If one were to sum up the life and career of mezzo-soprano Linn Maxwell Keller in one word, multifaceted might be that word.
But one word cannot describe her. A concert artist, opera star, musical theater actress, festival organizer, impresario, and arts patron, she was a skilled and expressive performer. An artist who told stories through song. A scholar driven by her passion to explore and discover. A multilingual singer, a teacher, and motivator who built a community of artists and audiences wherever she went. For a time, she set aside her career to be the best mother possible and was always a kind, generous woman who was loved deeply and dearly.
These are just a few of the many facets of Linn. Taken too soon, but leaving behind a musical and personal legacy that survives her passing.
Born in 1943 in Indiana as the only child of musical parents, Adris and Roy Maxwell, Linn grew up surrounded by music. According to family lore, at the age of four months, she would lie in her crib and sing to her doll.
She studied music performance at the University of Maryland and earned her Master's degree in Music from Catholic University. As a university student, Linn toured the Middle East with a madrigal group, forming relationships in the world of music that would carry her through her lifetime. As a 20-year-old who grew up in a conservative Christian household, this tour opened Linn's eyes to the values of other cultures, vastly different than her own, yet demonstrating peace and order and happiness.
The Middle East Madrigal tour also gave Linn a glimpse of what it was to "live your craft." She was singing nearly every day: rehearsing the next new pieces and performing in front of enthusiastic audiences. She worked with colleagues side-by side in musical collaboration, forming two of the most significant life-long friendships – friends that would stand by one another through thick and thin – Nancy Long Dudley and Anne Carter.
Linn worked relentlessly to be a better artist, learning five languages and mastering the difficult techniques of the mezzo-soprano range. Having moved to New York to begin her singing career, she soon realized that opportunities for classical mezzo vocalists in the United States were limited,
so she left New York to pursue her career in Europe at the age of 26.
For a budding singer, auditions are hard to come by. But not for Linn. She was even known to have obtained auditions simply by showing up claiming to have an appointment. Her perseverance—and creativity—soon paid off. Her career began in Europe, where she spent two seasons at the Städtische Bühnen opera house in Essen, Germany where she sang the roles of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, as well as other major roles with the opera companies of Strasbourg, Lyon, Toulouse, the Netherlands (where she sang Baroque operas with Nicholas Harnoncourt and the coveted role of Rosina in Barbiere di Siviglia), Hungarian State Opera and concerts with the Berlin Radio Orchestra. While in Europe, she developed her acclaimed outstanding voice and diction, as well as her interpretation of many different musical styles and languages.
Following her time in Europe, Linn returned to the United States, and in 1976, received the Joy in Singing Debut Artist Award, making her New York solo recital debut at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. She was praised in the New York Times by Peter G. Davis, "A true mezzo-soprano, ample in size yet easily modulated in either registral extreme and graced with an appealing plangency of timbre. … 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.” She continued to sing not only in the Big Apple, but on stages in Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, Puerto Rico, and San Antonio.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Education and Public Affairs, she made three tours to South America giving recitals, master classes, concerts as well as television appearances with the National Symphony of Peru and the Bogota Philharmonic.
In 1984, she received a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Grant. In 1988, she made a post-Olympics recital tour of Korea.
But Linn did not stay in the U.S. for long.
Linn’s career took her to the stages of major orchestras, opera companies, and recital halls across the U.S. and 25 foreign countries. Her international career included opera, oratorio, art song, and cabaret, with recordings on such major labels as RCA, New World, and Albany Records.
Linn took singing lessons her entire life, and she was an excellent singing teacher herself, sharing her gift and passing on the discipline of her craft to the lucky few she took on as students—a vital part of being an artist. Even as her voice matured, Linn continued to study, trying new forms, reading about new techniques, working on breath and phrasing, continually perfecting technique. One of the joys of being with her long-time voice teacher John Bullock was to watch his young daughter Sandy mature into the star of stage and screen, Sandra Bullock.
