Keith Cerny's new post as general director and CEO of Calgary Opera began just at the start of this year, but his connection to Canada's opera scene dates back decades, unwittingly, and in San Francisco. "I used to play for rehearsals for Richard Bradshaw," Cerny recalls, "back when he was a youngish man."
Bradshaw, the formidable conductor who would later become one of the Canadian Opera Company's most influential general directors and the driving force behind Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, worked from 1977-89 as chorus director and resident conductor at San Francisco Opera. Cerny worked with him during his undergraduate studies at Berkeley, earning coveted experience as an opera pianist – in industry-speak, a répétiteur.
"This was long before he went to Toronto, of course," Cerny says. "I learned a great deal from him."
His work at the rehearsal piano seems an obvious piece of the puzzle that eventually reveals Cerny's position as a leader of opera companies in San Francisco, Dallas and now Calgary. Less expected is Cerny's additional background in mathematics and economics.
Or rather, it was music that came a close second. Cerny's affinity for mathematics certainly seems the more natural first love, as the child of a now-retired professor of nuclear chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.
Yet, he had an equal passion for music that began at an early age. He sang with the San Francisco Boys Chorus at 10 years old, and his piano studies grew serious as a teen. When it came time to pursue postsecondary education, Cerny struck a deal with his parents: "They would fund my music degree as long as I did my choice of physics or chemistry."
Cerny chose physics – it involves more mathematics than chemistry – and earned himself two bachelor's degrees from Berkeley, one in physics and one in music. At first glance, his dual pursuits might appear thoroughly unrelated, but it's not an uncommon pattern for music and mathematics to overlap. "For some people, those two are closely linked," Cerny says.
Imagining Cerny's time at Berkeley, split between hours spent solving math problems and hours spent practising Chopin, I had a flashback to my own time as a university music student. As at every reputable school that offered both disciplines, there were a handful of mysterious, intimidating students known as "double majors." Rather than camping out all day in the music building, double majors flitted back and forth across the campus, disappearing for hours as they sat in physics lectures and completed 50 weekly hours of homework. Among their fellow music students, double majors might have been considered "out of sight, out of mind," were it not for their thoroughly impressive performances of Beethoven piano concertos at weekly studio classes, prompting a lingering question that went unanswered: When did they have the time to practise?
Double majors graduate and become the Chris Hadfields of the world, exhaustingly industrious. (Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, is also a musician and songwriter, and recorded an album during his free time on the International Space Station.)
Cerny, too, is one of these types, and Canada is lucky to have him at the helm of one of our precious few opera companies. He comes to Calgary with his two BAs from Berkeley, an MBA from Harvard Business School, a PhD in econometrics and development policy from Britain and training as a conductor and collaborative pianist at both London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama and English National Opera's program for répétiteurs.
He surprised many with his swift wrapping up of eight years as general director of the Dallas Opera (2010-18). Cerny's tenure there was punctuated by ambitious projects: He oversaw 16 operatic simulcasts reaching more than 75,000 patrons, presented an impressive lineup of world premieres, such as Jake Heggie's Great Scott and Joby Talbot's Everest (both in 2015), and led it's-about-time initiatives such as the Hart Institute for Women Conductors, a two-week Dallas Opera residency offering professional development for six young conductors.
Cerny also put to use his mixed professional experience in a lineup of productions that "were really rooted in technology" – a decidedly risky endeavour in the already-expensive opera industry. "This is where my background in physics, and later in telecom and tech, really came in handy," he says of projects such as Death and the Powers (2014), which integrates technology – and robots – into both the production itself and the experience of the listener.
Perhaps even more impressive than his artistic decisions is the fact that Cerny's innovative projects have earned considerable attention from donors. During his tenure, the Dallas Opera boasted five consecutive balanced operating budgets – a first for the company in over 20 years.
So, with his attention turned toward Calgary Opera, Canadians should be encouraged – flattered even – that Cerny finds the company's history of fostering operatic innovation appealing. "One of the things I'm keen to preserve is the company's track record in premieres," he says. In fact, it's this track record that connects Calgary Opera to Dallas; the two companies partnered on the 2010 world premiere of Heggie and Gene Scheer's adaptation of Moby-Dick.
Cerny's remarkably composed approach to the artistic and economic tasks of running an opera company is refreshing. The qualities that make a great opera boss may seem all too simple – the ability to put together an artistically fulfilling season and figure out how to pay for it – but they are more rare than even hard-core opera fans may realize.
For Cerny, he has seen great artistic and financial return in thinking innovatively and collaboratively. In Dallas, patrons responded generously to his inventive ideas, and Cerny sees a similar set of values in Calgary. He had heard about – and seen confirmed – a true interest in collaboration between arts groups in the city, and is poised to take advantage of that interest, beginning with Calgary Opera's upcoming season, to be announced on March 22.
"This is really what has impressed me about Calgary – the level of interest in my colleagues in sitting down and having really thoughtful discussions about how we can partner." Collaboration, he says, is particularly important in Canada, where teamwork is a wise strategy within the system of national and provincial support for the arts.
"A big part of being successful in this environment is working with our peers," he says simply. "It's really in everyone's interest to get as much done, artistically, as we can."
There's certainly something encouraging about Cerny's temperament, almost disarmingly objective about the opportunities and challenges involved in running a company such as Calgary Opera. He seems resistant to the selective blindness that can come with an overly personal attachment to the art, and he brings to Calgary none of the cynicism that can grow out of the difficult and constant work involved in keeping a company funded and functioning.
"I had eight great years in Dallas, and I see a lot of opportunity to work here in Calgary and take the company to the next level."