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An Interview With Jonathan Khuner

June 29, 2009

Jonathan Khuner is a Bay Area classical music fixture. He is artistic and musical director for the Berkeley Opera. He also divides his time between the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera as assistant conductor and a prompter for both companies.

The Berkeley Opera Company is doing The Ballad of Baby Doe this July. Why did you chose this opera?

It first came up 25 years ago, with Richard Goodman. It’s a good piece, but it’s expensive to put on. Jillian, my wife and a fine soprano, was interested, and is at the upper end of the age range for the title role. I’ve wanted to do it for the past couple of years, but we had always come up short financially.

Finally, we said, “Let’s do it.” We would only do two productions this year, plus a concert, to be able to afford it. Then the financial crisis hit, and we had to cut the budget by 40 percent. We’re reducing physical apparatus. We have a smaller orchestra and fewer rehearsals. The chorus is on the side, and people have to get some costumes on their own. I’m also stage directing.

A lot of opera companies are struggling. I’ve seen something I haven’t seen before: the general director of an international opera company up front before the show, asking for money directly.

Did you always plan to be involved in music as a career?

Not as a career. My father was a fantastic musician, and I learned a lot from what he said, his work ethic, and how he played. He played in a string quartet in Vienna. He was able to get out of Nazi Austria, and settled in the Bay Area. He raised his kids to play and practice, but not to become musicians.

I was gifted at math, and that’s what I got my B.A. in from Berkeley. But I hadn’t seen the world and didn’t know what mathematicians did. Joe Kerman invited me into the music department at Berkeley. I was friends with his son, and he had heard me play. My father wasn’t that happy about this. He had nothing but disdain for musicologists. He had been around the highly intellectual musicians and thinkers of turn-of-the-century Vienna, and didn’t respect the then-current crop of musicologists. He did respect Kerman, though.

So you went into music, at least academically. What was your goal at that point?

My goal was to get my Ph.D. and work with people. I wanted to bridge the gap between performers who don’t think and the people who write about music but don’t perform. It didn’t really work. I got my M.A., then decided I would (get a Ph.D. in music) and go into academia. I like campuses, working with people, reading, and learning about other fields.

Instead, you ended up at the San Francisco Opera. How did that come about?

My mother suggested I ask for a job at the Opera House, where my father had worked for 35 years. I told my mother that they wouldn’t take me. “I’m not a professional and I don’t know the literature and routine.” My father gave some names, but they were the wrong people to ask. However, they needed someone as a rehearsal pianist and pit pianist for the Spring Opera production of The Cry of Clytemnestra, by John Eaton. I had played contemporary music at Berkeley, so they asked me. I was also the rehearsal pianist for two main stage productions.

Was opera something you enjoyed at that time?

No. I knew Madama Butterfly quite well from childhood, and had played in a couple of operas, but I didn’t like the music. I thought it wasn’t complex enough. I was a German-trained musician, and Italian seemed simple. It took me 15 years to realize that the simpler music was the point — that it accommodates the singers’ taking liberties.

I also felt the voice was a limited instrument, and I didn’t see the point of the chorus. I loved drama and plays, but I thought the plots in opera were too simple and the singers worse than mediocre actors. Opera, to me, was the worst of music and theater.

You’re still with the San Francisco Opera, and with the Metropolitan Opera as well, as a prompter. How did you get from one-time rehearsal pianist to prompter?

The opera company had an opening for the next season, but I didn’t get it. They did say that they might want me to work on their Showcase. I had no idea what that was; I thought it was arranging things in a display case. I was then offered a job as a prompter-trainee.

Prompting is a job many people don’t even know exists. What is it like?

Prompting is very demanding. It took two years for me to even get competent, and I know they considered not using me for complex jobs. I weathered through and my skills increased. It’s technically challenging. You need to be aware of the orchestra and the singers. I need to use musical and social and language skills. I need to control nerves and remember that I am not a performing musician or the conductor. I deliberately don’t study the orchestral scores, though I do prepare on the piano-vocal scores, or impose my own version of the piece. You need to control your impulses.

But prompting is also one of the more social musical jobs. I get to relate to the people and hobnob with the singers.

Any close calls while down in the prompter’s box?

I was surprised during the first piano dress rehearsal of Tosca. When the firing squad is aiming the guns downstage, they aren’t aiming at the audience, but at you. The same with La Giaconda: The explosions happen right by the prompter’s box. Fog on stage can be bad. They bring in meters to check the oxygen levels for the singers. The meters beep while on stage, but the beeping becomes almost continuous in the prompter’s box.

With the Berkeley Opera Company, you conduct and do get to do things the way you want to. Have you found conducting to be a natural fit?

When I first started to conduct, being in charge of people went against my nature. I was shy and reserved and quiet, and didn’t like telling people what to do. I kept thinking afterwards, “I should have asked that.” I don’t have the fearless self-confidence of most conductors. After all these years, I still question the morality of a group deliberately conducting themselves so undemocratically.

How is working with your wife?

She has a very natural approach. We do have different speeds and temperaments. I’m always trying to speed things up. She does have to audition for many roles, and she doesn’t always get them.

Your children have also been involved in productions. How old were they when they started?

The oldest, Cecily, was 2½ when she went on stage for the first time in Madama Butterfly. She’s a dancer; last year she choreographed L'Enfant et les Sortiléges. She just graduated from the Berkeley Ballet Theater and is in the top level and in the San Francisco Ballet’s summer intensive-training program. She’s been accepted at Indiana University Dance Department for this fall.

Charlotte, my younger daughter, has acted, sung, and done puppetry in dozens of shows over the last several years, not only with Berkeley Opera but other school and community groups.

Since you’ve been at the Berkeley Opera Company, what do you feel that have you accomplished?

I’ve improved the quality over the years. We’ve done interesting pieces in the original language. We’ve done unusual pieces, such as a non-Egyptian Aida and The Ring in One Evening. We’ve done a lot of adaptations by David Scott Marley. We’ve done new pieces, such as Chrysalis.

What are your goals for the future?

I’d like to keep it alive and interesting. We need to take the best singers, so they aren’t always community members. The orchestra is semipro; the chorus is people from the community.

What’s your year like, especially divided between two companies?

The seasons work well together. I spend from December or January to early May primarily in New York. We also do the Yosemite Bracebridge dinner every year.

If you had gone back for the mathematics degree, what would you be doing with that?

When I was in school, computer programming wasn’t as respectable as pure math. No one knew how it would grow, or that it would apply to science, design, genome sequencing, proving theorems — even game theory, evolutionary science, and psychology. I definitely would have been involved in something along those lines.

What do you do away from music?

I help homeschool our kids. I read and study languages for upcoming productions. I’m not a gardener, but I help out. I like puzzles and games. I also am a public affairs junkie. I read The New York Times Op-Ed page daily. I read Science News and the Jerusalem Report.

What are you listening to for yourself?

I’m listening to medieval music and early Renaissance music, early madrigals, and chants.

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.