Keith and Kirsten Chambers : Living The Music Together: A Perfect Partnership

Keith and Kirsten Chambers are an unmatched operatic duo. As a conductor and soprano, they lead out as both performers and educators in opera. They bring their love for each other and the art form into all of their various endeavors in the field of opera.

 

To call the life of a classical musician challenging is quite an understatement. In the best-case scenario, a professional singer, pianist, or conductor faces an uphill battle replete with unpredictable twists, turns, and setbacks. When a global pandemic strikes, an artist’s typical challenges are magnified and compounded. Musicians at every level of the classical singing business faced threats to their jobs, their psyches, their pocketbooks, their physical health, and their personal lives due to the pandemic. A crisis doesn’t change who we are; it reveals who we are. Kirsten and Keith Chambers embody this aphorism. Both extraordinary artists have enjoyed significant success as individual performers—and they happen to be partners in both music and in love. Married since 2004, they have shared their beautiful Manhattan apartment (and music studio) for 15 years.

Keith Chambers is one of the most recognizable names in the U.S. opera industry, having conducted more than 150 performances of nearly 50 different operas for companies including The Dallas Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Amarillo Opera, Shreveport Opera, Asheville Lyric Opera, and others. One of his myriad job titles is Founder and Artistic Director of New Amsterdam Opera. He is the past director of the Young Artist Program for Opera New Jersey and has been a guest coach for the Young Artist Programs of Seattle Opera, Florida Grand Opera, CoOPERAtive Program, and many others. 

Chambers is no stranger to any opera singer who has ever searched for an excellent pianist for auditions in New York City. His sensitive artistry and reliable professionalism have made him one of the industry’s most sought-after collaborative artists. He has taken the stage as a soloist in concerts with multiple symphonies and has served as the official pianist for multiple well-known opera companies and competitions. When not preparing for his next conducting engagement, he maintains a busy coaching schedule for singers in New York City and beyond. As if he wasn’t already wearing enough career hats, Keith recently teamed up with Daniel Welch to co-create New Classical Artist Management, a boutique agency focused on developing professionals in the opera industry through brand recognition, exceptional artistry, and modern business acumen. 

Kirsten Chambers electrified the audience for her debut at The Metropolitan Opera as the title character in Salome. The role has become a signature for Kirsten, who has also sung the opera with Opera Hong Kong and Florida Grand Opera. Fearless in even the most fiendishly difficult operas, Kirsten debuted at Carnegie Hall on just two days’ notice as Maria in Friedenstag by Richard Strauss. A few of her career highlights include leading roles with New York City Opera, Odyssey Opera, Teatro Grattacielo, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Savonlinna Opera Festival, Opéra de Rennes, and many more companies in the U.S. and abroad. 

Beyond their illustrious careers as solo artists, Keith and Kirsten have joined forces for myriad duo concerts like their recent performance of “A Life Made in Music: The Love Story of Kirsten and Keith Chambers” at The Permian Basin Opera. They have made music together countless other times with operas and concerts at Opera New Jersey, Toledo Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Opera Orlando, Opera Saratoga, Northwestern State University, University of Toledo, and many other opera companies and universities.

As artists, the duo enjoys a genuine musical partnership. As soon as Kirsten receives an offer from an opera company, she sight reads the entire role with Keith at the piano to see if it’s a good fit for her voice. If Kirsten decides that the role is appropriate, she begins the work of learning the score on her own; honing the mental and vocal technique necessary for the piece. Once the music sits comfortably in her voice, Kirsten brings the role to Keith for coaching. They even discovered creative ways to continue their tradition of working through roles together during the darkest days of COVID-19 when they were staying at a family’s home without a piano. For Kirsten, the most meaningful moment of a new opera isn’t the sound of the orchestra or the audience’s response. She prefers the process of opening a score with Keith and reading through a role together for the first time. They enjoy the intimacy of sharing musical ideas and discovering deeper artistry. Kirsten adds, “I feel so safe because I know no one is going to support me the way Keith does.”

