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1996-12-14, Opera News “Notebook”

Brian Kellow’s Notebook

Opera News, December 14, 1996

The question is one music journalists often ask when they can’t think of any better way to start the interview: “Did you grow up in a musical household?” Simon Keenlyside’s answer is yes, but it’s a more interesting “yes” than most. His father and grandfather were both violinists, and Keenlyside eventually trained as a baritone at the Royal Northern College of Music, but his undergraduate degree from Cambridge is in zoology. “Wildlife is my passion,” he says. “I’m crazy about it. In the past, I’ve taken on jobs in certain countries in order that I can get to see various animals.”

For his current gig, Keenlyside will have to make do with the rats in the subway: he’s in New York making his Met debut as Belcore in Donizetti’s L’elisir D’Amore. Unfortunately, he won’t be singing the role on the broadcast; still, he regards Elisir as “a nice choice” for his first Met outing.


He’s back the season after, singing Olivier in the company premiere of Strauss’ Capriccio, a role he sang with success at San Francisco Opera. “It’s a great piece, but my role is a spit into the wind. You don’t do Olivier for the joy of singing.”

Still, even in a cast that included Kiri Te Kanawa, Hǻkan Hagegǻrd and Victor Braun, Keenlyside made a strong impression as Olivier. “I love the stage,” he says. “It’s like running downhill with the wind behind me.” He made his opera debut in Graz in 1987, the same year he got a house contract at Hamburg State Opera, which he gave up after a year. “You end up carrying a spear around, being Fourth Soldier. It’s boring. Much better to be in any decent company — just learn your trade. So that’s what I did: I was lucky enough to be given decent work at Scottish Opera many times, and I just bashed away, really.” The “decent work” has included Guglielmo, Billy Budd and Papageno. He’s also done Thomas’ Hamlet inGeneva , Marcello and Guglielmo at Covent Garden; in 1997 he performs the title role in Don Giovanni under Claudio Abbado (with Bryn Terfel as Leporello) and records it for DG. Next season, he returns to San Francisco as Pelléas .

Keenlyside also devotes a good slice of his schedule to lieder singing. His EMI disc of Schubert songs, with pianist Malcolm Martineau, has sold nicely in London (sadly, it’s unavailable in the U.S.) and received wonderful notices.


Keenlyside maintains a no-sweat approach to his career; until I told him, he didn’t even know that the disc was nominated for a 1995 Gramophone Award. “I’m pleased that the CD has done OK, but I’m not on any bullshit treadmill, and I’m pleased not to be. I’m crazy about the lieder repertory. No money in it, so you do it because you love it.” Keenlyside has worked on several projects with Graham Johnson, mastermind of Hyperion’s marathon Schubert series. “He’s very scholastic, which I am not. I thought, ‘Well, he’ll ask me what I think, and I won’t know what to say!’ But when we started working, he was ever so nice. I remember when I did my first thing with him, something called ‘Trinklied.’ And Graham said, ‘Now you’ve got to imagine this: the Battle of Augsburg was fought on December the blah blah date, and Schubert lived on blah blah street on the fifth floor, and when he wrote this song at a quarter to one in the morning, the troops would have been walking down that very street on their route back from the battle.’ And you think, jeez. That’s the sort of scholarship I’m talking about. I haven’t got a clue about that. I just read the poem, read anything I can about it and see what I feel about it.”

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