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Fort Mitchell mezzo soprano to take the stage in Cincinnati Opera’s Romeo and Juliet

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

On a recent June afternoon, under a bright blue sky over Cincinnati’s Washington Park, American mezzo-soprano Catherine Keen exudes joie de vivre that soars.

Catherine Keen celebrates in Mary Tyler Moore fashion as she gets ready to take the stage in Cincinnati Opera’s Romeo & Juliet (provided photos).

In fact, her broad brimmed chapeau does exactly that as she gives it a twirl and a lift, sending it to the skies, a familiar nod to that ‘you’re gonna make it after all’ spirit of the late ‘70s sitcom actress, Mary Tyler Moore.

Cincinnati’s majestic Music Hall serves as an appropriate backdrop to the day.

As talent and success go, Keen is the real deal, and this month, she returns to Music Hall’s stage for the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Romeo and Juliet, June 27 and 29.

She is a shining example that grand things happen throughout all chapters of life.

Keen has appeared with many of the most prestigious opera companies in the United States and Europe. She’s known throughout the region as a sought-out teacher to a whole new generation of students, teaching voice instruction privately from her home in Fort Mitchell, The Keen Voice Studio, and to musical theatre majors at Northern Kentucky University. 

Her portfolio boasts a list of stellar performances that include Tannhauser at the Royal Danish Opera, Luisa Miller with the Grand Theatre de Genève, and Samson et Dalila at the Florida Grand Opera and Washington National Opera. Her Italian debut was as Amneris in Aida and Fenen in Nabucco at the Arena di Verona.

She performed in Aida with the Houston Grand Opera, and in the role of Cornelia in Washington National Opera’s presentation of Giulio Cesare. She was Kundry opposite to the Parsifal of the great maestro, Placido Domingo, and was Herodias in Salome at the Washington National Opera Kennedy Center. 

She’s excited to perform at Music Hall, which Keen describes it as an “incredible stage.” 

Built in 1878, the National Historic Landmark was beautifully restored in a major renovation in 2017.

When the opera comes calling

Keen as Zita with Thomas Hammons as Simone in Cincinnati Opera’s 2012 production of Gianni Schicchi. Photo by Philip Groshong.

Cincinnati stages are no stranger to Keen.

She was on a break from the stage but returned three years ago to sing with the Cincinnati Symphony in La Vida Breve. 

“It was interesting because I had done that same piece with Jesus Lopez Cobos in 1991,” says Keen. 

But she was a bit more settled in the classroom and was considering an invitation to perform with and American symphony orchestra when the Cincinnati Opera came calling and told Keen they wanted to hear her again. 

“I thought, ‘I have no time to get it together,’ I’m teaching eight hours a day, six days a week, researching, writing recommendations, going to students’ shows. I wasn’t working on my own voice,” says Keen.

But they were adamant that they wanted to hear Keen again, so Keen launched into preparation mode and began “moving air” and working with her own coach.

“I needed to move air to get those lungs to go,” says Keen. “I demonstrate to my students during the lesson, but it’s not the same as being up there and singing a whole opera, mind you. I’m teaching musical theatre students, so the style of singing is different from a classically trained voice. I had to start moving air because in opera we move a lot more air than we do in musical theatre.”

She nailed the audition.

“They said, “Where have you been,”” Keen laughs. But, in fact, they were well aware of where she’d ‘been,’ thanks to the many successes of her voice students. 

Where art thou, Gertrude?

Keen is the first teacher from Northern Kentucky to be a recipient of the Cincinnati Arts Association Arts Educator Finalist Award

Keen is quick to point out that she is not portraying either Romeo or Juliet, but will instead play the role of Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse. She says she’s delighted to play a role that provides some comic relief to a story with a very sad ending. 

“I’m a dramatic mezzo and did my leading ladies in my 20s, 30s, and 40s,” says Keen. “Now that I’m not there anymore, I’m going to start doing more character work which I’m absolutely happy doing.”

Attracting a younger audience to the opera has been a challenge, and, ultimately, Keen says, to succeed in doing that means bringing younger singers to the stage. That fact, says Keen, might seem somewhat unfortunate for the older crowd, but also presents grand new opportunities for performers like herself.

“I’ll start doing hags, nurses, best friends, mothers, and queens,” says Keen. “You can make an impact and don’t have the pressure of the whole show on your shoulders.”


Keen says the Cincinnati Opera has been very gracious to her voice studio and, through grants,  have provided tickets to the opera for the students. They often find they have more of a connection with opera than they might have suspected.

“So, I, and my bevy of students would arrive at Music Hall and watch the opera,” says Keen. “It’s very interesting for me to take them to La Boehme, because they all know Rent. And many of them went to see Miss Saigon, and that’s based on Madame Butterfly – different country, but same story. But it shows them how music borrows from one another.”

Inspired by her students

Keen with her students

Keen acknowledges that it’s not necessarily common to go from a successful performance career to a successful teaching career; it’s clear that both inspire her, and, just as she says about music, the two would seem to borrow from one another.

“I loved performing, but I didn’t feel I was making connections with people, and I’m a people person,” says Keen. “We have that wall in the theatre that we can’t break – you know the audience is there and you feel the energy, but it’s a ‘whole,’ not an individual feeling.”

With teaching, she says, every student is unique, has a certain skill set, energy, and way of looking at the world.

“So, my job as a teacher is to figure what that is for the student,” says Keen. “I can’t teach two students the same way because they have different instruments, different bone structures, and they’re all at a different place in their development.”

And those very things, she says, are what make teaching “so fresh and exciting.” Her student retention rate is about 99 percent.

“When my kids come, they stay,” says Keen.

A snapshot of Keen’s private studio reveals loyal alumni. Students come to her as early as eighth grade, leave after their senior year and come back in the summers during their college year.

She has several returning private students who are graduates of music conservatories and are trying to get into local theatre or young artists’ programs. Keen was a finalist for the Cincinnati Overture Awards’ 2019 Arts Educator Award for Excellence in Arts Instruction, the only northern Kentucky instructor to ever receive that recognition.

“The snapshot is really my high school crowd,” says Keen. “that’s where I found my passion for music, so it takes me back to high school. I loved high school. I know some people couldn’t wait to get out, but I loved it and I get to go back to it every day.”

The youthful energy that Keen recognizes in her students has motivated her right back to the stage. 

“I have to say that the reason I’m back on stage is my students,” says Keen. “They have made me a better singer, they have made me appreciate the art more, have increased my passion for what I’m doing, and, also, they really put the fire under my behind because I want to show them that I’ve still got it.”

Contact the Northern Kentucky Tribune at news@nkytrib.com

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