A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

From Dixie Heights to the international opera stage, Catherine Keen’s journey brings her home again

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

In writing about the hero’s journey, Joseph Campbell stated that an individual sets off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary. “It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning,” he wrote.

Catherine Keen at home in Fort Mitchell with Pooching

Catherine Keen at home in Fort Mitchell with Poochini

For international opera singer Catherine Keen, who grew up in Lakeside Park, the journey began on a high school stage and took her to one of the top conservatories in the country and to stages across the globe. As Campbell wrote, it culminated in a ‘returning’ to her home in Northern Kentucky where she shares what she learned on her ‘journey.’

“I caught the music bug at Dixie,” says Keen, who attended Dixie Heights High School and performed in school musicals and plays and sang in the school choir.

As graduation approached she decided that her original plan to study medicine wasn’t where she really wanted to take her life. Then during her senior year, her mother saw an advertisement for the volunteer chorus with the Cincinnati Opera.

“I had a loud voice and I guess my mother heard me practicing my choir pieces,” says Keen.

Her mother was a musician as well — a cellist — though Keen says she didn’t play professionally.

Keen auditioned for the volunteer chorus of AIDA and was accepted.

In the meantime, Doug Webb, her high school chorus teacher, continued to fuel her love of music.

“He would take me to competitions for singing. I did all the state competitions and did some solo competitions as well.”

Keen as Dalila with the National Opera at the Kennedy Center

Keen as Dalila with the National Opera at the Kennedy Center

Keen realized it was time to decide the direction she would pursue. She auditioned for the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to be accepted as a voice major.

“I remember standing outside the room, listening to the girl who was singing before me, and she was singing the same song I was about to sing,” says Keen. “I thought, ‘Oh no.’”

She opened the door, went on stage and began to sing. But when she attempted to hit a high note, her voice cracked and she began crying.

“I thought, “That’s it, what am I doing here?”” says Keen.

That’s when one of the teachers – also from Northern Kentucky – approached the stage.

“She said, I’m from Northern Kentucky and I never want to see you do that on stage again,” says Keen. “She said, “Who are you and how did you get here?””

Keen was accepted to CCM where she earned her bachelors and her masters and began work on her doctoral degree.

“My mother gave me a scrapbook that she’d been hoarding for years and I went through it just the other day,” says Keen. “There were judges sheets from when I was in high school, judges saying, “No 17-year-old girl should sound like this; it’s a manufactured sound.”

She never received a first place in those competitions.

“But somebody at CCM heard something and decided to take a chance, and that’s how it started,” says Keen.

As Venus in Wagner's Tannhauser, pictured with San Francisco Opera general director Lofti Mansour

As Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser, pictured with San Francisco Opera general director Lofti Mansouri

Freshman year, she says, she was a bit of “a slack.”

“All I wanted to do was sing and have fun,” says Keen.

But once her sophomore year began and someone reminded her that she was a full scholarship, out-of-state student, she studied hard and rose among the top in her class.

Pulling it together

“I thought, ‘I need to pull this together,’ and then I was unstoppable,” says Keen. “I just couldn’t learn it fast enough. I studied Italian, German, French, Russian and Hebrew. I just couldn’t get enough.”

She credits Maestros Jesus Lopez-Cobos, former music director with the Cincinnati Symphony and James Conlon, music director of the May Festival and Los Angeles Opera with starting her career.

“My senior year in college they were looking for somebody to sing a solo at the Basilica for the May Festival,” says Keen.

It was a small solo and she had just completed her senior recital.

“The symphony contacted CCM and said, “Do you happen to have a young mezzo?”” says Keen.

She sent them the tape of her senior recital and they hired her on the spot.

“He basically started my career in the states,” says Keen about Conlon.

Lopez-Cobos took Keen to Berlin for her debut in Europe in the role of Dalila, a role, she says, that has been a signature role for her.

Keen with Maestro Placido Domingo after performance of Parsifal at the Kennedy Center

Keen with Maestro Placido Domingo after performance of Parsifal at the Kennedy Center

Her first audition after completing school was for the San Francisco Opera. They accepted her for the prestigious Merola Opera Program and the whirlwind began. She went on to sing numerous leading roles with this opera company she calls her “home opera house.”

Every agent – every opera theatre and Impresario – came to San Francisco to listen to opera, she says, and so began the opportunities to sing on international stages.

“Opera took a chance on me,” says Keen.

For nearly 25 years Keen performed all over the world, with some of the biggest names in opera. She has sung throughout the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and with such festivals as the Edinburgh Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, The Ravina Festival in Chicago just to name a few.

“I’ve sung in a lot of great places, but one of the most exciting was the Arena di Verona, which is in Italy,” says Keen. “It was one of the highlights of my musical life.”

With Italian bass Farruccio Furlanetto backstage during Nabucco at Arena Di Verona in Italy

With Italian bass Farruccio Furlanetto backstage during Nabucco at Arena Di Verona in Italy

Performing with renowned tenor, Placido Domingo, who hired her to sing the title part in the opera Samson et Dalila at the Kennedy Center, and has been a mentor of hers, was another highlight.

“He hired me several times after that,” says Keen. “On stage, we performed in Otello together. Another highlight of my career was singing Kundry in Parsifal – with Placido singing Parsifal.”

Now, the teacher

Now it’s Keen’s turn to be the teacher, and she considers it her true calling.

Today, Keen teaches voice to more than 40 students in all the different genres of singing from her Fort Mitchell home. She says she’s more joyful than she ever was when she was performing.

“I have finally found my niche, my passion and my calling,” says Keen.

The majority of her students are theatre students, she says, and she teaches them classical principles. All of her students – even the rockers, she says – are instructed in classical principles.

“Think of Annie Lennox, Pat Benatar and Lady Gaga, they’re classically taught,” says Keen. “It’s so important that you learn to sing with the full mechanism of the body.”

Music, says Keen, has opened so many doors for her.

“I’ve learned about tolerance, I’ve learned about languages, I’ve learned about religions, I’ve learned about foods, current events, history, architecture, the arts, all by way of music,” she says.

Keen with mentor, French soprano Regine Crispin

Keen with mentor, French soprano Regine Crespin

She believes that broad tutelage is what appeals to her students’ parents.

“They’re not just bringing their child to study voice with me. They’re trying to have me teach their child a little bit about these other things and other ways of thinking,” says Keen. “Because you know, music can open the mind as well as doors.”

For Keen, music opened the door to the hero’s journey.

“You leave, and you go through the trials and tribulations only to find your way back home, transformed,” she says. “Most of the opera stories are of the journey. It’s so true – it’s about returning home transformed. That’s why I think I’m so happy to be home.”

On April 8 and 9, Keen will return to the stage, performing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Latin Passion, in La Vida Breve, reprising a role she played more that 20 years ago.

“It’s the Abuela, the grandmother,” says Keen, who was the youngest in the cast when she first performed the principal role long ago.

“The artistic director said, ‘Would you be interested in singing the part of the Abuela again?’ and I thought, ‘Well, now I’m old enough to be an Abuela,” Keen laughs.

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