The Intrepid Life Of An Opera Conductor: Karen Keltner Edition

Jul 31, 2014

Have you ever considered what an amazing act of faith it is, for a conductor, to signal an upbeat and come down and expect sound to happen? We now introduce a fearless Karen Keltner, resident conductor of the San Diego Opera, who has helped to make the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre a success now for eighteen seasons.

A native Hoosier from South Bend, Indiana, Karen Keltner says that she was bitten by the collaborative music-making bug early on in life. She began to take piano lessons at age six and the deal was, she had to practice an hour a day.

“They spent $50 on an old, upright piano and, I had a good ear, but not much patience. So when I’d hit a wrong note - my feet didn’t touch the ground yet - I would kick the piano. I cannot remember the months involved, but one day something clicked and all of a sudden the piano became my friend,” said Keltner.

That day marked, quite literally, the beginnings of a life-long love affair with music.

Years later, Karen had been made aware of the Utah Festival Opera here in Logan. She had been acquainted with Michael Ballam, the Festival’s director, at school while both were pursuing graduate degrees at the Indiana University School of Music. 

“We at San Diego Opera also hired Michael to sing with us a few times and he bailed me and the company out of a real problem once. We did a phenomenal production once of a piece called ‘The Lighthouse’ by Peter Maxwell Davies and we lost our tenor. The fellow pulled out like ten days before rehearsal started. Michael agreed to come, he’s such a quick study, and such a wonderful musician that when he then invited me to Utah Festival Opera I didn’t hesitate a bit because I knew anything Michael would be affiliated with would have a high degree of musicianship and integrity about what it does,” Keltner said.

Going on her 18th season as a guest conductor for the festival, Karen is conducting two vastly different shows: Oklahoma and Les Miserables.

“I’ve got, really, two sides of a very important coin. With Oklahoma, audiences can expect a wonderful score of familiar (to many audience members) music of the early forties. And we have a wonderful, wonderful singing, acting, dancing cast. So, the singing is wonderful and the singers themselves actually dance the very important end of first act ballet. That’s never done in most companies and never was done on Broadway because it was esteemed that no singer could meet the physical demands of dancing.”

“And Les Miserables is kind of indescribable. An audience member does not hear and cannot hear, I don’t think in any place but Logan these days, and never heard on Broadway in the case of Les Miserables, the full orchestra in the pit playing the full score. We have the whole gamut in the pit. So already that gives a foundation and a pulse and an underlying power to what you are going to see and hear onstage," Keltner said

Though being a conductor places one in a position of power, Keltner says that, for her, that isn’t what has made conducting so exciting and rewarding.

“But for me, Karen, it truly is the collaborative aspect of music making. I love working with other people. I think that together, we can create things when we're all committed to the same goal. We can create something splendid, wonderful, inspiring, which alone no one of us can create. And that's for me what has always been the allure of conducting and music making.”

“Making music with people is one of the greatest gifts and blessings, I think, one can experience," Keltner said.

Oklahoma will be running until Aug 8, followed by a final performance of Les Miserables August 9.

For more information about these shows, visit