"Outside the box," even though the phrase has become a cliché, is nonetheless a good description of the thinking that has always guided Houston Grand Opera. It's also a good description both figuratively and literally for Kathleen Kelly, who will become HGO's head of music staff this fall. Kelly really has been in a box‹the prompter's box‹at the Metropolitan Opera for a good part of the past eight years. Her experience at the Met as assistant conductor, coach, and prompter has been invaluable, but she is now ready to "live above ground," she says with a laugh.
A circuitous path led her to this point. Her father was active in amateur musical theater, and as a girl, Kelly watched in awe as the director led rehearsals from the piano. "She knew every note and every word," she recalls. Kelly grew up thinking she wanted to accompany singers, and she started by accompanying her father in church.
But Kelly, who describes herself as "competitive by nature‹a part of me likes to win gold stars"‹discovered that she preferred being a solo performer; in fact, her master's degree is in piano performance. Her university didn't have an opera program, nor was she interested in playing for opera. "I had the same kinds of prejudices a lot of people have‹that it's something you do when you can't be a concert pianist." She began to change her mind, however, after an encounter with HGO Music Director Patrick Summers‹an encounter she vividly recalls.
She was still a piano student at Arizona State University, unsure of her options, when she came to San Francisco Opera with a singer friend who was auditioning for the prestigious Merola summer program for young artists. Learning that the Merola program also accepted pianist-coaches, Kelly decided to audition for a position. Summers, who was then the music director of the San Francisco Opera Center, presided over the audition‹"an abject failure," Kelly calls it. "It was clear in the first five minutes that I'd stepped in over my head." She hadn't considered, for instance, that an opera pianist is standing in for an entire orchestra. The pianist needs to know which instruments are playing at all times, so they can coach the singers on how to listen for their cues when the orchestra is added to the rehearsal mix. As Kelly played for Summers and he asked which instruments the piano was representing at a particular point in the score, she couldn't answer.
She apologized, and was expecting to be shown the door. But instead, "Patrick worked with me. He turned the audition into a lesson. He helped me to understand what an opera pianist is supposed to do. It was that generosity that drew me to him. I learned a lot on that day about what a teacher is." Determined, she prepared and auditioned again. This time, she was accepted, and a career in opera was launched.
What she loves about opera is "the great literature, the ways you have to know the score, firing on all cylinders." Her prompting work at the Met has also been important to her development, by enhancing her relationships with singers. The Met is one of only a few companies that still use prompters, who are necessary because of the vast repertoire offered there and the resulting dearth of onstage rehearsal time. The prompter's box, which is probably not noticeable to many audience members unless they know what to look for, is located under the edge of the stage closest to the audience and protrudes slightly above it. The prompter is seated inside and assists the singers by giving them the first word or two of a line or helping them find the correct note. Prompting is exceedingly difficult to do well, because it requires intimate knowledge of each opera's score and libretto, and a preternatural ability to watch, listen, and anticipate. "You have to watch the singers so closely. You get used to the way they breathe‹you get used to the way they look when they're panic stricken," says Kelly.
Kelly's formidable skills transfer easily to her work at HGO. As head of music staff, she will supervise the musical preparation of the singers and will coach artists herself. She will also be called upon to conduct. In general, her job is to be, as she says, "Patrick Summers's right hand" in implementing the company's musical standards. Also, Kelly will become the music director for the Houston Grand Opera Studio, HGO's young artist training program. Having previously served on the Studio's guest faculty, she looks forward to working one on one with the members in greater depth. And, yes, the Studio pianist-coaches will study prompting with her‹"even though they will probably never do it"‹because of its value to their development.
At HGO, she will have "a real voice in musical direction and everyday musical decisions. And, because of the time I spent and the contacts I made in New York, I can suggest singers we might invite. I have a lot to share. I've been blessed to spend time with [Metropolitan Opera Artistic Director] James Levine‹a wonderful teacher because of his spirit and love of learning."
She was recently named the music director of the Berkshire Opera in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which produces opera only during the summer months. In fact, HGO's 2006 Hansel and Gretel will use a chamber orchestra arrangement that Kelly is creating for the Berkshire Opera, which will be perfect for the intimacy of HGO's Cullen Theater, where Hansel and Gretel will be performed.
The multitalented Kathleen Kelly seems just right for HGO, and she thinks HGO is just right for her. "I will have a lot of new responsibilities," she says. "It opens up my life."
Laura Chandler is the editorial director for Houston Grand Opera.