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Keri-Lynn Wilson.

"It just happened like that," Keri-Lynn Wilson says, with a matter-of-fact authority and a sip of her Cote de Nuits. It's a picture-perfect, late-spring evening in the courtyard of Washington, D.C.'s Four Seasons Hotel, and if the willowy Wilson--with her glowing, long blond hair and casually chic, summery black dress and pumps--looks just as perfectly pictorial, its more in the vein of someone you'd see turning heads on a fashion runway than turning the pages of a 20th-century score conducting an opera-house orchestra.


She's explaining how a Milwaukee-born, Winnipeg-raised former flute prodigy has found herself maestra of the plateful of Italian operas that constitute her recent and imminent tare. Born into a Canadian family "saturated, really saturated, in music"--her father, Carlisle Wilson, conductor of the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra, gave her violin lessons; her paternal grandparents taught her piano and voice--Wilson travelled to New-York City's Juilliard School in 1985 as a flutist but eventually found herself "taking every course in everything except flute." She'd always liked to follow her own part in a full score, and after earning her bachelor's and master's degrees she heeded the unexpected advice of a colleague and auditioned for Juilliard's conducting program. The flute went into permanent exile.

Wilson took her first podium bow while still at Juilliard, at the helm of Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra, and with a trip to Salzburg in the summer of 1992 to work with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic, her international career began to bloom nearly as early as her career at home. Her first opera was Lucia di Lammermoor in Verona--"I had a very strong Italian manager who launched me on the Italian scene"--and heavy doses of the Italian repertory have infused her schedule ever since, in sites as exotic as Hong Kong and Tel Aviv.

Recently, Wilson led Verdi's Falstaff in an acclaimed return to Juilliard (Apr.), and on its heels Turandot, in an equally applauded debut with Washington National Opera (May/Jun.). The two engagements proved neatly complementary: a new production featuring student musicians, everyone tackling the score fresh ("I was pretty much killing myself beforehand, teaching every single word, every single nuance"), and Andrei Serban's quarter-century-old classic staging with a cast of high-powered pros ("After Falstaff, it's been like a vacation"). She has no patience for snobbish sneering at Puccini. "Anyone who can create music that puts that amount of chills on a human being"--the fingers of her right hand vividly conjure gooseflesh on her opposite arm--"well, that's genius, pure genius." Its an affection that swayed her to drop an engagement with another house to lead La fanciulla del West with L'Opera de Montreal last fall. "I love the orchestra there, really love it, and we had a honeymoon doing Fanciulla." She's happily anticipating a second honeymoon with next season's Simon Boccanegra (Mar.).

Italian is not the only musical language this passionate polyglot speaks. "I'm part Ukrainian, and it's always been my dream to conduct Russian opera. ... I want that to be a specialty of mine." Typically, she waited until she'd mastered the language before she felt ready to study the scores; and equally typically, before her first lesson she'd learned enough Russian to tool her tutor into thinking she was already fluent. First items on her Slavic agenda: Boris Godunov in Warsaw, directed by Mariusz Trelinski, whose work she much admires, followed by Tchaikovsky's rare and lovely lolanta in Moscow and Munich. A bit farther down the road lies Lady Macheth of Mtsensk, by her favorite symphonist, Shostakovich. She'd like to get her symphonic calendar back in balance with her operatic, but for the moment, without a permanent position, "I'm a guest, and I do the work I'm invited to do." So, before anything Russian or purely or-chestral, there's more Italian fare: a starry La traviata in Munich (Jun., with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann); her first Cavalleria in (ever so aptly) Taormina, Sicily (Aug.); and in between, I'm guessing, a holiday with her husband, Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, whom she married in Sardinia in the summer of 2003 in a ceremony conducted by the local town mayor. (Backstage after her Falstaff matinee, he Johnny as she received her chain of congratulators)

And what about the Germans? "If I were offered Tristan today. I'd take it in a second!" Is she daunted by the physical stress of a long Wagner score? "I swim a half-hour every day--I've got very good lungs!" Given those and a few months of vocalizing (and maybe a pair of those "comfortable shoes" once prescribed by Birgit Nilsson, with whom she shares a birthday), this determined, disciplined, multitalented musician probably could manage a damn decent Isolde as well.
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Title Annotation:Artists on Stage
Author:Dillon, Patrick
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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