Linn was most at home when she performed as a soloist. She was the consummate professional respected by all conductors as one who showed up at the first rehearsal fully prepared for the work at hand. She performed with the orchestras of Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, Puerto Rico, San Antonio, Rochester, Denver, Brooklyn, Minnesota, the Orchestra of the U.N.A.M. of Mexico City, and Kansas City (where she appeared with Leonard Bernstein).
Linn was also a scholar of music who studied her craft rigorously; reading about the compositions—how and why they were created—and brought the beauty of scholarship into her musical performances. In demand with oratorio and choral societies, Linn was especially passionate about Bach and appeared with numerous Bach festivals, including Rochester, NY (for twelve seasons), Oregon (with Helmuth Rilling), Kalamazoo, MI, and Carmel, CA. The San Francisco Chronicle said of her Carmel performance: "Her technique was flawless, her control spun out the long florid passages; her tone and phrasing were beautiful." And in 1997, Linn single handedly founded the Grand Rapids (MI) Bach Festival, now presented biennially by the Grand Rapids Symphony. Convincing the renowned Bach scholar and friend who was the director of the Bach Chorale in Berlin Germany, Karl Hochreither to be the inaugural Music director was a stroke of genius that helped to assure its success. She also appeared with the Oratorio Society of Washington at the Kennedy Center, the Pro Arte Chorale at Carnegie Hall, the Oratorio Society of Utah in a nationally televised performance of Handel's Messiah from the Mormon Tabernacle, and on several occasions with Musica Sacra at New York's Lincoln Center.
She sang the Mozart Requiem with the Sofia, Bulgaria Philharmonic, performed a concert of Russian opera arias with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and premiered a song cycle by Patrick Kavanaugh at Washington's Kennedy Center in 2002.
An unusual opportunity occurred for Linn to collaborate with composer Libby Larsen in a work that had its world premiere with the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1994 entitled Mary Cassatt, a cycle of seven songs for mezzo-soprano, solo trombone, and orchestra commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony and her husband Fred Keller.
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 Linn 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.
Her other opera engagements included San Francisco Opera in the role of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia conducted by Placido Domingo, two appearances with Santa Fe Opera, and in Tales of Hoffmann with Cincinnati Opera. She performed two roles in the New York off-Broadway production of The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thomson.
Linn was no stranger to Michigan, having performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony, Opera Grand Rapids and as artist-in-resident at the Bay View Music Festival on the shores of Lake Michigan in the summers 1979 to 1990.
In 1986, during her seventh summer at Bay View, she was approached by a local, Donna Keller, for vocal lessons. Many of the resident musicians gave lessons, and Linn was no exception. Donna wanted to be credible as a nun in a local production of The Sound of Music. The two quickly became fast friends, and when Donna was diagnosed with breast cancer, Linn became a close prayer and spiritual partner. Linn sang "Morning has Broken" the very song that she had taught Donna at Donna's funeral. Donna left behind three daughters and a husband, Fred, and Linn offered to help with the girls. As Fred put it, one thing led to another, and 13 months later they married, and Linn now in her forties, moved permanently to Michigan, first to Grand Rapids, then to the small town of Alto, not far from Grand Rapids.
Suddenly finding herself the mother of three young girls, Linn took on this new life with the same ardent passion and positive spirit that infused her music. She put her career on hold to be the best mother possible. She became an integral part of each daughter's life, infusing them with her passion for living and inspiring them to succeed.
Returning to the stage as the children grew older, Linn appeared in several Opera Grand Rapids’ productions as notable characters including Marthe in Faust, the Countess in The Queen of Spades, Marcelina in Marriage of Figaro, and Berta in Barber of Seville. In addition, Linn and Fred made possible several Opera Grand Rapids’ initiatives including their Children’s Opera and Emerging Artist programs, the Betty Van Andel Opera Center building campaign, and sponsoring the Lead Female Role in each season’s productions through the Keller Artist Series.
