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2004.02.02 The Latest Protean Metamorphosis – Interview with Simon Keenlyside

The Latest Protean Metamorphosis – Interview with

Simon Keenlyside.

Jorge Binaghi for Mundo Clasico, 2nd February 2004,

translated by Nikki Pierce

I’ve delayed somewhat in writing up this interview: the Christmas period, other obligations, the fact that the interview comes via a request from an Italian publication…  Actually, I think I’ve delayed because what is said in it has not lost, nor will it lose, currency.  Not on its own merits, but because of the person I interviewed, a baritone who is rather out of the ordinary and who almost defies classification: as comfortable with Donizetti and Rossini as with Monteverdi, Leoncavallo, Glück, Britten, Schubert, Wolf, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Mozart, and even Verdi and Wagner.  But it’s not merely a question of someone who does everything for the sake of being an ‘absolute’ singer, but through not wanting to become specialist and have to leave to one side things that he’s interested in doing.  The meeting, somewhat delayed, because the singer is not wild about doing interviews (and even less during a run) took place a week after the first night of his electrifying Don Giovanni.  And a young (44) and affable man arrived on time and to break the ice, said to me ‘ask what you like’.

It wasn’t hard work: I had hardly formulated the question, when I got an answer that went much further and deeper (‘I’m talking a lot’, he said twice, at high speed).

In seventy five minutes, he never stopped moving, expressing himself with rapid movements (he has an enviable physique) with a tone of voice – he speaks well, clearly and doesn’t get bogged down in trivialities – and with those alert and lively eyes which immediately reveal a person as sensitive as he is intelligent (the order of the factors doesn’t change the result).

He lives, then, by singing; or rather he lives in song, and he lives to sing more than singing to live.  But on top of that, he ‘lives’ because he never abandons his other passion: nature and zoology in particular, which was what he devoted himself to before song.  ‘And I will never leave off either of the two: they are lifelong’.

Q: Didn’t you start singing rather late?

SK:  Not at all.  I started my proper studies at 23, but I’d done it before.  And I hadn’t wasted any time; I’d been studying other things.  I avoided the worst that can happen to a young singer: appearing too soon in heavy roles that can you ruin your voice irremediably.

Q:  You sing very diverse roles (Papageno, Hamlet, Orfeo, Pelléas, Wolfram, the Count, Don Giovanni and Guglielmo), without even mentioning your lieder performances.  In these times of specialisation, do you not want to concentrate on one or two aspects of the repertoire?

SK:  I like all the repertoire.  I think of myself as an old school lyric singer.

Q:  Which is to say?

SK:  I want to express myself through song.  Of course, you have to act as well…

Q:  And you do that very well…

SK:  Perhaps, but think about the problem of different productions – those which are truly intelligent – which is that one is understandably tempted to act, but not with the voice and a lyric singer, as far as I’m concerned, must express himself fundamentally through the voice.

Q:  But what about your ‘Don Giovanni’?  You sing it with the voice, but you interpret it in such a way… extreme, vital but almost desperate, with feline tread, always stalking for prey…

SK:  I’ve worked with McVicar before and also I’ve done the opera before: the current one is a good production for me (and I must say straightaway that I don’t like talking about productions before the curtain goes up, because they can still turn out wrong in spite of everyone’s best efforts).  Do you know why?  Because the régisseur knows the entire text by heart.  All artists, including the régisseur, we must always strive to improve ourselves, all of us.  And this is part of the text.  My role is all in the words of Da Ponte and the music of Mozart: not always successful, a preening seducer; he can also be cruel.  This touches on something much more profound in the human condition, something more important than success.  Mozart wrote in an era of huge social change, he was a contemporary of Goethe…

Q:  ‘Viva la libertà’ ?

