Entrepreneurship and Career Development

Entrepreneur of the Month

Karen Kamensek
Photo by Denise Biffar


An update on the most recent news and opinion in the music world.

A bi-weekly roundup with advice and news on career development.

Entrepreneur of the Month:
Karen Kamensek

Jacobs alumna Karen Kamensek has been making waves in the world of conducting, and is nearing the end of a busy 2019-20 season that included debuts with many top opera houses and orchestras in both the United States and Europe, including the Metropolitan Opera! Read on for more about her journey to become a sought-after conductor after graduating from IU, and the lessons she's learned along the way about listening, maintaining resilience despite rejection, and staying true to her own character.

Karen Kamensek conducting

Photo by Benno Hunziker

Karen Kamensek graduated with degrees in orchestral conducting and piano performance from the Jacobs School of Music, and has since been making a vibrant international career for herself with performances spanning a variety of orchestral and operatic repertoire, including a recent debut with Glass's Akhnaten at the Metropolitan Opera. Her production of Akhnaten with the English National Opera in 2016 garnered them the coveted 2017 Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production. Her frequent collaborations with Glass have also included her 2017 debut at The Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall, conducting the first ever live performance of Philip Glass's and Ravi Shankar's Passages. Alongside these more contemporary works, Kamensek has also proved herself equally at home with other classics in the operatic and orchestral canon, and her 2019-20 season includes debuts with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as with the Minnesota Opera conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni. A new production of Puccini’s La Bohème will usher in her welcome return to the Göteborg Opera.

Ms. Kamensek works frequently in Europe as well as in the United States, and she served as the Music Director of the Staatsoper Hannover from 2011-2016. She has also been the First Kapellmeister at the Volksoper Wien (2000-2002), Music Director of the Theater Freiburg (2003-2006), Interim Music Director at the Slovenian National Theatre in Maribor (2007-2008), and Associate Music Director at Staatsoper Hamburg (2008-2011).


PJ: You graduated from IU with degrees in both orchestral conducting and piano performance. What went into the decision to pursue conducting, and not piano, as a career?

KK: The decision to become a conductor was actually made when I was 11. I simply decided that is what I wanted to be, and I never strayed from that desire, passion and path. Pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Piano Performance was the most practical solution for me, as no undergraduate degree in conducting was available. It was a means to an end, if you will. I had also played the violin for many years, but never considered pursuing a degree in violin. At the time, there was also no undergraduate degree offered in collaborative piano, which in fact would have been the perfect thing for me. As it turned out, in my junior year I became the first undergraduate opera coach that the opera department had ever had. That position was an educational treasure trove for me. Gratefully, my piano professor, Shigeo Neriki, clearly saw where I was headed career-wise, and helped me get through all those piano juries and recitals, which were definitely outside of my musical comfort zone.

Karen Kamensek conducting at the Met

Photo by Karen Almond

PJ: How did your time at IU shape you into the person you are now?

KK:  I was like a sponge when I arrived at IU at the age of 17. I tried to absorb as much of everything as was humanly possible with only 24 measly hours in the day! The magic of the listening library was one of the first things I discovered, and I spent endless hours in there poring over recordings and scores.

Because I was a cracker-jack sight-reader at the piano, and because I patently didn‘t want to sing in the chorus as my ensemble requirement, I immediately offered myself up to the choral department as a choral accompanist. After auditioning for them, Dr. Jan Harrington and Professor Robert Porco snapped me up, and under their direction over the 4 years of my bachelor studies, I learned what one can only learn by apprenticing with conductors...the art of rehearsal, leadership, gesture, analysis, language, articulation, preparation, style, shaping, coloring, dynamics, etc. The whole shebang. Invaluable!!!!

I also accompanied lessons in many of the great studios of that time. Josef Gingold, Miriam Fried, Virginia Zeani, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Martina Arroyo, Carlos Montane, James King, Leonard Hokanson (for Lieder), among others. But the professor who had the greatest and most important direct influence on me was the renowned cellist, Professor Janos Starker. I began playing in his studio immediately in my second semester at age 18. By my junior year, a rapport had been established between us, and one day (as the cellist was changing a broken string) he looked at me and said, "A little birdie tells me you want to be a conductor. I think this is a good thing." A bit surprised that he was taking such a personal interest in me (knowing that the "little birdie" was my piano teacher and his own accompanist, Shigeo Neriki), I asked why he thought that. To which he replied, "Because you are always concentrating on the inner voices, and you lead from the bass line. This is a good quality to have as a conductor." To this day I don't know what gave me the courage to ask the next question, which was in effect: "Mr. Starker, I would very much like to go to Europe this summer and assist someone, somewhere in the opera. Would you have any ideas about where I might be able to go?" To which he replied: "Contact Dennis Russell Davies, and tell him I sent you."

