Karli Gilbertson: Let the Music Do the Talking

Karli Gilbertson has known since high school that she wanted to be a musician and has since surrounded herself with music and musical influences; look no further than her dog Puccini for proof.

Karli Gilbertson's dogs may be mixed breeds- a retriever cross and a poodle-pomeranian-but their musical pedigree is unchallenged: the retriever's name is Mozart and the poodle mix is Puccini.

That's appropriate for the pets of someone who has spent her professional life as an opera singer and voice teacher. Karli is also a member of the organizing committee for the Robbie Collomore Musical Series, which will present Russian-born pianist Vassily Primakov on Sunday, Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House. Primakov, whose numerous musical awards include being named the Classical Recording Foundation's Young Artist of the Year in 2007, will play a program of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

The Collomore series includes four annual concerts, two of which feature classical music.

The other two highlight contemporary music, often with an international perspective-everything from African rhythms to modern jazz.

Beyond the caliber of the artists, Karli says the 5 o'clock Sunday schedule and the intimacy of the Chester Meeting House make the Collomore concerts special.

"The venue is beautiful and you can get so harried that it is nice to have that Sunday afternoon time to reflect. It's a wonderful way to start a new week," she says. "And I love the opportunity to mingle with the artists after the concert."

Karli, a lyric soprano, has sung major roles with the Connecticut Opera Company, the Boston Lyric Opera, and the New Britain Opera Company. She has also appeared as a soloist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra of New England. One of her favorite roles, she says, was Sophie, the young fiancée of a buffoonish nobleman in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Karli laments that at this time in her life she is no longer the right age to sing Sophie.

In high school in her native Minnesota, Karli recalls that three friends talked about their future: one wanted to be a lawyer, one a surgeon, and she knew she wanted to be a musician. She studied opera as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota and then got a graduate degree at the New England Conservatory of Music.

She actually missed her graduation at the New England Conservatory because of a musical summer job that required opera singing in a non-traditional setting: Karli was part of a troupe that sang classic Italian songs, eight times a day, in the Italian show at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.

"Best job I ever had; I was young and it was fun," she jokes.

She stopped performing regularly when her children, now 14 and 15, were born. (Karli is also identified by her married name, Karli Gilbertson-Spinella.)

These days, part of her time is spent driving regularly to an ice rink in Newington with her daughter Sela, who is a competitive figure skater.

At the moment, Karli teaches voice to adults at the Community Music School. She says many of her students are people who have never sung before.

"It's such an interesting mix of people. I've had retired landscapers, engineers, people from the Department of Environmental Protection," she says.

She also serves as a periodic instructor with Cappella Cantorum and she is the co-music director, with Sue Saltus, of the United Church of Chester. Some of her performing these days is done as a soloist at life cycle occasions from weddings to funerals. Next spring, she has a concert scheduled at the Centerbrook Meeting House with guitarist Neal Fitzpatrick, a colleague at the Community Music School.

As a parent volunteer for an after-school enrichment program at Chester Elementary School, Karli gave an introduction to opera class that culminated not only with a visit to an actual opera performance, but also with the elementary school students' writing their own opera-one year the subject was Goldilocks and the three bears, the next year Chicken Little.

Growing up in Bloomington, Minnesota, Karli got her first job as a food vendor at Metropolitan Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings then played football. She lived close enough to the venue, so she rode her bike to work.

"I was only 14, but they didn't know it," she recalls.

Since those days, Metropolitan Stadium has been torn down and the Mall of America, regularly advertised as the country's biggest shopping mall, stands on the site. (The Vikings now play at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.) Karli still retains her fondness, nonetheless, for the Vikings of old. When asked about how she feels about this year's new quarterback, the veteran Brett Favre, she hearkens back to another Viking era.

"I prefer Fran Tarkenton," she says.

She is also still fond of another Minnesota classic, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion.

"It's all true," she says.

Karli does a half hour of singing warm-up every day; she also uses her daily four-mile run to practice breathing exercise.

"I look for hills and run up them," she says of her route.

The exercise, along with a renewed emphasis on healthy eating, has enabled Karli to lose some 40 pounds over the last year.

Karli says that people regularly comment on her intense blue eyes, sometimes even asking if they are real, though she admits she is not quite sure what the question means. Nonetheless, the query makes her laugh.

"I'm from Minnesota. I'm half Swedish and half Norwegian. What do they expect about my eyes?" she asks.

Pianist Vassily Primakov at the Robbie
Collomore Concert Series Chester Meeting House
Sunday, Nov. 14 at 5 p.m.
Tickets: call 860-526-5162 or visit www.collomoreconcerts.org

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