1998-12-31, Tagesspiegel, Simon Keenlyside triumphs as anti-star


Simon Keenlyside triumphs as anti-star

Der Tagesspiegel, 31st December 1998

(Joerg Koenigsdorf)


What does a singer do in this town when he has still got a whole, sunny, winter’s day to idle away before the beginning of his performance ? He who will be stared at by everybody in the evening, is going into the zoo where he on his part stares at the animals. At least that’s what he does if he is called Simon Keenlyside. Rather peevishly, he stops by at the cafeteria of the State Opera for an interview first. Yes, he has studied zoology in Cambridge but this is in fact totally unimportant. And, come to that, he doesn’t like interviews, at home in England he doesn’t conduct any at all. “For as a person I am not interesting at all”, he insists obstinately.

That’s not true of course, Simon Keenlyside is interesting for the reason alone that he reflects upon his profession to an unusually high degree. For example, on the production in which he regularly gives guest appearances in Berlin, the Berghaus-“Barbiere” at the State Opera. “I like this ‘Barbiere’ very much because this production provides an opportunity for me to incorporate one of the most essential experiences of my theatrical life” : Soleri’s Commedia dell’arte theatre in Milan. Soleri is one of the greatest men of the Italian theatre for more than forty years now but not a star at all. He is simply a man of the theatre just like I want to be one – or actually am one. His theatre has paved my approach to this ‘Barbiere’ because it takes its impact very much from the body language of the old Commedia dell’arte. When I come to think that the production is running for thirty years already I just say god bless you, Berghaus!”

Keenlyside is one of those who learn by precise observation and working up the absorbed influences, a method which has considerable relation to his British origin. “As an Englishman, in opera I always have to compensate for an inferiority complex of course. For neither can I sing German opera like a German nor Italian like an Italian. But it’s just this complex that makes me work even harder and that makes giving a recital in Germany or singing Don Giovanni in Italy seem a challenge.” So far Keenlyside has passed all the challenges with which he has confronted himself, he tells (noticeably more motivated) about the Giovanni that he did with Abbado in the old theatre of Ferrara and about his debut recital at the Scala where he included the ingratiating canzonas by Tosti in his programme – nearly a presumptuousness for a non-Italian. But he did not want to come to Germany for quite a long time, as he, now 39, still felt the frustration about his unfortunate year in the company of the Hamburg State Opera too much. He cancelled his three year-contract after one year; the experiences he made there were crucial for Keenlyside’s decision never to become a member in a company again. “They had engaged me without needing me and basically they did not know what to do with me all the year”, he tells with a sardonic undertone still in his voice. But the rest of Germany has not been a restricted area for him for quite some time now. One of the reasons for this may be that Keenlyside’s heart musically is mostly in songs. He has grown up with the recordings of Fischer-Dieskau who has achieved cult status  in England, he knows all the historic lieder recordings by Hotter, Schlusnus and Domgraf-Fassbaender. He even produces his own lied recordings, an evidence for the importance this form of art has for him. “I pay for everything, studio, pianist and technicians to be able to define the conditions of the recording. I have produced a number of things already, for the time being just for myself. Maybe one day some company gets interested. What matters is that these recordings don’t fall into the hands of people who just want to cash in on them. For they are made for people who love art – so the marketing must be honourable too !”

In the future it will be even more difficult for Keenlyside to keep his anti-star attitude – for those who participate in the New Year’s Eve Concert of the Philharmonic that is broadcast around the world are irrevocably included in the first league*  of classical music. He will cope with it. And as a last escape there is after all still the zoo.

*The interviewer actually used the German word “Oberhaus” (House of Lords), but as in both German and English the footballing term “Oberliga” (first league) makes more sense, that is what we have taken the interviewer to mean!

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