Karen Thomas: Conductor, Composer, Badass
Karen P. Thomas is a conductor and composer. For 25 years, she's been the artistic director and conductor of Seattle Pro Musica, a vocal ensemble consisting of 70 singers. In her time there, she's taken SPM from a local 18-person group no one knew about to one of the more respected, distinguished, and reputable choruses in the country. Thomas is an intense individual—a musically brilliant and ballsy Seattle lesbian who's been playing in a man's world, and despite the bias present in classical music toward women of any sexual preference, she's absolutely succeeded. Note the gaggle of national awards she and SPM have pulled down, and note the tails she's prone to wearing. If you ask anyone in SPM why they're singing, they'll say, "It's the music, and it's Karen"—and those two are pretty much synonymous. Her compositions are regularly performed and broadcast throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. On October 21, SPM will sing its 40th anniversary concert in Seattle. Thomas spoke about the goings-on. I wore a five-piece tuxedo.
How have you dealt with the male chauvinism of classical music?
I try to be incredibly good [laughs] and to present myself as 10 times more confident than anybody else. And to be visionary, with leadership qualities. I think a lot of chauvinism is because the world of classical music is so much more conservative than many other kinds of music—there are a lot of entrenched attitudes. In classical music, most of the organizations are nonprofit, so they're run by a board of directors. There's still a basic feeling among many boards that a position of authority for a large organization belongs in the hands of a man. Which I don't agree with, obviously. Girls at a young age, especially, should be empowered and convinced that they can do anything. It's turning around, but I don't think we're totally there yet.
When you're up there, conducting 60 to 90 voices, what's it like? What do you compare it to?
The biggest high in the world. An incredible connection between the singers, the audience, the composer, and me. If the composer is alive, we're bringing his or her music to life. If the composer is long dead, we're re-creating something. The composer writes the code through notes on a piece of paper, and we turn it into sound—it's pretty cool.
Do you ever imagine you're surfing a 90-foot wave? Or that you're hurling a gigantic golden ax at the sky?
It is a powerful sound [laughs]. Another cool thing is how quiet they can be—90 people singing quietly sounds amazing.
What are your goals in rehearsal?
We work on getting it tight—getting the intonation and the interpretation right. One of the guiding principles in choral music and the way I conduct is based on taking this group of people, which could be 9 or 90, and getting them to blend so well—so in tune and so precisely—that they sound like one being. One unified sound that reacts the same.
So just like throwing a golden ax at the sky.
Just like that [laughs]. As a conductor, you have to be careful not to let your mind go to other places. It's tempting to get caught up in the sound and lose focus. But you can't lose focus, because if anything goes wrong, you have to fix it in a split second. I go into my reveries when I listen to the CDs afterward.
When 90 people are singing, how can you tell what part of it needs work? What are you listening for?
With the choir I work with, I know everyone involved. I know their individual voices and musicianship. They all auditioned to get in, so they've all sung for me, sight-read for me, and jumped through a lot of hoops to get in. I know what they're capable of—which voices will work well if they're standing next to each other, and which ones will clash. Knowing everyone's skills allows me to predict each week what we'll need to work on. We also work with lots of different languages, so pronunciation is important, whether it be Bulgarian or Estonian. Balancing volume is also key.
What's a risk you've taken with conducting?
Three years ago, I did a show that was all music from Asia. And I did it in December, which is usually the time of year when you do your safe programming—Christmas music that you know everyone will come to. But I decided to go a different route, with music sung in 12 different languages, including Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin, and music from Indonesia and India. It was financially risky in terms of getting an audience to turn out, and it was pushing the choir in a new direction—giving them a lot of work, but they were up for it. In 2000–2001, I did a concert with music from different countries in the Balkans; this was during a time when there was a lot of conflict there. We put music from Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania in one concert and invited those communities to come together and attend. We got feedback that some people were angry because they didn't want to be in the same room with someone from a country they were fighting, but my approach was one of reconciliation.
Is it true you'll be performing the Guns N' Roses album Appetite for Destruction in its entirety, in Bulgarian?
Wow. We've got to get moving on that [laughs]. That's the encore.