The dazzling duo stands as a repudiation for anyone who asserts that two professional musicians can’t enjoy a life together that is stable, healthy, and supportive. They recently spoke with Classical Singer, sharing their unique story, and their words of wisdom for readers seeking a successful life in love—on the stage and at home.

 

Kirsten, what was your most unforgettable moment from the night you debuted as Salome at the Met? 

Kirsten: I have to be honest. The actual performance is kind of a blur, but I remember feeling very much in the moment. The only time I had any doubt was at the curtain call. During my bow, I thought, “Oh my gosh. Should I have done that? Was that even any good?” And then I heard my friends’ voices in the audience cheering, and I thought, “Oh, Kirsten, just be grateful.” It could have been any one of us up there, and that day it just happened to be me. 

 

How did you meet and begin your partnership on and off the stage? 

Kirsten: We first met at the University of Houston when Keith played my audition for my Master’s degree. I remember that when I met him in the hall, I thought he had light all around him. I just knew that I would know him in a very special way. At first, we were just friends, but after a Tales of Hoffmann rehearsal, we had a night out on the town and ended up sharing our first kiss! I was playing Giuletta in that production, and Keith was conducting the chorus. I remember feeling embarrassed at the time since I was playing such a villainous character who was in league with the devil and collected men’s souls in her jewelry box. I didn’t want him to think that I was a bad girl. Ha! 

 

How do both negotiate your busy lives together as working artists? 

Kirsten: It can be challenging to find time to spend together that is not related to music. Fortunately, we enjoy many of the same activities, so it’s just a matter of scheduling time together when we are home. We both enjoy outdoor adventures like hiking, bird watching, and going to the beach. When one or both of us are working out of town for gigs, we make sure to call and text a couple of times a day just to check in with each other. In 20 years, we’ve never gone a day without talking to each other.

 

In a shared apartment and studio, how do you make daily decisions like which one of you can use the piano at any given time?

Kirsten: We always make a point to check in with each other first before scheduling student lessons or coachings. I use the studio a little more since I prefer to physically practice, and Keith likes to do more mental work at the kitchen table. When we are both working on different operas at the same time, Keith gets the use of the baby grand in our studio while I practice on our keyboard in our soundproofed bedroom. It works really well!

Time for real talk. How do you support each other through feast and famine regarding gigs? 

Kirsten: I think we’ve had a lot of luck in that regard. Whenever one of us has a slow schedule, the other is busy working. We’ve never felt competition over each other’s success. I can’t imagine anyone being happier about my opera dreams coming true than Keith, who has been by my side since I’ve been a student and knows how hard I work. We are particularly good at helping each other make smart business decisions, which has been crucial to our mutual success.

As established artists, what is the most meaningful way that you like to mentor emerging artists? What is the most important lesson for the next generation of singers to learn? 

Kirsten: I love teaching vocal technique to emerging artists. It took me a long time to learn how to sing, and I made many mistakes along the way. It’s very rewarding now to help others find their voices and not make those same mistakes. I also enjoy mentoring emerging artists about their mindset and the business of singing. I think the most important lesson for the next generation of singers to learn is resiliency. Accepting that rejection is part of the process and is a normal and necessary part of launching a successful career. Singers should not take it personally and must keep putting themselves out there. 

 

What is your favorite performance memory as a couple? 

Kirsten: Our favorite performance together was the debut performance of Keith’s concert opera company, New Amsterdam Opera in May of 2016. I was singing Leonore for the first time in Fidelio, and he was conducting the orchestra. So many friends and family in our musical community came and were invested in what we were producing. There was a full house that night and electricity onstage from both the soloists and the orchestra. Of all our performances, that is the one we remember the most and are most grateful for that dream come true.

Keith, could you tell us how you branched out into New Classical Artist Management (NCAM)? 

Keith: After spending years coaching hundreds of singers, hearing thousands of auditions, and casting or helping to cast at multiple companies, I realized that managing and representing singers seemed like a natural step. My business partner Daniel Welch had already made his name in the opera business as a videographer, brander, photographer, and consultant. We accidentally happened upon the subject of management one day in conversation and quickly realized that our partnership could be quite fruitful. 

