2000-01, Opernglas, “Charmer with principles”

Charmer with principles

Das Opernglas, January 2000


Simon Keenlyside is a reserved star. He is even dubious about photoshoots. For “Das Opernglas” he made an exception. And the same day he talked to Marc Zitzmann in Paris.

Born in London, the baritone Simon Keenlyside studied zoology in Cambridgeand singing in Manchester. A first engagement at the Hamburgische Staatsoper he calls retrospectively “a sheer waste of time”. During the next five years at the Scottish National Opera he is caught by the opera bug. To a wider audience Keenlyside has become well-known for his recording of the lead role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” under Claudio Abbado, he also recorded Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with Christian Thielemann, Puccini’s “La Bohème” (Marcello) and recently Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (Silvio) with Riccardo Chailly as well as several CDs of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Strauss. Our collaborator Marc Zitzmann talked to the singer in Parisduring the series of performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame”.

How did you come to record the lead in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Claudio Abbado ?

SK: Well, I can’t specify here all the circumstances that lead to this recording; some of them are even unknown to me. Maybe so much for that: I got to know Claudio Abbado during an audition in the Berlin Philharmonic. Somebody led me into a room, the conductor was in darkness, I sang an aria, Abbado came to me and said “That’s OK.” – That’s it ! Claudio is a very friendly person with whom you have a cooperative relationship immediately. He is older than I am, he knows more than I probably ever will but he is capable of creating mutual trust right from the beginning, which is inspiring.

Abbado is said to prefer to trust in the spontaneous nature of the concert instead of being fond of long rehearsals ?

SK: That’s another matter. A spectator at a rehearsal often misses essential things. You sit there, thinking: “Nothing is happening”. But the main points of the interpretation were discussed before privately. And one look, one wink of the eye might be sufficient as long as the singer is familiar with the repertoire of gestures of the conductor. Outsiders don’t even notice this. And then they are apt to say: “They don’t rehearse properly”.

You have already worked with many important conductors: Abbado, Boulez, Chailly, Davis, von Dohnányi, Jacobs, Mehta, Minkowski, Muti, Nagano, Rattle, Thielemann – was it personally enriching every time or did you experience disappointments too ?

SK: It’s like everything in life: some are like this and some are like that. Some conductors go to have lunch with you, others stick strictly to the rehearsal schedule. I must confess that I prefer to talk to those I meet apart from the concert hall or the operahouse about other subjects than music. With Abbado for example you can talk about sailing or about the art of eating that creates a personal relationship which has an effect on the performance too. I would never go to a conductor and say: “I want to sing this or that with you”.

But this is common practice…

SK: I know. But I would feel somewhat like a careerist. I prefer to wait until an offer comes. But this is my personal opinion and does not at all judge what others do.

Career does not matter to you very much…

SK: I dislike everything that smells of marketing. I don’t like photoshoots of myself. I don’t want to have a label like “The English Lieder Specialist” or the like attached by some PR-department or by some critic. I am very discerning of the whole system, and in terms of the use of interviews too (looks sceptically at the microphone)… But on the other hand I try to earn my living, I’m not unhappy if my CDs sell well and I don’t object to collaborate with interesting colleagues in great houses – far from it ! Especially in the opera business you’ve got to be prepared for compromises.

Your beginnings in Hamburgdidn’t show you this business at its brightest…

SK: I was in the company of the State Opera for one year. Rolf Liebermann had engaged me but he was about to leave just then and apparently he didn’t know that the house had employed another – excellent – baritone, Urban Malmberg. In short – they didn’t need me: Most of the time I only did parts with one line, soldiers and servants, it was exasperating. Then one day I was cast for the Count in “Marriage of Figaro”, a re-staging, nearly without any rehearsals. Not a trace of preparation – I had to work out myself what I was doing on stage. It would have been nice if somebody had taken the time to listen to me and give me a part suitable for my standard of performance then. But it didn’t work like that. And I think that the German idea of the so called “Fach” is simply absurd ! Every voice is different.

So was your stay in Hamburgof any avail ?

