Twenty-seven may be nearly over the hill for a rock star, but it is very young for an operatic conductor. “I can’t wait until I turn 30,” says Christopher Keene, wunderkind of the New York City Opera. “No one believes you’re as good as everyone says you are—and they are probably right.”
One believer in Keene is composer-impresario Gian Carlo Menotti, who retained him at 22 to conduct two of his premiering operas at the Two Worlds Festival in Spoleto, Italy. For the season now in progress, Spoleto founder Menotti invited Keene back to serve as assistant director, an appointment many feel anoints Keene as Menotti’s heir apparent.
Keene, whose father was an ad man and brother an architect, began to study cello and piano at about 10. “I’m sorry to say I was not writing Beethoven symphonies at 3,” he quips, but he did form a student opera company at the University of California at Berkeley. Unable to find a conductor for his first production, he read a “how-to” book and took the baton himself. Elated at his own mastery, he proceeded to drop everything and flunk out of school. “I never wanted to pursue anything else,” he concluded.
He then went on to serve as assistant conductor at the San Francisco Opera House, where he met his wife, the former Sara Rhodes, an aspiring singer and musician. They moved east where, at 24, he was to become, for one short stint, the youngest conductor ever at the Metropolitan Opera. He is now a principal conductor at the New York City Opera.
An untemperamental professional who is often accused of being cold and emotionless, Keene progressed beyond an early stage of Bernstein-esque histrionics to develop a conducting style he considers “clear.” Says Keene, “Gesture is all important. With some very great conductors you couldn’t tell what the hell they were doing because they were just flapping around in the breeze.” He is equally unflappable as an administrator—one of the requisites for his Spoleto post. Roman Polanski, the film director (Repulsion) he recruited to direct this season’s premiere, a gory version of Alban Berg’s Lulu, found Keene “businesslike, mathematical and amazing.”
A self-confessed victim of “hyper-concentration” which often leads to rampant insomnia, Keene says he has not taken a day off in five years. “I keep saying I’d like a vacation,” he says, “but I imagine after a week and a half I’d be so bored I’d be crawling up the walls.” At the moment such a vacation seems unlikely. After Spoleto the Keenes and their two children return to their New York West Side apartment. He is working on a libretto of a new opera, composing several others, and all the while jockeying to become permanent director of a major opera company or symphony. “It’s very rare,” he says, “to find artists who are not afraid of administration. You can do a lot, you can control all the conditions,” he continues fearlessly. “It’s sort of like being the Godfather.”