Will Kelley headshot

This summer, when William Kelley (’14 BM Piano Performance) took the podium to conduct Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, it was his second time with that particular opera, with a lot of music and miles in between. 

The first experience came when Kelley was a senior in the UNCG School of Music, playing piano and acting as assistant conductor.  This time, Kelley is doing it as the Kappelmeister of Theatre Bremen, a state opera house in the town of Bremen, Germany, about 42-hundred miles from Greensboro. 

Kelley has held the position at Theatre Bremen since 2020, and before that he was Kapellmeister at Luzerner Theater in Luzern, Switzerland. He made his European conducting debut in 2017 with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with following productions including the Swiss premiere of Abraham’s Märchen im Grand Hotel, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Carmen.maquia (version for ballet), Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, a world premiere in the Lucerne Festival: Im Amt für Todesangelegenheiten (2018) with the 21st Century Orchestra, and the 2019 Gübelin Luzerner Sinfonieball.  

Kelley hails from Burlington, NC. He took piano lessons growing up and earned a Bachelor of Music at UNCG, then a Masters degree from The Juilliard School. After that, Kelley says it was an easy decision to give Europe a try: 

“I think that when you have at least the slightest bit of curiosity, just jump the ‘pond’ in any direction and try out a culture that’s not your own, especially with a language that’s not your own. It’s not always going to be easy. There will be daily things that are much more difficult, but it’s also very enriching. I wouldn’t want to not do this.” 

Kelley’s star has been rising since his arrival in Europe, and he brought with him an American style that is getting rave reviews: 

Will Kelley conducting

Musical Magazine calls him “a formidable conductor.”

Opernwelt (a monthly German magazine for opera, operetta and ballet) says about Angels in America at Theatre Bremen: 

“The young American conductor William Kelley’s mastery of the complex score is a successful test of talent in every respect. He knows how to convincingly combine the different compositional ingredients such as Broadway flair, playback noise, vocal complexity, and differentiated orchestral-usage into an overall sound.”  

Kelley says Angels in America has been one of his favorite projects at Theatre Bremen: 

“It was an interesting situation where you had an opera, based on a very famous American text (Tony Kushner) and set in the United States, with music by a Hungarian composer. So it was a little bit of a combination of worlds. 

“What was fun for me as an American, and as an English speaker, was to be able to take a piece where the text is so famous and very nuanced and very particular to the 1980s-1990s New York City gay scene—with a tone and type of sarcasm the characters use and so many political references—and to use my cultural background to help make decisions when tackling the production. It’s easy to get a little lost in it, if it doesn’t feel close to you. It’s a huge text. It’s sort of like taking on the Ring Cycle of twentieth century America.” 

Just like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Angels is a marathon of music. The creative team at Bremen had to reduce eight hours of text into a two-and-a-half hour opera. 

“We were almost working with a paraphrased version of the text. I felt like I could be helpful in orienting the drastically shortened text so that the audience could better understand the story. It was also great having several Americans in the cast, including fellow alumnus Matthew Reese (’13 MM Vocal Performance). It was his third time doing the role of Belize, so he had experience with the piece.” 

Kelley says being a midsize opera house, Theatre Bremen is able to do a mix of modern and classical titles.  The 2023-2024 season brings Hello Dolly, the 1964 musical with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart,  Dr. Atomic by contemporary American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. 

 “Playing the classical pieces is a little different here. I think Germans feel like they’re able to play with it a little bit, whereas in the United States we have this museum quality feeling about classical music. You know, they grew up with Bach in their blood. It’s a different type of connection to the music. Being American here is very fun, though, because I get to bring things that they’re not so used to. You know. I love doing jazz and pop and rock with them because as comfortable as they are with Strauss, they are equally uncomfortable with other things. It’s fun to take them through that as a conductor.” 

When he thinks back on his time as a student and how it prepared him for what he calls “living the German opera life,” Kelley says he is forever grateful: 

“Looking back at life in the United States, I think about how much better my education was there, and how lucky I was to study music in the way that I did. At universities and conservatories in the U.S., things are more structured as to what we learn and how thorough the training is. It’s so much better than music education in the rest of the world. I think daily about moments in my theory and music history classes and all of that base information I absorbed and which I use as a conductor all the time. I still have my Norton Anthology of Western Music that I  refer to from time to time.  

“I also think about the professors I had. I learned so much about collaborative piano from Inara Zandmame, and about historical instruments from Andrew Willis. I think weekly, if not daily,  about things I picked up from them. And then, of course, there was piano professor John Salmon. I think I grew as much philosophically as I did technically from him.  I learned how to be ‘chill.’  He has this way of doing things so diligently but in a lighthearted way.  He’s so accurate and thorough without taking himself too seriously. That will help you out a lot in this business.” 

This will be Kelley’s last season at Theatre Bremen. After finishing his contract in spring of 2024, he’ll be moving on to see where his life in the arts will take him next: 

“The plan is to move to Amsterdam with my boyfriend, and I’ll freelance, do a mix of things. I will have been tied to a theatre for 7 years at the end of my contract, so it’s time to try some new things along with a new country and a new language!  I always remind myself how fortunate I am to have this job in music and that allows me to travel as much as I do.” 

“I think it’s good to stay open-minded and open to different paths. But you also need to trust your instinct about what your passion is and what you really want to do. Think of life like you should think about an audition. Don’t go in presenting what you think someone else wants from you.  Go in there with your authentic self.  I think for any artist that sort of journey toward authenticity is the most important thing.” 

Story by Terri W. Relos

Photos provided by William Kelley