These activities—listening and accompanying—provided me with the essential musical building blocks which positively set me on the long road to becoming a full-time professional conductor. I invested my time and energies beyond what was asked of me in the required courses. I don't think I slept very much during those years!

Karen Kamensek

Photo by Yossi Zwecker

PJ: Can you talk a bit about your transition from student to young professional, and how you gained your footing as a working conductor? What advice would you give to students who are facing the same situation now?

KK: I followed Mr. Starker's advice and contacted Dennis Russell Davies, who—based on Mr. Starker's recommendation—took me on as his assistant for a number of symphonic and operatic projects in Germany, New York, Chicago and Houston over the course of 6 whirlwind years, during which time I also finished my bachelor's and master's degrees, and began a doctorate. During this time I also came into contact with the composer Philip Glass, who is a close colleague and friend of Maestro Davies. They included me in many of their collaborative projects and recordings, and Philip Glass also hired me as music director on an international tour and studio recording of his opera Les Enfants Terribles, as well as a theater project off-Broadway.

About 3 years after I finished my bachelor's degree, when the freelance work in NYC was going through a dry spell, I came back to IU and finished a master's degree and began a doctorate, under the excellent tutelage of Professors Imre Pallo, and Thomas Baldner. I was awarded the Opera Assistantship, and was given the opportunity to conduct performances of Verdi's Rigoletto, Adams' Nixon in China, and Offenbach‘s The Tales of Hoffmann. During this time, Mr. Pallo recommended me to the New York City Opera touring company as second conductor for their tour of La Boheme. I joined the company by jumping in without rehearsal during their stop at Butler University, continued on the tour for 9 weeks and 30+ performances, and basically just never came back to finish the doctorate.

I went through a another dry patch after that which almost caused me to give it all up. I was temping in various offices, working in a video store, accompanying, coaching, was offered corporate positions because of my multi-lingual abilities, called titles at the Met and at BAM, all to survive financially. But I wasn’t getting the musical gigs I wanted. At the time there weren’t so many assistantships, master classes, festivals, competitions, the technical abilities to make audition videos, or quick networking connections via the internet, as there are right now. I nevertheless kept pushing on through rejection after rejection, and in 1999—through a series of serendipitous and fortuitous events—was lucky to be invited by Simone Young to assist her on 2 symphonic projects with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Bergen, Norway. Her agent, Michael Lewin of ARSIS Artists, saw me conduct and decided to give me a chance, and arranged for me to conduct 2 performances of Don Giovanni at the Volksoper Wien. I was immediately invited to be one of the Kapellmeister (resident conductor) at the Volksoper Wien in 2000, and consequently made the jump to Vienna. Mr. Lewin, 20 years later, is still my manager, and Simone Young a close colleague and friend.

I encourage anyone wishing to enter the music business to, if they have the relentless passion and "the goods", to follow their gut and to create their own game plan which works for them. There is no set recipe to success, and what is the true measure of success anyway? Certainly no one is going to hand anything to you on a plate if you don’t invest blood, sweat and tears, and go the extra mile for yourself. For every 100 positions available in any aspect of music, there are 300 applicants. Competition is fierce, and regrettably things aren’t always fair in such a subjective arena. I came very close to quitting, but the Universe must've really known I meant to quit with no regrets, because it all turned around for me on a dime. Apply for everything, be prepared to have more rejections than acceptances, work outward from where you stand to make connections and find partners with whom you can collaborate, be visible, sit in rehearsals of others and watch and learn, be available. If a door closes, find a window. If there is a wall placed in your path, climb over, go around, dig under, barrel through, or turn around and go the other way. There is, in life, always a way to find your true path if you trust your instincts and go with your gut. Most of all—be prepared, and have "the goods" and the courage if/when someone offers you the chance to jump in!

Karen Kamensek conducting

Photo by Benno Hunziker


PJ: You recently made your Met Opera debut in November 2019 with Philip Glass's Akhnaten, an incredible career milestone! What was it like to work with such a legendary opera house?

