Seattle Opera’s Head of Music Staff and Chorus Master John Keene was appointed San Francisco Opera’s chorus director today, effective January 2022. Keene succeeds Ian Robertson, who will retire at the end of this year following a 35-year tenure.
Keene’s appointment comes after a months-long search, led by SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, Artistic Managing Director Gregory Henkel, and Music Director Eun Sun Kim, including rehearsal sessions with the Opera Chorus.
Keene will work remotely starting in January before relocating to the Bay Area to begin rehearsals for the company’s summer-season productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s Dream of the Red Chamber, and a Verdi concert led by Eun Sun Kim. He will also begin preparing the Opera Chorus for the company’s upcoming 2022–2023 centennial season.
John Keene responded to the appointment by saying, “It is a great honor and privilege to be given the trust of carrying on the exceptional legacy built by Ian Robertson within this great company. I was inspired by the immediate connection I felt with the Chorus when we rehearsed together recently, and I am so looking forward to our work of bringing the highest possible artistic standard onstage for our audiences. With deep respect and gratitude for the many shoulders on which I stand, I am ready to help bring great opera to life with the gifted San Francisco Opera Chorus.
Eun Sun Kim said, “I have been consistently impressed by John’s vision — he is a big-picture thinker who understands how things function both onstage and between departments. His sense of collaboration and his skill in music-making will enable our chorus to perform to the highest artistic standards, and I am excited for our future work together.”
Keene made his Seattle Opera debut in 2012 preparing the company’s chorus for Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Asher Fisch. He also conducted the company premiere of Laura Kaminsky’s As One, was assistant conductor for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), and acted as musical consultant for the recording of the Ring cycle issued on the Avie label.
Previously, he served as head of music staff and chorus master with Florida Grand Opera, where he worked with Plácido Domingo, Marcello Giordani, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sherrill Milnes, Renata Scotto and Bryn Terfel, among others. His operatic resume includes affiliations with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, New Orleans Opera, and San Francisco Opera Center, conducting the touring production of The Barber of Seville in 1996 to celebrate Western Opera Theater’s 30th anniversary.
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, Merola and Adler Fellowship alumna, greeted the news by saying Keene “has been in my life for the past 20 years as a teacher, coach, conductor, mentor, collaborator, and dear friend. My years as a student were guided by his gentle and incredibly informed counsel. He has an extraordinary well of knowledge and experience in this art form and a true love of opera and the human voice. He is a brilliantly sensitive and giving musician and a beautiful soul, and I have no doubt that he will lead and support the San Francisco Opera Chorus with integrity and kindness.”
The San Francisco Opera Chorus was established in 1927 by company founder and General Director Gaetano Merola, who also served as the ensemble’s director through 1943. As part of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler’s development of the company, the Chorus became full-time in 1981. Today, the Chorus consists of a Regular Chorus and an Extra Chorus, which can expand the ensemble to 100 singers or more in larger operas.