In his day, let's be honest, Axl Rose had ridiculous pipes. That falsetto, "Cha-na-na-na-na-kneeees-knees." How the hell does he do that?
Males have the ability to sing up in a woman's register because their vocal cords are longer and thicker, so they can go into that high falsetto range. They can also sing in that range without slipping into falsetto. Axl has cords of steel, as we call them.
Axl has gotta be properly singing from the diaphragm, right? What's the proper way to sing?
People spend lifetimes working on that—it's not something you pick up quickly. Breathing is the basis of everything, like putting gas in your car. It's about practice, and doing it consistently. Technically speaking, you can't actually breathe with your diaphragm because your diaphragm moves when you breathe. When your abdominal muscles move in and out, your diaphragm moves—you can't actually move it yourself. It's more about opening up your lung capacity so when your diaphragm lowers, it means your lungs are opening more. The mental imagery is about breathing low so you can fill up with as much air as possible.
You sometimes wear tails when you conduct. Is that to make a statement? Do women often wear tails?
Very few women do. I don't always wear them; I have a suit that doesn't have tails. Basically, tails just look really good. More importantly, they feel good when you're conducting—the way they fit on your arms and shoulders, you can move easily in them. Most women who are conducting will wear some sort of specially made formal suit coat.
Who do you look up to?
In the orchestral world, Marin Alsop is fantastic.
Does being a lesbian make things even that much harder in the world of classical music?
I haven't really been aware of it being helpful or harmful, it's just one facet of who I am. I'm independent and hardworking, and hopefully inspiring. I think those are the qualities that make a difference in terms of being able to get somewhere with a career. I am absolutely an advocate for lesbian and same-sex rights, but it's not something that I do publicly. It's more a factor of the availability of my time than anything else. I do music.
Who's the most challenging composer to work with?
I'd say Bach. We do a Bach piece that's two hours long. His music is really intricate and difficult. It's full of 16th notes running in all directions at once, and each voice is doing something different. It's contrapuntal, and fast. As a singer, you have to physically navigate a lot of fast notes with awkward leaps. It all sounds perfectly fabulous when you get it together, but making it precise and making music out of it is challenging.
Two hours. I gotta ask: What if someone singing needs to pee? Marathon runners will just go while they're running. Y'all can't do that.
There's an intermission halfway [laughs]. You take care of that stuff. The show can't stop. There was a concert once where one of the singers started feeling faint. There was an organ bench next to her, and she just laid down on it, and we kept going. She was okay. Or someone might feel like they're going to have a coughing fit, so they will tiptoe off the stage. In high school, I remember a girl locking her knees, passing out, and falling off the back riser. You never want that. Usually we rehearse so much that concerts go smoothly.
Walk us through the sections.
Starting from the top, you've got soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Within each section there are firsts and seconds, who are higher and lower within that section. Some of the pieces we're doing have eight different parts in them. In one piece, the choir splits into 12 different parts.
Can a person's singing really break a wine glass?
Probably not. It is possible, but I've never seen it happen. If you get the right volume and frequency, I guess it could happen. I think they did it on MythBusters.
What are you working on for the 40th anniversary show?
We're opening with a concert called 40. It includes people who currently sing in the group, of which there are about 70, and we invited every alum that we could find from the past 40 years to come and sing if they wanted to. So we've got about 30 additional people involved, some who sang with the group 20 or 30 years ago. It's a compendium of many different pieces—a couple of Bulgarian folk songs, an arrangement of "Danny Boy" that I wrote for the guys, some Rachmaninov, and a really sexy Italian madrigal from the 16th century.
What's next? For the next 25 years?
We'd love to do more touring in the United States and internationally. I'd love to do more major works with orchestras. We also want to see our education program expand—more outreach to kids and youth. In July, I'll be in Massachusetts guest-conducting at the Berkshire Choral Festival. That'll be fun, and an honor—it's the first time I've been there. And I'm thinking about next year's program, constantly thinking about collaborations and cool pieces to perform.
Do you feel like you've opened doors for other people?
I hope so. Twenty-five years of building an organization and shaping it into something that has a strong national reputation, as a woman in a world, is not so common. I hope that inspires other women and makes it easier for them.