SK:  Exactly.  But all, and I mean all, liberties.  And when I have to sing those words, I find it impossible not to imagine how it must have sounded to the nobility of the time, calmly said to everyone – even the peasants who are at the party.  The other day when the Prince of Belgium came, I had the strangest sensation while singing those words, as I did when I sang Midsummer Night’s Dream before the royal family in Manchester.  And you have to express this in the way you sing or say the phrase.  My Giovanni is provocative: his libertà means that the privileges of former years are over, that the class you belong to is about to be destroyed.  And sometimes you have to sing this in front of crowned heads…

Q:  Is it this kind of feeling, perhaps, that makes your way of singing recitative appear so natural, almost spoken, including those times when a word comes in that’s not in the text?

SK:  You realised?  (His eyes sparkle and half close for a moment, in a mix of surprise, mild irritation, amusement and irony.  Humour wins the day and he says to me in French: Moi?).  It occurs at times and it’s an error I try to control; it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I get carried away by the situation.  If it’s correct to add some kind of sound, a murmur for example, why not correct add words (as happened the day of the first performance).  I think I picked this up from Charles Mackerras who arrived at rehearsals clutching Mozart’s letters so as not to waste time in argument.  I still laugh when I think of the time he was supposed to do a production of Così where they’d decided to cut the recitatives.  Naturally we ended up doing them.  A recitative is almost more important than an aria – although a Mozart aria lasts almost the same in ‘real’ time.  But it’s not just Mozart: you know, I learnt a lot from seeing Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet (great new interpreter of Shakespeare), from his capacity to express with his voice the opposite of what he says with his gestures.

Q:  Why don’t you tell me about Hamlet and other roles you’d like to play?

SK:  Have you always been able to do what you wanted in life, when you felt like it?  No-one can.  You have to choose all the time.  I try to take roles that, within the possibilities of my voice, ‘say something’ to me.  Now, for example, I’d like to do something from the ‘grand’ repertoire and put to one side characters who are no longer so close to me.  I don’t think I’ll go back to Belcore, Dandini (the last time I did that I was ill and it didn’t go well) and in the case of Rossini’s Figaro, I’d only do it in a very special production.  There’s Verdi, for a change…  Think of a role like Rodrigo, a much shorter part than Hamlet (45 minutes of singing as opposed to 90, which is really a lot…) and so well written for the voice that after I sang it for the first time in Detroit, I wasn’t tired at all.

Q:  Were you tired in the Barcelona Hamlet, where you sang few performances?

SK:  The Liceu, an amazing theatre, public and director.  No, I wasn’t tired; I just needed a moment of calm for personal reasons and I was – against my habits – on the verge of cancelling it all, but they helped me in different ways, I felt understood as a human being and so I ended up singing some performances.  (For those who don’t know, the debut of Keenlyside and Dessay caused delirium in the Catalan capital).  And it’s a work that isn’t often performed and I wanted to do it.

Q:  You’d already done it in London with the same company…

SK:  They’re fantastic…

Q:  But we were left lamenting your Onegin in Paris

SK:  You don’t know how annoyed I was about that; I really was ill then.  I’ve even sung in plaster cast because I don’t like cancelling.  And this role is an important objective for me: exactly the type of role I want to play; it’s a dream I still hope to realise.  Let’s hope anyway because, as you see, life organises things in its own way…  Some roles you can only sing them until a certain age and after that, although you can still sing them, you have to let them go…

Q:  For example?

SK:  Billy Budd, a work I adore and which I’m still going to sing in Vienna; almost certainly Guglielmo from Così (but Mozart, including Papageno, I’ll try to keep always: luckily his baritones don’t have a very definite age); Pélleas…

Q:  One of ‘your’ roles…

SK:  Nonetheless, I don’t know how many more times I’m going to sing it: I have contracts for Salzburg, Paris and London…  Of course, afterwards I could sing Golaud…

Q:  You speak of Verdi with enthusiasm, but are also an ardent partisan of Pélleas?

