Linn Maxwell Keller loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as many people do. But she did more than listen.
In a musical world often divided into those who make art and those who make art possible, Keller was adept at both.
A singer and actress who graced stages from Grand Rapids to the grand opera houses of major European cities, Keller died on Saturday.
Services will be held Monday, June 27, at 3:30 a.m. in First United Methodist Church in downtown Grand Rapids. See her full obituary here.
A concert artist, opera star, musical theater actress, festival organizer, impresario, arts patron and honorary member of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors, Keller wore many hats and wore them well.
Having sung in major Bach Festivals throughout the United States, including the Oregon Bach Festival under Helmut Rilling as well as festivals in Carmel and Rochester, Keller in 1997 launched the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, recruiting eminent German musicologist and conductor Karl Hochreither to serve as artistic director in its early years.
“We said, we’ll do it once and see what happens,” Keller told The Grand Rapids Press in 2005. “Then people started saying, when’s the next one?”
In 2008, at New York City’s Abington Theatre, Keller premiered a one-woman musical, “Lillie Marlene,” in which she played three separate characters who met as friends at the Vienna Academy of Music between World War I and II: Daphne, an American from the Midwest; Rose, a British music hall singer; and Lillie, a German opera singer.
That journey mirrored her life and career, which began in Indiana where, according to family lore, at the age of four months, she would lie in her crib and sing to her doll.
In time, her mezzo soprano voice would take her to German opera houses and to the footlights of New York City theaters and cabarets.
Her marriage to Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering, brought her to Grand Rapids. Linn Maxwell Keller, in turn, brought her experiences from performing in 27 countries all over the world back to West Michigan.
Living on a farm near Alto, east of Grand Rapids, Keller sometimes referred to herself as “the mezzo from Alto.”
Keller’s career was promising from the start. Winner of the 1976 “Joy in Singing” Competition, she gave her debut recital in Alice Tully Hall the following year, where she was praised in the New York Times by Peter G. Davis as “a model of poise, calm authority and artistic security, a sincere example of a young musician who knows precisely her capabilities and how to project them to best advantage.”
Keller’s early career included years with several European opera houses. In the United States, she sang Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” with San Francisco Opera and in “Tales of Hoffmann” with Cincinnati Opera.
With Opera Grand Rapids, she appeared in several productions over the years, ranging from Herodias in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” to the housekeeper, Marcellina, in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
During her career, Keller performed with the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto among others. With the Oratorio Society of Washington, she sang at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. With the Pro Arte Choral, she appeared in Carnegie Hall in New York City. With the Oratorio Society of Utah, she appeared in a nationally televised performance of Handel’s “Messiah” from the Mormon Tabernacle.
In Grand Rapids in 1994, she sang the world premiere of composer Libby Larsen’s “Mary Cassatt,” a cycle of seven songs for mezzo soprano, solo trombone and orchestra.
Inspired by the life and letters of the American impressionist painter, who struggled for acceptance and recognition among the male-dominated art scene in late 19th century Paris, the work about a woman, composed by a woman, featuring Keller and former GRS principal trombonist Ava Ordman as soloists, and conducted by former GRS music director Catherine Comet, quietly but firmly made its statement for gender equality.
Many new works of music are premiered and never heard again. But Keller and Ordman would go on to perform “Mary Cassatt” many times throughout the country, including a return engagement with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 2006, 12 years after the debut performance.
Keller’s interest in the lives of noteworthy women would remain a constant in her career. Her cabaret show, “Broadway Yesterday & Today,” focused on the lives and careers of Julie Andrews and Lotte Lenya.
In 2009, she created a 75-minute, one-woman show, “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light,” inspired by the life of the 12th century German abbess, mystic and composer who challenged the established male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Grand Rapids Bach Festival will go on without its founder. The 11th biennial festival returns in the spring of 2017.
"It's established as long as the people of Grand Rapids want this festival," Keller told The Grand Rapids Press in 2003. "As long as people are blessed by it and enjoy the music, it looks like we'll be around for a while."