As she devoted more time to her career, Linn formed her own production company, (named for her Michigan town) Alto Productions. Under this new venture, Linn focused on developing her acting and playwriting skills, creating a pair of one-woman shows. She starred in A Whole Lotte Lenya, co-written and directed by David Tabatsky. Tracing the dramatic life of iconic Austrian singer/actress Lotte Lenya, and featuring the music of her legendary husband, composer Kurt Weill, her acclaimed one-woman show paid tribute to one of the most storied women of the musical stage, and boasted a rich treasure trove of songs, written and performed in English, German and French. A Whole Lotte Lenya premiered in New York City in the fall of 2004.
In 2008, her second one-woman show, Lilli Marlene premiered in New York. A musical about three women and their friendship told against the backdrop of WWII through the popular music of the time, Linn 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 who are weathering the chaos of wartime. Featured the hits of the WWII era, the show features such songs as "As Time Goes By," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," "It Had to Be You," "The White Cliffs of Dover," "Mad About the Boy" and "Lilli Marlene," which was made famous by the legendary Marlene Dietrich. Linn also developed five cabaret shows including Broadway, Yesterday and Today, which included performances in Frankfurt Germany.
Linn had a long-time fascination with Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century German abbess, writer, composer, and philosopher. After many years of study and after relying on others to develop her one woman shows, Linn decided to create her own one-woman play entitled, Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light. She worked tirelessly engaging one time cabaret owner and teacher Erv Raible as her director, costume and set designer and Stephanie Sandberg as dramaturg to be assured of having the most meaningful and impactful performance possible. After a few “practice” performances, Linn took her show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010. She earned critical acclaim with such quotes as “Hildegard is reborn as Linn Maxwell… hypnotically beautiful songs” from the Times of London. She continued to win widespread critical acclaim after 98 performances on three continents.
Accompanying herself on authentic medieval instruments including psaltery, organistrum, and harp, which she taught herself, Linn performed seven of Hildegard's original songs, and through the mystic's actual letters and writings, transported audiences to the turbulent times of the Crusades in Western Europe.
In 2011, Linn and three other female singers formed The Hildegard Singers, which performed the songs of St. Hildegard and other medieval vocal music including Gregorian chant, Spanish and French pilgrimage music, and French and English motets and carols. The Hildegard Singers performed many times in West Michigan and at the International Congress on Medieval Studies the International Conference on St. Ursula at University of Wales and Queens’ College Chapel, Cambridge. The group recorded two CDs of St. Hildegard and other medieval chants: Songs from the Abbey (2011) and O Greenest Branch (2014).
Almost prophetically Linn decided to memorialize her work in a film version of her play Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light and it was released on DVD in 2012. The film adaptation is based on the original production directed by Erv Raible. Regarding the film, New York Theater Review writer John Hoglund said, "Hildegard returns...through the artistry of Linn Maxwell in a commanding performance that is as scholarly as it is relevant today;" Also from The Stage (London), "exquisitely graceful renderings of Hildegard's sacred songs, a trans-American tour success. A special gem! "In 2015, she completed a five-city tour of Australia where she performed Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light at the invitation of the Australian Catholic University. And, in a last creative act, Linn wrote the film script for St. Hildegard Trumpet of God which chronicles the final years of Hildegard’s life. Completed in 2015, the film shows us how creativity can triumph even in the face of tremendous suffering.
"Linn Maxwell's later career was exceptional," remarked music director Paul Sperry. "Her dramatic portrayals of Hildegard of Bingen, Lilli Marlene, Lotte Lenya, and Mary Cassatt were truly original in their use of song and speech."
On June 18, 2016, Linn’s voice was silenced by her untimely passing. Her deep faith informed her vision of being in ministry to others through inspiring performance and song. Linn embodied one of her favorite scriptures "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians: 5:22-23) Even through her journey with cancer, she embodied grace and peace.
Linn loved the grace of Hildegard who explained that she was not important, it was God’s voice that is important and that she was merely the trumpet through which God’s voice could be heard. And Hildegard was simply a feather that flew not because of anything that the feather does, but because of the wind that bears it. Linn’s tombstone includes a quote from Hildegard of Bingen “I am but a feather on the breath of God.”