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Opera News’s Brian Kellow in “Best of 2011” lists with his Pauline Kael biography

Opera News features editor Brian Kellow – whose monthly “On the Beat” column in the magazine discusses artists’ profiles and key topics on the health and future of opera, often raising eyebrows with its no-holds-barred style – is making news himself this season. Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, his new biography of the legendary film critic, has recently been named one of the best non-fiction books of 2011 by the New Yorker (the magazine for which she wrote most of her celebrated reviews), and received a nod from the New York Times Book Review in its coveted “Notable Books of the Year” round-up. Kellow, who has profiled some of the greatest opera singers ever to take the stage, calls Kael one of his heroes, noting, “I really do think she was the finest critic in any medium that I’ve ever come across.”
The Library Journal calls Kellow’s new biography “a must-read for any devotee of film,” while Kirkus’s starred review calls it “biographical magic.” Entertainment Weekly observes, “Kellow captures his tough leading lady’s many twists in a surprisingly engrossing, thoroughly researched biography.”
F. Paul Driscoll, the Editor-in-Chief of Opera News comments:
Opera News owes much of its reputation for editorial excellence to Brian Kellow’s brilliant work for the magazine during his career as an editor here. It is a source of great joy and pride to all Brian’s Opera News colleagues that his new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, has received such well-deserved acclaim.
Opera News has been published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild since 1936; it has the largest circulation of any classical music magazine in the United States. The magazine, published monthly, is a winner of three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in music journalism. On April 29, 2012, the seventh annual Opera News Awards will be presented at The Plaza in New York City, paying tribute to five extraordinary artists who have made an invaluable contribution to the art form: sopranos Karita Mattila and Anja Silja, baritones Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei, and director Peter Sellars.
Kellow discusses his new book with NPR’s Rachel Martin here:
Below, Kellow discusses his adventures at Opera News and his work as a biographer.
A conversation with Brian Kellow
How long have you worked at Opera News and what positions have you held there?   
I came to Opera News as an assistant editor in the spring of 1988. I became managing editor in 1990, and features editor in 2000. When I was younger, I studied piano for nearly ten years, never with any performing ideas in mind, because I wasn’t nearly good enough to do anything like that. I always wanted to be a writer. When I moved to New York in 1982, I started going to the opera regularly – I mean, two or three times a week. My good friend Cynthia Peterson was a performance manager at the Met, and she was my entree to that whole world. I was hooked very quickly.
Who are some of the opera singers that you’ve most enjoyed writing about and why?
I loved writing about my singing idol, Joan Sutherland, and trying to get across some sense of what it was like to experience that astonishing voice in the theater. Hearing her live remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my theater-going life. Sutherland’s was the greatest voice I ever heard, but I would say the greatest ARTIST I ever experienced was Regine Crespin. A few years ago, I had the great privilege of doing a major piece on her for Opera News and getting to know her a bit. I also wrote a tribute to her when she received one of the very first Opera News Awards in 2005. Probably the most intimidating interview subject I ever had was another of my favorite singers, Leyla Gencer, whom I interviewed in 1995 when she was presiding over her very first vocal competition in Istanbul. I’m normally pretty cool in an interview situation, because I take care to be well prepared. But prepared or not, Gencer scared the hell out of me. We very quickly became good friends, however. I also like writing about composers: Tobias Picker and Ricky Ian Gordon were two of my most stimulating interviews. Like most journalists, I like subjects who really GIVE you something.
Where did the idea of doing a book about Pauline Kael come from?
I had read Pauline Kael’s reviews for years – ever since I was around 13 or so. I committed great chunks of them to memory. I really do think she was the finest critic in any medium that I’ve ever come across; she had such a visceral reaction to the movies she wrote about, and the stylistic and intellectual gifts to get her whole reaction, whole-hog, down on the page. It occurred to me that it was strange that there had never been a biography of her, although one had been attempted before and abandoned. After my publisher, Viking, signed me to do the book, I understood WHY it had never been done before. She covered her tracks in her personal life very well, and it was just an enormous subject, because of the way she cut right across the culture and brought film criticism into the mainstream. I also wanted to include a lot of movie history, because I had to show the changes in film that she was reacting to as she wrote through the years. It was very daunting. The book’s reception has been a wonderful surprise, though.
Who else have you written biographies about?
I wrote a biography of the great opera and pop singer Eileen Farrell: that was a collaboration with Eileen, Can’t Help Singing, which came out in 1999. That was my first one. I didn’t really want to do another collaboration, so I went solo from then on. The Bennetts: An Acting Family, about the great stage actor Richard Bennett and his film star daughters Constance and Joan, was published in 2004, and Viking published Ethel Merman: A Life in 2007. It got quite a bit of attention and became a Penguin paperback. I love writing about performers, so it was a switch to write about Pauline. It’s great to do a book about a writer, because there’s so much exciting research material – letters, etc. – that you don’t automatically get with a performer. Of course, given the way Pauline wrote, she really was a performer too.
What is it about writing biographies that you find so appealing? What traits make for a good biographer?
I love not only getting down someone’s life, but digging into the era that the person sprang from. In both The Bennetts and Ethel Merman, there’s a great deal about the changing entertainment industry and how that affected their careers, and in Pauline Kael, there’s a lot about the changing movie industry, and how she reacted to it and helped shape it. It’s not only the biographical details, but getting the milieu, that really lights my fire. I think a good biographer has to be very open-minded at the beginning of the process and all the way through it: you can’t let a concept – or maybe I should say a preconception – overshadow your work. You have to be able to go with what you find; you have to be able to stay quite fluid through the whole process. I try to be fair to my subjects, always: I don’t want to stack the deck against them, nor do I want to make any apologies for them. It’s tricky – and Pauline Kael was the trickiest one yet.
Do you already know whom you’ll be writing about next?
I’m discussing various topics with my agent right now, so there will definitely be another biography. I’m also working on a novel about the place on the Oregon coast where I grew up. It’s called Up Blaine. There was a road in South Tillamook County called the Blaine Road, and when we drove up there we always said we were going “up Blaine.” That’s where the novel is set. It’s kind of a remote place – the people who live there want to be far away from it all. One of my best friends from high school lives there, and she’s very proud of the fact that she still doesn’t have a computer. I’m really having a wonderful time writing it. In early December, I did a little advance reading from the book at the Tillamook County Library while I was out there on vacation, and the audience really seemed to respond to it. So I have high hopes for it.

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