SK:  How can a baritone not love Verdi?  Who doesn’t want to sing ‘en italiano’?  I have to thank Cappuccilli, the Tonio to my first Silvio in I Pagliacci, who insisted so much on the expression with his own voice and advised not to wait to sing the Italian rep because once we get used to other techniques, it gets a bit late for achieving a big sound, the dark colours, the sonorous curves in the passaggio, which don’t work for other parts…  The problem is that theatre directors (and they’re not the only ones) judge by what they last heard.  So they turn you into a lieder-singing baritone (and a Schubert specialist to boot; they don’t care if you’re interested in Wolf or Schumann) or a ‘martin’ baritone of the French school [what in God’s name is that?] and that’s if you’re lucky… and then nobody offers you a contract for Don Carlos.

Q:  Here in Brussels it has seemed to me that you can ‘control’ the volume of your voice according to the needs of the moment or the role…

SK:  Baritones always have to be very careful with Mozart.  It’s an infinite joy to sing, but the tessitura leaves us too exposed.  Verdi carries you along, particularly in the middle register: I’d even say it does your voice good.

Q:  More Verdi then?

SK:  Gradually.  There’s another role out there, but I’m not talking about it for now.  I also sing Ford, but that opera requires a brilliant conductor.  For example, I have just seven notes marked p; as Ford is an incarnation of rage and jealous, let’s say a bit monotonous, many conductors get very heavy-handed with the orchestra and then you can’t be heard or you have to force it.

Q:  And the French rep?

SK:  I’m singing Valentin in Faust.  But frankly, I can’t see myself doing any more.  (He doesn’t seem interested in Thais or Hérodiade, although he pays attention when I mention Les nuits d’été.)  For example, I don’t fancy singing Battistini’s version of Werther, I even find myself wishing for the tenor’s high notes in the Ossian song.  It’s obvious that there are times when the voice should go up, not down.  It would be like, the other way round, choosing the alternative aria for Guglielmo after ‘Come scoglio’ in Così…  On the other hand, ‘Non siate ritrosi’ is perfect as a musical and dramatic balance, although the baritone can’t shine or compete with the soprano…  There’s also, of course, the four ‘diablosi’ from Hoffmann.  Who wouldn’t want to sing ‘Scintille diamant’?  I assure you (the voice is serious, but the look is mischievous and absolutely seductive) that in that case, I’d choose the higher version.  But it has moments that are too low…

Q:  I see you’re preparing Sigmund from Die Walkure for a concert performance.

SK:  Yes indeed (slightly defiant): just for a bit of fun.  I won’t be the first baritone to sing the role anyway.  I’ve looked at it in some detail and if not sung systematically (which isn’t my plan), it’s perfectly feasible.  Of course, Wolfram is a role I really like and which I find very comfortable, but some amusement (including some risk taking as well) never hurt anyone.

Q:  No-one can say you don’t like risks and challenges; you’ll soon be taking the leading role in the Tempest in London, Adès’s new opera, based on Shakespeare’s Tempest.

SK:  Sir Simon Rattle says that it’s a great work, or something like that.  My role is very lyrical, but difficult: I have to take great care to ‘guide’ my voice.  Without a doubt it’s a privilege, and a pleasure to sing my native language: doesn’t happen often for English singers.  The problem is the rehearsals.  It’s a very interesting experience, but I don’t want to be the first person to ‘create’ a role.  I don’t like not having seen the work first and not knowing the ‘traditional’ interpretation, simply because there isn’t one.  There are so many things in the ‘grand’ repertoire still…  Think of singing like a pair of shoes: at first they’re very shiny but rather uncomfortable; afterwards some of the shine has gone, but they fit you very well.

Q:  You said traditional interpretation…

SK:  I’ve already said I’m quite an old-fashioned singer.  I learn from and greatly respect recordings from the 20s, 30s and 40s: De Luca, Stracciari, Amato, but the Germans as well: Hüsch, Schlusnus…

Q:  Hotter died a few days ago.

