM: Timing means so much. As for repertoire, you mentioned fifty operas. Is there any repertoire you prefer - German, Italian, French?
KK: Sounds like a discussion I had with my manager (laughs). He said, "You're like a Jack of all trades, we can't specialize you anywhere." I tend to go toward the English operas. The Brittens. And American operas. That interests me. I'm itching to do Susannah in San Francisco. It's done so rarely in Germany. What's still missing in my repertoire is some Strauss, though I've done Ariadne. Of course I've done Wagner, and Verdi. I do Mozart with great pleasure. I haven't done much Handel. I've said no to some things like Armida. There are conductors out there, incredible experts who are going to do better service to that. I'm a little young for specializing.
EM: Working in Germany, do you feel more of an affinity for Wagner and Strauss, or do you love to do Verdi just as much?
KK: I love Verdi just as much. I also find it very difficult. I thought I would have an affinity for Onegin when I did it for the first time because of my Slavic background, but I tend to go toward Janacek. Tchaikovsky's more of a puzzle to me. Things like Rusalka are closer to my language. I thought I'd gravitate more toward Beethoven, but I prefer Mozart. Puccini, yes, I do it, but I'm a big Britten fan.
EM: Which Britten operas?
KK: I'm doing Midsummer Night's Dream when I get back from here. I've done Death in Venice and Turn of the Screw. Haven't done Grimes or Billy Bud yet.
EM: You've got a long way to go, so much ahead of you, which is exciting. How many new operas do you do a year in Hannover?
KK: Two premieres a season and maybe one revival. I was doing much more when I was in Hamburg, five or six different pieces. Before that, in Freiburg, I did three premieres a season.
EM: If you could write your own wish list of operas over the next several years, which would you like to do?
KK: I'd like to finish the Ring cycle. We did half of it last season and we've decided to replace it in Hannover, so I still have Siegfried and Gotterdammerung to do. Dutchman and Parsifal can wait. I'm doing Meistersinger right now. Rosenkavalier, Salome, Elektra. Wozzeck I'd like to do again. Any of the other Strausses. Fledermaus. Puccini's missing. Fanciulla, Rondine. I'd like to do Boris Godunov again.
EM: As far as nineteenth versus twentieth or twenty-first century opera, do you gravitate toward something in particular?
KK: I probably will always gravitate toward the modern by nature. I'd love to do Rake's Progress.
EM: What about the composers of now - Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams?
KK: I absolutely would love to do any of that. Any world premieres. I loved doing Nixon in China at IU. The American minimalists are still popular in Europe at the moment. In Germany we're also trying to promote German composers, naturally.
EM: Before we wrap up, tell me a bit about your work with youth orchestras. Do you feel it's an important part of your growth as a conductor to develop future audiences and musicians?
KK: We all give back somehow, and I'm the product of an amazing educational system, so I'm thrilled that people ask me to conduct youth orchestras, that I have something to offer. I'm a product of youth festivals, Germany especially. That's where I learned the ropes.
EM: Do you feel there's a difference between youth orchestras in the States and Europe?
KK: No, not ever. They all feel they're a part of something. I did, too, when I was their age.
EM: I have a feeling a lot is going to happen for you in the future. I can't wait for Elixir.
KK: Thanks so much.
Belgrade Philharmonic Website
On High Heels with Karen Kamensek
December 12, 2013
Karen Kamensek is the third lady conductor to lead the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra in the cycle On High Heels. At the beginning of the interview, Karen laughingly said:
“I like the name of the cycle very much! Although an injury has prevented me from wearing high heels – you have already noticed my casual shoes – I find the name intriguing and brilliant. As far as I know, the Belgrade Philharmonic is the only orchestra that has an entire concert cycle dedicated to women. This project is excellent for raising awareness of the fact that conductor’s podium is no longer reserved exclusively for men.”
The highly demanded conductor currently works as the Music Director of Staatsoper Hannover. In the year of Verdi, she has set up several opera productions; however, as a conductor, her appearance with the Belgrade Philharmonic will be her first interpretation of Verdi’s works.
“I often get the question about the difference between male and female conductors. I, of course, don’t know the answer to that question, since I have never been a man (laugh), but I think that the main difference is in the perception of women’s authority. A woman’s inherent nature features multiple roles – the role of the mother, sister, wife… The distinction is psychological, a little bit Freudian, if you will, and the psychology of a group is such that its perception of me as the leader varies. In musical terms, there is no difference. It is equally “complicated” as in any other profession – a female scientist, astronaut…”
Karen Kamensek made her debut with the Belgrade Philharmonic in 2003.
“There has been a huge generational shift and that was my first surprise. I can recognize only six or seven people and I was really delighted by this change, especially with all the young ladies in the orchestra. I am pleased that, this time around, I have an opportunity to lead rehearsals in (to me) the new and charming Belgrade Philharmonic Hall. In my opinion, the orchestra is in better shape now than 10 years ago. Besides, let us not forget that I am also 10 years older and more mature in terms of my professional and life experience.”
Born in the USA, Karen’s family originated from this part of the world. Her grandmother was born in Belgrade, and her father even taught her a few phrases in Serbian.
“I understand the character and mentality of the Balkans and I find it pleasing to work with, considering that I have had different experiences in Northern Europe. I like the fact that the orchestra musicians are having fun while they are playing, I can feel that they love their work and that it makes them truly happy. It makes them spontaneous and open for collaboration, which, of course, has no negative effect on their professional approach, which is their undisputable quality.”
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