OBITUARY:Christopher Keene

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There were few jobs around an opera house that Christopher Keene did not do superlatively well. A magnificent conductor, in particular of 20th-century works, and a successful administrator, he also composed, wrote libretti, directed and, in his younger days, prepared singers with missionary zeal.

At New York City Opera, first as music director then, after the retirement of Beverley Sills, as general director, he made an indelible mark on the city's musical life, but his influence extended far beyond New York City, to the Spoleto Festival, both in Italy and the United States; and to all the numerous other opera companies and orchestras that he worked with over the last 25 years, and to whom he communicated his own passionate interest in contemporary opera.

Keene was born in Berkeley, California, in 1946 and studied there at the University of California, but dropped out before graduating, mainly because his passion for putting on student and semi-professional opera productions, which he directed and conducted himself, took up all his energies.

He learnt how to conduct as he went along. Instead of finishing his university course, in 1969 he became the first Julius Rudel Fellow, in the New York City Opera's training scheme, helping to prepare operas such as Janacek's Makropulos Case for its first New York performance.

By that time Keene had already become associated with the Spoleto Festival in Italy, of which he was music director from 1976 to 1980. He was asked by Menotti to conduct The Saint of Bleecker Street there in 1968. Back in New York, he made his conducting debut with NYCO in 1970 with Ginastera's Don Rodrigo and his Metropolitan debut the following year with Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. This latter was not a success: the star and the orchestra did exactly what they pleased, while Keene was not much interests in Cav and Pag anyway. He then ran a summer festival at Chautauqua and conducted for Syracuse Opera and various other organisations.

In 1973 he made his Covent Garden debut conducting Madam Butterfly; in 1974 he conducted a Ring cycle at Artpark, Lewiston; and from 1977 to 1980 he worked for the American Spoleto Festival at Charleston, South Carolina. He wrote the libretto for Stephen Douglas Burton's The Duchess of Malfi, an adaptation of Webster's tragedy, and conducted the premiere at Wolf Trap Farm, Vienna, West Virginia, in 1978.

Keene finally returned to the City Opera as musical director in 1983. He conducted Philip Glass's Akhnaten the following year, and recorded Glass's Satyagraha with the City Opera forces in 1985. In 1988 he conducted the premiere of Jay Reise's Rasputin. The following year he became general director of the company. Since then NYCO has gained enormously in reputation, offering New York its first staged performance of Moses und Aron and its local premieres of Zimmerman's Die Soldatan and Busoni's Dr Faustus.

During its 50th anniversary season in 1993 the City Opera staged three premieres of American operas in October: Ezra Laderman's Marilyn, Lukas Foss's Griffelkin and Hugo Weisgall's Esther. These were not conducted by Keene himself, whose personal contribution to the anniversary season was the New York premiere of Tippett's Midsummer Marriage. In June 1994 Keene conducted the premiere of Dominick Argento's Dream of Valentino for Washington Opera and in May was to be found in Berlin, conducting the first performance of Joost Meier's Dreyfus - "Die Affare" at the Deutsche Oper.

However, his first commitment was to the City Opera, whose 1995 fall season he opened on 7 September conducting a new production of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. Running an opera company, as he once said, "was what I was born to do".

Elizabeth Forbes

Christopher Keene: born Berkeley, California 21 December 1946; music director, Festival of the Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy 1972-76, general director 1973-75; music director, Artpark 1974-89; music director, Syracuse Symphony 1975-84; music director, Spoleto Festival USA 1977-80; music director, Long Island Philharmonic 1979-90; music director, New York City Opera 1982-86, general director 1989-95; married (two sons); died New York 8 October 1995.

Comments