KK:  It's the MET!!!! I had always had the goal, since I visited NYC and saw a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met with my youth/high school orchestra when I was around 13 or 14, to conduct there. I was positively overwhelmed by that visit, as I had watched the Saturday broadcasts from the Met for many years, even as a child! I worked as a cue-caller for Met Titles in the late '90s, which was also an invaluable opportunity to learn, and for which I am eternally grateful. To have then been invited to conduct the Met premiere of Phelim McDermott’s production of Philip Glass’s  Akhnaten (which I premiered with Phelim at the English National Opera in London in 2016), including the live in HD broadcast in movie theaters around the world, was naturally an immense honor, a thrill, and a dream come true! I'm still flying high from the experience!

Akhnaten at the Met: Trailer

Akhnaten at the Met: Trailer 

PJ: You seem just as comfortable with Glass or Takemitsu as with Puccini or Mozart. Have you always had an affinity for contemporary music?

KK: Yes. At IU, I was often asked to conduct ensembles for the composition students. Having assisted and been mentored for so many years by Dennis Russell Davies, who was the chief conductor of the American Composer‘s Orchestra, this is definitely in my blood. Sometimes the market is fickle and wants "specialists" in this, that, or the other. I am lucky to have a broad repertoire, and very diverse musical interests and activities, and management which helps me/allows me to remain true to my eclectic character.

Karen Kamensek and Philip Glass

With the composer Philip Glass (photo by Anthony Roth Costanzo)

PJ: As a conductor who travels a lot between Europe and the U.S., do you find that there are significant differences between the orchestras in these two countries? How important do you think it is for young conductors here in the U.S. to also spend some time conducting in Europe?

KK: Well, the U.S. market is, in fact, just beginning to open up to me. It has been a long and slow road. I went to Europe because I wasn‘t getting the opportunities I desired in the U.S. at that time. Most of my teachers had encouraged me, with my affinity for opera, to move to Europe. Since I didn‘t really want to be a repetiteur long-term, and definitely had my sights set on the podium, the move was going to be tricky. Somehow everything aligned in the end. It might have been 5 years later than I would have liked it to be, but it has nevertheless turned out just right for me. In the story of the tortoise and the hare, I am definitely the tortoise. And yes, I absolutely do encourage young conductors to spend time in Europe if they have the opportunity to do so, as it is the source of so much of the classical music repertoire. Learning the traditions and the languages is essential for anyone considering a career which includes opera, as there are hundreds of opera houses concentrated in a geographical region which is relatively small.

Feature with the Bordeaux Station Ausone

Video feature with the Bordeaux Station Ausone

PJ: You've also been music director at many European opera houses. How do you stay organized and as stress-free as possible when working in such a huge managerial role?

KK: In a music director position at a European repertory opera house, there is of course a large team which is working together, so there is a support system in place from the get-go. There is a hierarchy which is adhered to, and responsibilites are delegated. The days nevertheless have very long hours, you work weekends, and nights, and study and prepare when you're not actually in the theater. At the end of the day, you and the general director are still the ultimate responsible parties. It is this duo-component of leadership, perhaps a trio-constellation in tandem with the financial director, which sets the managerial/artistic tone within an institution. It‘s quite an athletic lifestyle, mentally and physically, so it‘s important to stay fit and healthy. Perhaps you even have a personal life! I‘ve learned with time, and by trial and error, what works for me in terms of dealing with stressful situations, performance anxiety, people skills, scheduling issues, and balancing the personal and professional. The dynamics and balance also change at will. Anyone who works in a leadership position has to constantly be in tune with the team he/she is leading, no matter how large or small. Hopefully everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction, but one must always be prepared for dissent, dissatisfaction, frustrations, and the bumps and curves life throws any of us. Luckily, music quite often pumps us up, and brings immense joy in the making and performing of it. 

PJ: You've accomplished so much and checked off some major things off your career bucket-list. What's the next goal?

KK: Music has been a part of every single minute of my life since I was 4 years old. I can't imagine a day without it. Even with years of experience behind me, I learn and experience something new every day, I'm challenged every day, and am constantly honing my own skills. It’s a never-ending process and journey. There are many musical bucket-list items still on my list, but I rarely divulge what they are, perhaps out of superstition that I might jinx their manifestation! Rest assured that my debut at the Metropolitan Opera was a top bucket-list item!

Karen Kamensek

Photo by Denise Biffar

Many thanks to Karen Kamensek for sharing her inspiring story! Akhnaten will be broadcast on PBS Great Performances on April 5th. Be sure to check it out!