SK: Well, after Hamburg I was in fact immune against quite everything (laughs) ! But I do remember gladly the productions of Ruth Berghaus who became a celebrated director after her death. In her lifetime the roof would often nearly tumble down from all the booing. The audience seemed rather conservative to me. In any case: After Hamburg I went to the Scottish National Opera where I was a guest singer for five years which was an extremely instructive experience. Like in all the English provincal houses there was no company, so I absolutely got challenging parts, many of them lyrical. I was not always up to the mark; I often did the absurdest things on stage, for instance I juggled in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, everything to shirk what I was supposed to do. But these years have been decisive for my development – and an audience is an audience, no matter if it’s in Hamburg, Edinburgh or Glasgow. Furthermore they’ve been very generous with me at the Scottish Opera – and obviously not too displeased with my achievements or else I would not have been engaged again and again over five years.

What about the finances of an English province house ?

SK: No comparison to an average opera house in Germany. A member of the choir is earning more there than a soloist in Great Britain ! But: The working conditions are similar everywhere and of course the directors operate by “word of mouth” in England too. So I was working later a little at the Welsh National Opera and sang Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” in Glyndebourne. Now I’m performing at Covent Garden quite often but in fact I do not work much at home any more. I don’t get the offers there that are interesting for me – and the centre of the operatic world is in the “south”, in Germany and Italy, also in France.

Have you got a yearly schedule, precise ideas about what you want to sing where and how often ?

SK: No. I take things as they come. A mixture of two thirds opera and one third recitals would be ideal but you can’t plan this, only control it.

There are certainly halls where you like to perform in particular ?

SK: I like the Wigmore Hall in London and the Konzerthaus in Vienna in particular. The Musikverein there is good too. But for heaven’s sake I don’t want this to sound like I only feel happy in the finest, most celebrated halls. There are some less well-known houses which in acoustics and in other respects are not second to the ones I mentioned before. What I don’t like is to sing operas with a reduced orchestra in small halls which are not planned for operatic performances. Years ago I did like Peter Brook’s adaptation of “Carmen” extremely but I did not for a moment feel the wish to take part in it myself.

What about the other extreme, the gigantic halls like the Opera Bastille where you represent the Prince Yeletzky from Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” at the moment ?

SK: As you say: A gigantic hall. The feedback is rather variable. On the other hand, it is always dangerous to trust your ears. Ideally you would have to be able to listen to yourself from the hall. Of course this is impossible. And furthermore: If a singer really is in good form the hall does not matter that much.

Yeletzky is your first Russian part. And you – an Englishman – do sing German, French and Italian parts too. What about the languages ?

SK: In England multilingualism partly still is something exotic, vaguely suspect whereas in Central Europe many people are bi- or trilingual. As a singer you got to work twice as hard to acquire foreign languages. I spend a lot of money on this and a lot of time with different coaches, and I myself am my severest critic. I don’t learn quickly but gladly and thoroughly. You’ve got to pass in front of the audience of the respective country. When I sing Schubert in Feldkirch it doesn’t have to sound utterly German but I don’t want to make a bizarre impression. So I was very glad that many Russians were singing with me in Paris: When something was wrong they pointed it out to me. As I told you: I don’t want to be a specialist of anything. All my life I have been singing works by great composers like Schumann, Wolf, Debussy, Verdi and Fauré in foreign languages and now I’m not going to sing things by Quilter, as is required in England sometimes.

By whom ?

SK: That’s the point (laughs) !

Your operatic repertory cannot to be labelled anyway. You sing Pelléas, Hamlet, Valentin and Oreste in French, you’ve just recorded “Iphigénie en Tauride” by Gluck with Marc Minkowski. In Italian Orfeo, Almaviva, Don Giovanni, Guglielmo, Dandini, Belcore, Ford, Silvio in “I Pagliacci”, Marcello and Rossini’s Figaro…

SK: … in English “Billy Budd” and “The Rape of Lucretia” by Britten, in Russian Yeletzky and probably ere long Onegin, in German Papageno – a part for all my lifetime – and soon Wagner’s Wolfram.

This is a rather “heavy” part. Aren’t you afraid that this could do damage to your voice ?

