Brian Kellow, Acclaimed Author and OPERA NEWS's Longtime Features Editor, has Died
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22 July 2018

Brian Kellow, Acclaimed Author and OPERA NEWS's Longtime Features Editor, has Died

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TILLAMOOK, OR, MARCH 1, 1959— NEW YORK, NY, JULY 22, 2018  

BRIAN KELLOW once said that he knew his mission in life was to write. A longtime editor at OPERA NEWS, Brian left behind an extraordinary legacy within the magazine’s pages—thirty years’-worth of news features, personality profiles, reviews and opinion pieces, every one of them lit by a writerly spark that was uniquely his own. He was also the author of a series of dazzling biographies exploring the lives of Pauline Kael, Sue Mengers, Ethel Merman and Hollywood’s Bennett sisters. 

Growing up in Oregon, Brian studied piano with a local Roman Catholic nun, a background that gave him a level of technical knowledge that few music writers can boast. He came to New York directly after graduating from Oregon State University in 1982 and soon started working at the 92nd Street Y, initially as assistant to Omus Hirshbein, its director of performing arts, then as the Y’s publications editor. He came to OPERA NEWS as an assistant editor in 1988, moving on to become managing editor and then executive editor. In that role, he spearheaded the magazine’s 1998 transformation from a seventeen-issue-a-year publication into a perfect-bound monthly. He was named features editor in 2000.

Reflecting his love of literature, he brought major authors into the magazine’s fold; the imposing list includes Elizabeth Hardwick, Thomas Mallon, Jan Morris, May Sarton, Reynolds Price and Colm Tóibín. During Brian’s tenure at OPERA NEWS, the magazine won six ASCAP/Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism, all for pieces he commissioned and edited. 

Brian was a supportive but rigorous editor, with an unerring eye for the precise words needed to get the story told. I myself once turned in a feature that led with two paragraphs of foofaraw; Brian took out his red pencil and found the exact right opening. He would encourage his writers to burrow deep—to avoid the anodyne and provide the telling, even gritty details that would give a story interest and depth. He wrote a monthly OPERA NEWS column, “On the Beat,” marked by his encyclopedic knowledge of the field and his fervent, opinionated, more than occasionally mordant prose. His authorial voice was always deeply conversational: I can hear Brian talking when I read his “stuff,” and indeed he seemed to write as naturally as most of us talk. 

Brian’s career as a biographer began in 1999, when he coauthored soprano Eileen Farrell’s lively memoir Can’t Help Singing. He went on to write four major biographies—The Bennetts: An Acting Family (2004); Ethel Merman: A Life (2008); Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (2011) and Can I Go Now?: The Life of Sue Mengers (2015). He brought his monstres sacrés to life in vivid fashion, his vibrant writing conjuring their outsize personalities. For all the diligent reportorial effort that went into their creation, Brian’s books have the narrative drive of fiction: he would work his way through myriad biographical details and find the story that lay within.

His prolific writing activity also included contributions to Travel & Leisure, Publishers Weekly, Newsday, Opera, Playbill, BBC Music Magazine, Stereo Review, Irish America, the Wall Street Journal and Opera America. A gracious, relaxed onstage presence—and a natural showman—Brian was a sought-after emcee, hosting gala concerts for the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation, the Gerda Lissner Foundation, the Giulio Gari Foundation and the Martina Arroyo Foundation, along with “Comfort Ye,” his close friend Lauren Flanigan’s annual Christmas benefit for the homeless. 

Brian was a true force of nature—passionate, witty, sometimes hotheaded and phenomenally charismatic. He had a preternatural ability to attract exciting people. His wide circle of friends included writers, actors, singers and academics, without a dullard in the bunch. Nobody was better than Brian at throwing parties, or created a more congenial environment for people from various realms to meet each other. I would emerge from these occasions a little tipsy—he was a master of the generous pour—but galvanized by the conversations I’d had all evening. It wasn’t simply Brian’s brilliance that drew so many friends to his side; it was also his great personal warmth. He could be as caustic as anyone on earth, but also as kind and supportive. 

After leaving OPERA NEWS in 2016, Brian became public relations manager at Florida Grand Opera, generating for the company an unprecedented level of national press coverage.

Brian died of complications from brain cancer. He is survived by his husband, stage director and acting coach Scott Barnes. —Fred Cohn 

Photo © Kurt Sneddon

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