Cincy Chic: You performed in the 2008 May Festival’s Opening Night Concert: VERDI: La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny), on May 16. What brought you to this oldest continuous choral festival in the Western Hemisphere?
Catherine Keen: I was first invited to the May Festival while I was working toward my Master’s degree at the [University of Cincinnati’s] College Conservatory of Music (CCM). Maestro James Conlon was looking for a local singer to sing the solo in the Durufle Requiem. He hired me on the spot and I have been coming back ever since. I love being invited back as it is such a special venue. The chorus is absolutely wonderful, the hall majestic and the people who work within its walls are so warm and welcoming! I am always treated like family when I sing there.
This year I am singing the role of Preziosilla in Verdi’s LA FORZA DEL DESTINO. It is a new role for me. My character tries to inspire the chorus to raise arms and go to war. Therefore much of what I do is a dialogue with them and it is simply a joy to be on the stage with such a wonderful group of people. One role I have yet to tackle is that of “Eboli” in Verdi’s DON CARLO. I certainly hope it is in the cards to sing it some day.
Cincy Chic: You have had the opportunity to tour with various performances throughout North America and Europe. What has been your most memorable experience either on- or off-stage?
Keen: I suppose my most memorable experience would be singing the role of “Kundry” opposite the “Parsifal” of Placido Domingo. I had prepared the role with Christa Ludwig, a German mezzo-soprano for whom I have such admiration.
Cincy Chic: You have to sing operas in many different languages. How many languages are you actually fluent in (besides the obvious!), or is it a case of just learning the pieces for your performances?
Keen: I have studied Italian, French, German, Russian and Hebrew. I have a firm understanding of the first three at this point.
Cincy Chic: How did your career as an opera singer come to be?
Keen: Opera is something that “chose” me. I was really planning on going into medicine. The first opera I ever heard I was actually in! It was AIDA with Cincinnati Opera. My mother had seen an ad in the paper for the volunteer chorus and basically signed me up. I had always sung, but not in a classical way and it is an experience I will never forget. From there, I auditioned for the College Conservatory of Music and the rest is history.
After college I was invited to be an apprentice with San Francisco Opera. It was there that I met so many wonderful people who inspired me to keep going. I was most inspired by the mezzo sopranos Christa Ludwig, Marilyn Horne and my mentor, Regine Crespin.
Cincy Chic: What does your life off the stage entail?
Keen: I was born in Massachusetts, lived in Philadelphia for a time and eventually came to Northern Kentucky where I have lived ever since. I graduated from Dixie Heights High School and then went on to complete my BM, MM and started the Doctoral program at CCM. As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to become a member of San Francisco Opera and from there my career took off. I got married in 2000 to a wonderful man from Belgium and we live in Northern Kentucky with our Maltese, Poochini. They are the loves of my life.
Cincy Chic: One of the perks of your job is having the opportunity to wear magnificently elaborate costumes. How would you describe your personal style and do elements of your on-stage wardrobe ever creep into your own personal wardrobe?
Keen: I find that as I get older I try and simplify my style and wardrobe. Traveling can be grueling and one must carry all that one packs. I have learned that less is more. This being said I would consider myself on the classic side with a hint of glam. I cannot go without my Prada shoes or a chic Hermes Scarf.
Cincy Chic: How do you prepare for a big performance? Do you have any pre-show rituals that you go through?
Keen: I try and stay quiet, go for a walk, take a nap and eat right. To keep nerves in check, I try and do a session of bio-feedback as well.
Cincy Chic: Of all the countries and continents that you’ve been to, which one have you enjoyed the most?
Keen: I was invited to sing at the Edinburgh Festival and I remember I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I got off the plane. There was something so special about that place. My heart belongs to two places: San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Cincy Chic: This week’s issue is all about celebrating one’s body. How does that translate for you?
Keen: As I get older I try and be grateful to my body for getting me around as well as it has. Yes, things are not the same as they were in my 20s, but acceptance is really the key to peace of mind. I am eating better and exercising to combat the aging process. Sure, the process is going to win…but I will try and keep up as best I can.
Cincy Chic: We have a travel issue coming up, and for someone who logs in her frequent-flier miles, do you have any tips for staying sane and chic while traveling?
Keen: Sanity comes with preparation. I am always sorry when I don’t use a checklist. As far as chic goes…confidence is chic, but a really good pair of walking shoes can be a lifesaver!
Cincy Chic: What type of music does an operatic mezzo-soprano listen to when she’s not performing? What’s on your mp3 player?
Keen: I love all types of music except for some of the hard rock (too “hard” on the ears). You will find Sting, Alison Krauss, KD Lang, Madonna and Wynonna Judd.
Cincy Chic: What do you love about Cincinnati?
Keen: One of my favorite things about Cincinnati is coming around the cut in the hill going north and seeing the beauty of the skyline on a clear summer day. I love the University, the Zoo, Music Hall and the magnificent German heritage. Oh yes, I would be remiss if I left out the Black Raspberry Chip ice cream at Graeter’s.