Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Keith Cerny, newly named Director of the Dallas Opera

Classical Music Column for the April 30, Preview Section, Bay Area News Group

By Cheryl North

Opera lovers living in the "Lone Star" state of Texas ought to be thanking all their lucky stars these days for the super nova energy shining on them from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Not only is Berkeley-born and bred Renaissance man Keith Cerny, 47, taking up residence in Dallas, Texas as General Director of its 53-year-old opera company next month, but San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie's promethean new opera, Moby Dick, will have its world premiere performance tonight (April 30) at the Dallas Opera's new 2,200-seat, state-of-the-art Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House.

But there's more: Patrick Summers, one of the star graduates of the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program, will be Moby Dick's conductor. Summers also lends his star power as Music Director of the Houston (Texas ) Grand Opera.

Of immediate interest, is, of course, the grand opening of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Its composer, Jake Heggie, is one of the most beloved and respected of contemporary musical figures, and the book, Moby Dick is deemed one of the greatest achievements in American literature.

"I heard music, BIG music, when writer/playwright Terrence McNally first suggested that Moby Dick would be ideal for an opera," Heggie confided in an e-mail exchange earlier this week. When McNally became too ill to undertake the task, composer-librettist Gene Scheer was called upon as Heggie's collaborator.

In words that exude the same grace and clarity as his music, Heggie continued his e-mail with the comment, "The story itself is of a time, but for all time ... and though it is an American story, it is truly a universal story about struggles people must confront no matter where they live or in what circumstance."

Further, he noted,that despite its scope, the tale has "great intimacy within immense forces ... where something is at stake every single moment. All that is terribly operatic."

Heggie as well as Scheer were not cowed by Melville's somewhat stilted language, but rather, were inspired by it. "Melville's combination of prose, poetry, and metered speech ... is terribly moving," wrote Heggie.

He also described the cast as "first rate across the boards starting with the great Ben Heppner as Captain Ahab. This man completely blows my mind: the overwhelming power of his voice and presence. He is great in the true sense of that word."

Lest local folks despair that the production is happening in down in the heart of Texas -- since it is a joint commission -- upon its completion in Dallas, it will move on to Australia, Canada, San Diego, and finally, in 2012, to San Francisco.

"These are good times in this composer's life," Heggie declared.

The good times are likely to continue for the Dallas Opera as well, when on May 24, Cerny takes up his duties as its General Director. During an interview last Friday, he said he is ready to begin planning Dallas's 2012-2013 Season right away - and he's certainly up to the task.

From 2004 through 2007, Cerny served as Executive Director (both COO and CFO) of the San Francisco Opera where he managed the organization to three consecutive years of balanced budgets. He has worked in executive positions with McKinsey & Company, the San Francisco office of Accenture, as CEO of Sheet Music Plus, consulting with the Atlanta Opera and the Spoleto Music Festival, and has done a great deal of pro bono work as well.

Cerny (originally a Czech name, pronounced Sur'ney in English) will take plenty of musical moxie to Dallas as well. At age 10, he was admitted into the San Francisco Boys Choir. Soon after, he talked his parents into buying a piano and giving him piano lessons. Precocious in many areas, he was accepted as a full-fledged student at the University of California in Berkeley at age 15.

He graduated four years later as a Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in both music and physics. Both his parents had Ph.Ds and his father was a professor of chemistry and nuclear physics at UC Berkeley.

The younger Cerny's next stop was London where he studied piano accompanying and conducting. He followed that up at Harvard University where he earned an M.B.A., followed by a Ph.D. in Economic Development Studies/Econometrics in the U.K.

In spite of all the star-wattage of his achievements, in person the tall, slim Cerny is soft-spoken, unassuming and friendly. During an interview last Friday, he told me that among his favorite early experiences were his onstage appearances with the Boys' Chorus for both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony. He also enjoyed stints conducting the Berkeley Youth Orchestra and the San Francisco-based Prometheus Symphony.

It was even via music that he even met his future wife, Jennifer: he was conducting productions of two little-known Puccini operas, Edgar, and La Villi, in Marin County, while she was singing in the chorus.

With a hint of pride in his voice, he related that he and his wife are parents of four sons, ages 8, 9, 11, and 16, all of whom are accomplished on stringed instruments. "Both Jennifer and I practice music with our boys."

When asked about his goals for his new Company, he voiced a formidable list of goals, foremost of which is to increase the company's endowment to $100 million and, like recent efforts by San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley, Cerny hopes to extend opera into the community-at-large.

So, thanks to our own Bay Area, "The stars at night/Are big and bright/Deep in the heart of Texas!"

Keith Cerny at the Dallas Opera
Photo Credit: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera