The American conductor (and opera administrator), Kent Nagano, was born in Berkeley, California, while his parents were in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. He grew up in Morro Bay. He is Japanese American. He studied sociology and music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After graduation he moved to San Francisco State University to study music. While there, he took composition courses from Grosvenor Cooper and Roger Nixon.
Kent Nagano's first conducting job was with the Opera Company of Boston, where he was assistant conductor to Sarah Caldwell. In 1978, he became the conductor of the Berkeley Symphony, his first music directorship. In January 2007, the orchestra announced that Nagano would step down from this position in 2009. During his tenure in Berkeley, Nagano became a champion of the music of Olivier Messiaen and initiated a correspondence with him. In 1982, Nagano conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in several of Frank Zappa's completely orchestral compositions for the first time. Nagano recorded several of Zappa's pieces on the issue "London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 1", where Zappa had personally chosen Nagano to conduct the orchestra. Nagano described this as "my first chance, my first real break".
Kent Nagano also was music director of the Opéra de Lyon from 1988 to 1998. He served as principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester from 1992 to 1999. During his tenure, he received criticism for his expensive and ambitious programming, as well as his conducting fees. However, poor financial management at the orchestra separately contributed to the fiscal troubles of the orchestra. His contract was not renewed after 1999. He became principal conductor and artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in 2000, and served in this position until 2006. He made a number of recordings with the orchestra, including selections of L.v. Beethoven, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Bruckner, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Gustav Mahler.
Kent Nagano became principal conductor at Los Angeles Opera (LA Opera) starting from the 2001-2002 season. In May 2003, he was named the LA Opera's first ever Music Director, and retained this position through 2006. He has been a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival, where he premiered Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin in 2000. He also conducted the world premiere of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer in Brussels. He became the music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in 2006 and of the Bavarian State Opera in 2006, where his current contracts with each organisation are through 2011. His contract with the Bavarian State Opera does not allow him to be the music director of another opera company. He is also one of the Russian National Orchestra's Conductor Collegium.
Kent Nagano is married to the pianist Mari Kodama, and they have one daughter.
His awards include: the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award (1985), and Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette (2008).