2000-09-20, Telegraph, “Opera’s man of mystery”

Opera’s man of mystery

The Telegraph, 20 September 2000

The electrifying British baritone Simon Keenlyside gives a rare interview to Rupert Christiansen

It’s not easy to interview Simon Keenlyside. Unlike the breed of star that treats journalistic attention as another form of applause, he clearly dislikes having to explain himself. On stage, he radiates an electrifying presence and swashbuckling flamboyance. Off stage, he’s self-effacing and cagey. The thought of being processed or exposed by the publicity machine makes him uncomfortable, and although he’s now 41, there’s still something of the emotionally rebellious teenage loner about him.

“Simon has an extraordinary ability to vanish the moment his services are not required,” one colleague comments. “He’s a sweet and funny guy, but a complete mystery.”

Currently he ranks as one of the world’s foremost baritones, and – Bryn Terfel aside – is without doubt the most internationally successful British classical singer of his generation. His operatic diary takes him from La Scala to the Met. He has concert dates with the likes of Abbado and Rattle, and gives lieder recitals at the Châtelet in Paris and the Vienna Musikverein. His new recording of Pagliacci is about to hit the shops.

It all leaves little time for his other great passion, bird-watching – having read zoology at Cambridge, he remains a scholarly naturalist, with a legendary ability to imitate the song of everything from a lapwing to a capercaillie.

Keenlyside is back in London this month, playing the title role in the Royal Opera’s revival of Britten’s Billy Budd. He hasn’t sung the part on stage since 1992, although his appearance in concert performances for the LSO last October, subsequently recorded by Chandos, was nothing short of sensational.

“Any baritone who finds Billy floating past him should grab it and consider himself lucky,” he says. “Apart from anything else, at Covent Garden it offers the rare treat of being able to sing English text to an English audience, without surtitles or translations getting in the way. That sort of immediate communication is not something you can often achieve in opera.”

He is also grateful that Francesca Zambello’s production is so unaggressive in its interpretation of Melville’s strange tale of the innocent, stuttering sailor who kills a superior officer after he is falsely accused of theft.

“The opera is so beautifully written, so full of shadows and nuances and laminations, it should be allowed to make its own statement, without the homoerotic or religiose undertones being rammed home. I play Billy for real: he’s an ordinary young man, not a vision of goodness in a virginal white shirt.”

This simplicity comes as a welcome relief after a nasty time at the Salzburg Festival this summer, playing Guglielmo in Hans Neuenfels’s impenetrably weird deconstruction of Cosi fan tutte. He loyally denies that he hated it as much as 90 per cent of the audience and critics did, but admits he wasn’t “terribly happy” about its “flick-book” tricksiness.

“I’ll do anything a producer asks me to, if I feel it’s honest. But what do you do when someone tells you at the first rehearsal that recitative is only ‘a hole in the drama’? That’s just wrong. Anyone can wow an audience – by bringing Fiordiligi on for her big aria accompanied by a pair of dogs and some massive bodybuilding hunks, for instance. But once the shock is over, is there anything left? Where are the shadows and nuances and laminations?”

Commitment to Mozart stopped him from walking out. Although he is now tiring of Cosi (“a masterpiece of course, but there’s no character development”), he still “adores” singing Don Giovanni, the Count in Figaro and Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, all of which he will return to next year.

Meanwhile, he is adding to his repertory fast. In January, he’ll be back at Covent Garden for his first big Verdi assignment, Ford in Falstaff, and in Munich next July he will test the Wagnerian waters with Wolfram in Tannhäuser. That’s not the end of it: in 2004, he is pencilled in to sing Siegmund in Die Walküre. It is a role normally staked out in tenorial territory, but Keenlyside believes that his strong, clean and high-lying baritone is growing to the point that it can encompass its demands.

It sounds as though he is furiously ambitious, and one notes that in his twenties he sprinted competitively. “No, no, don’t make that connection,” he insists. “Music is not a competition. Yes, there’s a sheer physical exhilaration about it that is something like the high you get from running, but I don’t care about furthering my career or whether I’m on the A-list or not. My only game plan is to be cast in roles I love in places I love.”

Nevertheless he trains hard, practising every day and working out each area of his voice. “I studied under someone brilliant, John Cameron, when I was at the Royal Northern College, and I still draw on memories of everything he told me. Singing is like filling in a crossword puzzle, a daily challenge to make all the different elements cohere vertically and horizontally. The technical exercise is an unending fascination to me, because I rarely get it absolutely right.”

The value of “balance” is one of the lessons he imbibed from Cameron, and for the sake of his vocal as well as his spiritual health, Keenlyside has always interspersed his big operatic dates with periods in which he concentrates on the small-scale intensity of lieder. “It’s not relaxing by any means. I find it difficult being me on the platform, out of costume. I hate wearing tails and I still don’t know quite what to do with my hands. But being in the middle of the marriage of a poem of genius with music of genius is something I love more than I can say.”

After a few years living somewhere he vaguely describes as “abroad”, he recently returned to England and has based himself in Ealing. It’s a relief, he says, and he is delighted that the Royal Opera has booked him so heavily over the forthcoming seasons, allowing him “to sleep in my own bed for a change”.

But he seems a romantic and a wanderer by nature, and even as he extols the joys of home, a glint in his eye suggests that before long the mysterious Simon Keenlyside will have shut his score and vanished again.

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