Our goal is to keep a “boutique” roster of approximately 12-15 singers—so that we have the time to work appropriately for each artist, but also so that each artist feels like they are adequately represented. We intentionally launched our agency inside of the pandemic in late 2020, because we wanted to be part of the conversation as the business continues its return to normalcy.

 

Keith, do you prefer expressing yourself at the conducting podium or the piano?

Keith: When I first started conducting, I still felt most comfortable at the piano. But with many years and much conducting experience in my rearview mirror, I absolutely love being on the podium and feel completely confident in how I lead the singers and the orchestra. As I actively try to avoid being pigeonholed into a specific style of opera, I am pleased that I am consistently hired for a wide variety of operas—Mozart, verismo, Baroque, contemporary, big Italian, etc. I know that my next step is to conduct Wagner and Strauss—repertoire that I very actively coach and have assisted—but have not yet conducted.

 

What is the biggest change and/or challenge you’ve seen recently in the classical singing world? 

Kirsten: We’ve noticed more competition and fewer opportunities since the pandemic, especially for emerging artists. It can take a while to launch an opera career, and it’s important to focus on the craft, not the results. Rejection is something you eventually learn to overcome as an artist, but there must be opportunities to learn from and successfully gain work. We hope to bring about more opportunities for the next generation of opera singers.

 

Keith, could you tell us about the genesis of New Amsterdam Opera?

Keith: I founded a concert opera company called New Amsterdam Opera in 2016 in New York City. We have followed in the footsteps of the legendary Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) by presenting the highest-quality opera performances in symphonic style. We make a point of engaging established singers from the Metropolitan Opera and international houses and pairing them with newly discovered talent and introducing their voices to New York City. We hold our annual auditions each December in NYC.

 

What are the remaining dreams you’d still like to achieve­­—as artists and as humans?

Kirsten: I would still love to sing in Germany. Singing the Strauss and Wagner repertoire in their homeland has always called to my heart, and it’s a dream that I’m still pursuing. We both are also pursuing university teaching positions that will allow for flexibility for performing artists. And, personally, we’d both love to do more travel together that’s not music related.

Keith: A big dream of mine is still to conduct Strauss and Wagner—I have developed a reputation for coaching this repertoire, and I feel like it is something I was born to do. 

 

Is there anything else that either of you would like to share with us? 

Kirsten: In high school, I read and reread every Classical Singer issue and learned so much about my dream profession. It’s a dream come true to have realized so many of our musical aspirations. The opportunity now for us to give back as teaching artists makes all the struggles worthwhile.

You can catch up with Keith and Kirsten at several upcoming events this year. Kirsten is a judge for the preliminary rounds of the Fritz and Lavinia Jensen Competition in NYC May 16–21, and both Keith and Kirsten are judges for the final rounds of the CS Music Convention Competition May 27–30 at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. They are teaching masterclasses at the CS Music Convention, and you can register to work with them there. 

They will also be teaching at several festivals this summer where there will be numerous opportunities for students and young artists. Their residencies include the Vienna Summer Music Festival in both Vienna, Austria (June 26–July 18), and St. Petersburg, Florida (May 29–June 20). The festival will produce Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and the contemporary operas Venus and Mondo Novo, all with orchestra. Scholarships are available. Kirsten will be teaching at the International Summer Opera Festival of Morelia for their Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, both performed with orchestra May 22–Jun 12. There are scholarships available based on merit and need. This is her fifth year as an instructor, and it remains her favorite place to spend her summer. 

 

For more information about Kirsten and Keith, visit kirsten-chambers.com and keith-chambers.com.

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock has sung with The Santa Fe Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, The Pacific Symphony, Memphis Symphony, PROTOTYPE Festival and Opera Hong Kong. He currently serves as The Associate Director of Development for Major and Planned Gifts at The Atlanta Opera, and he is a member of the Classical Singer Magazine editorial board.