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2000-08, Festspiele Magazin 2000, no society tiger

No society tiger

Michael Owen for Festspiele Magazin 2000

(Page 76 – 78)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Simon Keenlyside studied zoology. This has formed him. He prefers to go into the great outdoors instead of parties. And hiking and fishing is hip. When Simon Keenlyside is staying in Salzburg to sing the part of Guglielmo in “Cosi fan tutte”, he does not spend his spare time at the golf course like Thomas Hampson and the other singers like to do. They take every opportunity to repair to their club. Unlike them Keenlyside loves solitary walks in the hilly landscape and the tranquility at a riverside while fishing. So Keenlyside is a real nature lover. When he went to St. John’s College at Cambridge University he studied for a degree in zoology.

He remembers: “In my teens I worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I’ve always been fascinated by all ways of life of wild animals. So I went to Cambridge to delve into this subject as a student but I did not feel the vocation to spend my life on a remote island for this purpose. However, I’m still interested very much in it. My work allows me to visit the whole world. I’ll never forget the sight of grey whales in San Francisco Bay. As for birds and reptiles, Australia is a wonderful region. Salzburg is a magnificent spot in other respects. I’m not too sociable und certainly no member of the brotherhood of golfers. Therefore I prefer to walk through a rural area in my spare time.

Keenylside who celebrated his 40th birthday in Salzburg in August 1999 formerly appeared at the Festival only in concerts. He is looking forward to his first operatic production very much, even more to the different circumstances than to the role as such. “I’ve sung Guglielmo in five or six productions already. So this is absolutely familiar territory for me. But the particular atmosphere and the acoustic in Salzburg are marvellous. This summer a number or friends will take part in the Festival which will increase the pleasure. Apart from nature it’s the people who make this place so attractive for me.”

The singer is the son of a famous violinist, Raymond Keenlyside who was a co-founder of the British Aeolian String Quartet. But Simon Keenlyside has no memories of music making in the home as a preparation to his subsequent career. “This was arguably due to the fact that I was away most of the time, as a pupil in a boarding school. I began to be interested in music only when I came to Cambridge.” In Cambridge he also excelled as an athlete, especially winning medals as a runner of the distance of 400 metres. “I could have competed for my county and for the land but I did not really see a future in this for me.”

For six years he sang only songs. Finally he was invited to give his operatic debut as Almaviva in “Marriage of Figaro” at the Hamburgische Staatsoper. Afterwards he spent a year at the Scottish Opera, a time he appreciates as an extremely important phase in his training. “They gave me a lot of roles challenging my ability which was helpful to gain status.” His reputation as an artist spread only slowly abroad, not dramatically. But now he is engaged regularly in Berlin, Vienna, Milan, London and at the Metropolitan Opera New York.

At the Scottish Opera only I made up my mind to give opera a serious trial. However, I didn’t ever expect to receive a phone call from the Met New York with an inquiry as to which role I’d like to sing there. But that’s exactly what happened.” He will return to the Met to sing Figaro and Papageno in the “Magic Flute” there. But he has also scheduled a cycle of performances at the Royal Opera House in London. The roles he will sing there: Billy Budd, Ford in Falstaff, Papageno, Hamlet and Don Giovanni. “Half of my artistic life is devoted to recitals combined with many travels. Therefore it suits me very much that the major part of my operatic activity will take place at Covent Garden. I don’t want to be always on the move. Rather I want to have opportunities to return into my own house. The roles that I have in London are really interesting, particularly Hamlet in the rarely staged opera.

Among the parts hardly anybody had thought he would sing is Pelleas in „Pelleas et Melisande“ which normally is reserved for a tenor. “But I want to be as flexible as possible. In my opinion the voices of the singers are categorised too rigidly. However, this seems to be true less in Germany. Of course I had to adjust to be able to sing Pelleas. But after I had represented this role for two months, even more adjustment was necessary to bring my voice back to its normal register. This involved much extrawork.“

Still unmarried – „I am not yet blessed with a family but I’m working on this” – Simon Keenlyside has decided views on the musical world, refusing to sacrifice his own typical lifestyle to his career. “Everybody should do what he or she likes, damn! This is my attitude that I follow consistently every day. But I don’t rank among the people who only go out with a scarf round their necks and I don’t think that I have to turn into a monster the day of a performance because of the pressure it involves. What is more important for me is life itself, as an adventure and experience. That’s what I think, a hundred percent. If you sing lieder you choose those in which your own life resounds and where you therefore can empathise. To be able to do this you need a certain degree of experience of life. If you sing compositions without any personal relation this will be thoroughly boring. It’s like with an author. To make a character live he must know people well and what a person thinks and feels. That’s exactly what is necessary at the opera too while you animate a character on stage for three hours. This requires the experience of real life. You use experiences that you have made yourself on your course of life or that you have absorbed. In my opinion this is very important and makes work much easier.

His convictions regarding the profession of a musician at the beginning of the 21st century are equally decided too. “I absolutely dislike much of what I see in the musical world at present. I mean the direction in which our business is moving. I think, “business” is the right term for it, as it is a matter of marketing and promotion. Apparently all the energy is used for this. Young singers are pushed far too quickly. This does damage to their characters and to their voices. They get no chance to develop gradually. In the past singers made recordings only when they had reached their best years, not right at the beginning.

On the other hand, what is shown in an opera must be credible too, otherwise it loses the dramatic power to convince. I often sang Marcello in “La Bohème”, on stage at times with a Mimi who had about 100 kilos. This is ridiculous. I am grateful that I have been able to sing Pelleas while still in posession of all my teeth. Marketing means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t care for publicity. The only thing that is important for me is that people come to operahouses or concert halls who want to hear me. And I am grateful that they come. I am on my guard against the recording and promotion industry. I want to work as long as I am offered interesting roles.

I remember watching an artist specialized in the „commedia dell’arte“ in Italy a little more than 18 months ago. I don’t think that he is really well-known apart from his speciality. But he knew his trade and has made it perfect through the years. That’s exactly what I aim at.

Previous interview 2000-09-20, Telegraph, "Opera's man of mystery" >>>
Next interview 2000-04, La Monnaie magazine, interview in French >>>

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