SK: I have in mind a lyric, elegant Wolfram. Think of singers like Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender or Heinrich Schlusnus who – particularly the latter – are together with Fischer-Dieskau and Prey among my great models. Both of them sang wonderfully light, simple Wolframs. Sure enough, if Zubin Mehta who will be conducting in Munich wants to raise passionate thunderstorms in the orchestra then I’ll be left stranded ! But he is not just a great conductor but also a good musician…

Your grandfather was a conductor at the LondonPhilharmonia Orchestra, your father played the violin at the Aeolian String quartet. Is there a link between your childhood full of chamber music and your current liking for the Lied genre ?

SK: How else should a baritone become interested in Haydn’s string quartets (laughs) ? Actually, I have an unrestrained love for the Lied that was conveyed to me by my teacher John Cameron during my training in Manchester, and since then has never stopped increasing. Meanwhile my repertory comprises several hundreds of works – many by Schubert and Schumann, Strauss, Wolf and Debussy, curiously nothing by Brahms, but on the other hand many rarely performed pieces by Britten, Rachmaninov, Tchaïkovsky… I have worked for ten years with the pianist Malcolm Martineau, we met when we were students. He is above all a friend, the singing of Lieder is a joy I share with friends – recently also with Graham Johnson. For example, we make self-directed recordings, which means that we go into a beautiful building (from where we sometimes have to banish some hammering craftsman !), place the machines and make music together. If a company likes the recordings, we give it to them for publishing. In this way 3 CDs with works by Schubert, Schumann and Strauss were produced and soon I’d like to record two more, one of Schubert and another of French pieces. Of course this is something totally different from a recording for Deutsche Grammophon. It is more like a document that illustrates which pieces of music fascinated me at a certain point of my life – often according to my state of mind at that time, nearly like a diary.

And depending on the respective text too…

SK: The importance of the text is considerable. Nevertheless, I don’t like singers who overemphasise every word that stands out. I used to think this was a bad habit of British singers, but the German soprano Christine Schäfer told me that German singers often do the same. What really counts, is the whole thing: Where is the climax, which development brings the climax about, what weight do you give to the different episodes ? Besides, the songs aren’t always just little, pretty and precious. There is a large evolution from Schubert’s tender, meditative “Nachtviolen” to Wolf’s “Prometheus”, a piece of Wotanic power. This is good for the diversity to which my teacher set greatest importance and which characterises my current repertory – if anything does at all. The ideal for the Lied, as for most vocal music, is a sensitively measured mixture of text and sound. The sound itself conveys information that can contradict the text or confirm it, as the case may be. I remember the recording of “Das Rheingold” by Solti that I listened to for the first time when I was a student. At that time, I didn’t understand any German but when I heard Gustav Neidlinger in the role of Alberich snarl the words “So verfluchte ich die Liebe” (thus I cursed love) I completely understood – just from the sound – that something absolutely abhorrent, blasphemous and ultimately inhuman was going on. Between sound and word, there are – in theory – many possible combinations. But in practice, it often becomes a nightmare.

One last question: What do you think of stage directors ?

SK: The Italians say: “Prima la voce” ! That’s more correct than we think because “voice” does not only mean the sound – keyword “voluble tongue” – but also the text. In the centre of the opera there are words and sound, text and music. I’m fascinated when I’m working with directors like Berghaus, Trisha Brown in “Orfeo”, Bob Wilson in “Zauberflöte” or – for “Pique Dame” in Paris – with Lev Dodin. They are people who reflect on the piece, who are not merely designers but have a – partly very particular – vision. This is often exhausting and sometimes frustrating for us, the singers. But in the end these directors do convey the feeling of being a little gear in an arrangement which partly exceeds our comprehension. Furthermore you do discover things with them that remain unnoticed in conventional productions. But I don’t like modernisations for the sake of the modernisation. You also can represent much in the costumes and settings of the required epoch. As I’ve said: What’s important is a sympathetic and coherent look onto the work. You can’t hide its absence behind any director’s frills.

Mr. Keenlyside, thank you for this conversation.

Originally published in Opernglas January 2000, translated by Ursula Turecek, July 2005

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