Artist profile: Mitchell Kahn balances music, profession

Dr. Mitchell Kahn is on the board of directors for Bellingham Festival of Music, which runs July 3-19.
Dr. Mitchell Kahn is on the board of directors for Bellingham Festival of Music, which runs July 3-19. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Dr. Mitchell Kahn is in his fifth year as general director of Skagit Opera and is on the board of directors of Bellingham Festival of Music. He’s the kind of person who fits the adage: “Ask a busy person” to do something.

When asked how he balances everything in his life, he answer, “How do I manage to do so much? I may be the only doctor in Bellingham who doesn’t play golf, doesn’t boat and hasn’t had cable TV in years. I spend about two minutes a day commuting (15 minutes if I bike). Most importantly, I have a very understanding and supportive wife, and excellent office staff.”

The Bellingham Festival of Music, one of his endeavors, opens Friday, July 3, with a concert at Western Washington University, and continues through July 19.

Question: How has music informed your life?

Answer: I have been in involved in music as a physician, as an instrumentalist, as a singer, and now as a director of an opera company.

I began with piano at age 6, added the trombone in high school jazz and marching bands, the French horn in medical school, the violin at age 45, and viola at age 50. With Manhattan’s Doctors Orchestra, I performed in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.

There are some pieces, like Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, that I have performed on the trombone, French horn, violin, viola, and sung both the tenor and the bass roles in the chorus. I continue to play viola and French horn in various orchestras, and sing in the Whatcom Chorale and Festival of Music chorus.

As a medical student, I discovered opera and when I finished my residency, started working as a house doctor at the Metropolitan Opera, eventually becoming medical director and tour physician for their annual tours to Europe and Japan.

In 1998, I was appointed director of the Miller Healthcare Institute for Performing Artists, the largest performing arts medical clinic in the country, served on the board of directors of the Performing Arts Medical Association, the International Performing Arts Medicine Association, and over the next few years lectured on medical problems of musicians at conferences in Scotland, Finland, Germany, and around the United States.

Shortly after I moved to Bellingham, I sang in the chorus of two productions at Skagit Opera, and in 2011 became general director.

Q: What’s the value of music, particularly opera, to young people?

A: Music has informed virtually every decision of my life. Learning to play a musical instrument teaches the value of practice, persistence, focus, and attention to detail. Playing music with others gives a sense of shared purpose, builds community and teamwork, and brings immense joy.

Until the powerful sound of an opera singer has been experienced live, you cannot appreciate what the human voice can truly do. Young people who have attended our Skagit Opera performances have been bowled over by the ability of our singers to express this intensity of emotion.

Q: When and why did you become involved with the Festival of Music, and what is its importance to our community and beyond?

A: One of the things that made Bellingham stand out when I was looking for the “next place” was the Festival of Music. The strong support of the community, the fantastic board of directors, and the leadership of Michael Palmer, all of whom contribute tremendous time and effort to make sure the festival continues to thrive, is unmatched in a community of Bellingham’s size. Year after year, we present world-class performances of almost unbelievable quality.

Q: What’s coming next season for Skagit Opera?

A: “Hansel and Gretel” in November at Skagit Valley College’s McIntyre Hall, with sets based on paintings by Bellingham artist Susan Bennerstrom; Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” at Lairmont Manor in January; and “Norma” in April at the McIntyre.

“Norma,” one of the most difficult roles in all of opera, with ferocious vocal and dramatic demands, was one of Maria Callas’ most famous roles. In the latest “Avengers” movie, it is what the Hulk listens to.

Q: What’s your day job?

I run a busy primary care internal medicine practice in Fairhaven, Bellingham Internal Medicine, open seven days a week, with a traditional practice on weekdays and a walk-in clinic on weekends.

Reach Margaret Bikman at 360-715-2273 or margaret.bikman@bellinghamherald.com. Read her columns at bellinghamherald.com/behind-the-scenes.

Bellingham Festival of Music

When: July 3-19.

Where: Western Washington University, Bellingham Cruise Terminal, Whatcom Museum.

Cost: Varies from season passes and individual concerts (some are free).

Tickets: WWU box office, tickets.wwu.edu, 360-650-6146

Details: 360-201-6621, bellinghamfestival.org