BWW Interviews: Karen Kamensek - A Young Conductor Who Knows Herself
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'm 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.