When the curtain rises on "The Sound of Music" this Friday, Kelly Kuo will be in the Discovery Theatre pit leading the Anchorage Opera orchestra for the third time in 12 months.
In February he conducted the company's production of Verdi's "Macbeth."
It may seem unusual for a conductor to be equally adept in both popular musicals and grand opera. But the gifted Kuo is also an accomplished pianist, coach and administrator.
Having a variety of job skills will help keep a musician employed, but it's not always a sure thing. And he knew that from the start.
"I actually went off to college planning to become an aerospace engineer," he said. "Being the oldest son of Chinese immigrant parents, music was not the first career choice."
Kuo was born in the small eastern Oregon town of Hermiston. His father was a soil chemist, his mother an architect who worked for the local electric company. They made sure that classical music was "in the air" at home, on recordings and on the radio. And they insisted that Kuo and his younger brother take music lessons early on.
Kuo started on violin, then picked up piano and clarinet. The last-named instrument was key to getting him a scholarship at the University of Oregon in Eugene, he said. "They wanted someone who could play that as well as the piano."
In Eugene he studied with Dean Kramer, often cited as the last student of Vladimir Horowitz. He graduated with bachelor's degrees in music and Chinese. (He ordered in Chinese at Charlie's Bakery during an interview last week.)
"At that point I had many choices," he said. He applied to six elite schools, including Yake University, and was accepted by all. "Everyone was assuming I'd go to Yale, but I decided to gamble."
He chose the Manhattan School of Music, turning down graduate fellowships elsewhere "in order to try out New York."
In Hermiston and even Eugene his talent had made him something of a big fish in a small musical pond. "I decided I needed a bigger ocean."
In New York he studied with Byron Janis, the acclaimed pianist also noted as a composer and musicologist. Janis, ironically, was Horowitz's first student. "I may be the only person in the world who ever studied with two pianists who studied under Horowitz," Kuo observed.
Janis only had two or three students. "He would only hear a piece once," Kuo recalled. "It had to be prepared, big and complete, the whole sonata or concerto, not just one movement. And it had to be memorized.
Kuo remembered Janis as "a fantastic coach." He seemed particularly interested when Kuo brought in works with which he was not associated, including contemporary music.
The New York experience "forced me to be versatile," Kuo said. He eagerly sought out less-than-glamorous assignments, playing piano in pit orchestras, doing chamber music, modern works and undertaking musical education outreach programs.
To earn a little extra money, he began accompanying singers. It was a voice teacher who suggested that he explore taking on more of that kind of work. After he received his master's degree in piano he began work on a second master's in vocal accompaniment, studying this time with the prolific Warren Jones, Musical America magazine's "Collaborative Pianist of the Year" in 2010, accompanist to stars like Denyce Graves, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, Kathleen Battle and many others.
Within a few months of getting that degree, Kuo was hired as a pianist by Houston Grand Opera, where he got his initial training in opera. He then went to the now-defunct Opera Pacific company in Orange County, Calif., where he made his opera conducting debut with "La Traviata" in 2005.
His first Anchorage appearance was directing "South Pacific," a musical. But his handling was as meticulous as if he'd been conducting "The Marriage of Figaro."
"I approach these pieces very classically, very seriously," he said of musicals -- Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in particular. "These were written before singers were miked. They had to be able to project above a 30 piece orchestra."
That's the size of the orchestra he's leading in "Sound of Music," nearly as big as the one he had for "Macbeth."
"Rodgers can be like Wagner. There are themes that appear throughout the music, something in the second act referring to music in the fist act but transformed. He's very classical in his structure. And, rather than a series of song-and-dance numbers, these musicals have a through-line in the story. I treat it with respect."
The movie took great liberties with the stage musical, Kuo noted. Some songs were dropped for actors who weren't singers, others added so that it would qualify for an Academy Award with new music. Other pieces were shuffled to different places in the plot.
"The stage version is also more edgy, more political," he noted. "The Germans are sort of downplayed in the movie. But in our version the Nazis are always present."
Stage direction is in the hands of New York director Bill Fabris, previously responsible for excellent Anchorage productions of "Don Pasquale" and "HMS Pinafore" among other shows.
The success of the movie certainly secured the enduring popularity of the musical, Kuo admitted. But that success was so overwhelming that, today, "Sound of Music" is seldom presented on Broadway. The original musical instead travels the country in touring productions, community theater and with opera companies seeking to expand their repertoire and audiences. And that's not necessarily a new trend.
"Its interesting that the first off-Broadway production of the musical anywhere was here in Anchorage, by Anchorage Opera in 1965," Kuo said.
Today Kuo bases out of Cincinnati, where his wife Kim works as a massage therapist. She and sons Nick and Ales -- 11 year-old twins -- visited him in Anchorage during the run of "Macbeth" last month.
"We rode on a dog sled in Seward, snowmachines in Girdwood, sledding in Kincaid Park," Kuo said. "The boys really loved it. They didn't get much of a winter in Cincinnati this year."
And Kuo won't be seeing much of Cincinnati in the months to come. Shortly after "Sound of Music" closes on April 7, he will be leading the Lexington, Ky., Philharmonic in a program of Bach and Vivaldi concertos (leading from the harpsichord -- a job related to conducting but requiring a somewhat different skill set) and "Mozart's Hymn" for string orchestra by contemporary composer David Kellogg.
Then he will be heading to the University of Texas in Austin as the music director of the Butler Opera Center. And, through the summer, working at the Santa Fe Opera House for his third season. Among other duties, he will be the understudy conductor for British maestro Andrew Davis in Strauss's "Arabella."
He sounded especially enthusiastic about the gig in Santa Fe, a summer festival that ranks among the foremost events in the world for opera stars and fans alike. But the profession is a precarious one.
"Talent and hard work are the smallest part of what you need to succeed in this business," he said. "If I knew then what I know now, how enormous the difficulties are, I might have stuck with my plan to become an aerospace engineer."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.