SK:  The classic model for Schubert’s Winterreise

Q:  Tell me about your Schubert

SK:  Well, he’s not the same as Fischer-Dieskau’s; marvellous.  I feel a great respect and admiration for him, but there are others (whom we’ve just named) with other ideas, different colours…  I am searching for my own in all modesty, but I can safely say that if a role – including Verdi – proved dangerous to my ability to continue singing Schubert, I would have no hesitation in dropping it.  Look, I’m the first singer in a family of chamber musicians (grandfather and father): I want to carry on the tradition, with my voice.  Besides, you can see more clearly what vocal problems will arise in a lied than in an opera.  To sing both, it’s fine if you don’t wear yourself out or sing chamber music after a series of opera performances, because it can be frustrating.  I know some people say it’s ‘just’ songs.  But it so happens that you find all the world, all of life in these songs.  And the songs, even the simplest, make up half of my life.  Music, song, they are a complete mirror of life: the big things are extremely beautiful, but in the little things you find the depths.  This is exactly the case with Pélleas.  It used to really annoy me when someone would tell me it was boring or that Debussy’s music made no impression on them; I used to try and change their minds.  Later, I learned to say ‘fine, that’s your opinion; for me it’s a central work’.  Perhaps it’s about understanding French; if you understand it, you can’t not understand Pélleas.  To understand it is to love it.  There are concert-goers who don’t follow the text and who watch you sing.  My brother’s one of them, but you lose the most important thing.  And for this reason, singers must learn the languages they sing (it doesn’t take much; you realise after living in a country for a while when you’re able to follow a film or football match on the TV).  For me that dimension of singing is important, because the pleasures of a singer in the exercise of his art are diverse: for a high lyric baritone, as I would describe myself now, it’s marvellous to sing with the whole voice, but also wonderful not to use it all and sing Debussy, Schubert, Mozart…

Q:  We’re back to Mozart

SK:  It always comes back to Mozart.  I can’t show you, and Mackerras when I mentioned it gave me a dry ‘no’ in answer, but when I sing Papageno, this is what occurs to me.  The moment of the ‘great test’ arrives and they tell me I’ve failed; then I ask for a glass of wine (in vino veritas, remember the proverb).  I’m the simple man, Everyman.  But we’re not in an opera for children or initiates.  Mozart’s reply is immediate: the glockenspiel, ten notes.  Just think (the ‘difficult’ Keenlyside starts to sing with his whole body, but above all with his whole soul) they’re the same as the ones in the Marseillaise (almost contemporary; Mozart came first).  For Papageno, there’s another dimension to freedom.  Because, I am adamant, freedom is exactly the freedom to be what we want to be.

Q:  (At this point, I feel rather ashamed of taking up still more of this artist’s time, but there’s a typical question and the clocks are implacable, but it’s worth it for the answer).  And recordings?

SK:  Welcome when they come along.  I don’t want to sound hypocritical and disrespectful (afterwards he says ‘of course, if I’m not offered them…’).  But they are only a complement.  I’m not the kind of performer to devote myself to recordings and make a career promoting recordings I’ve just done.  With all due respect for people who do, for me it’s something different.  I prefer the theatre, and I will continue to prefer it as long as they don’t clutter it up with publicity and microphones (as I’m not in absolute agreement with this, I leave it there).  Perhaps the solution would be DVDs or live recordings from performances.  Studio recording is artificial and the voices never sound the way they do in the theatre.  I would have liked the Don Giovanni with Abbado to have been done with more time in hand – of course that means more money – because I at least, after the performances, was tired and I don’t like the way it’s turned out.  Anyone can hear what I mean when they listen to Pinza, Taddei or Ghiaurov.

Q:  I interrupt.  You’ve mentioned various singers of the past and present several times – do you listen to records?

SK:  I don’t have much time to read, but I like to listen to records (I’ve already said that I like singers of the past) and it is partly study, partly pleasure.  In fact, there’s one obvious example.  With no disrespect for Pavarotti, I listened with great admiration to a concert of Gigli’s in Buenos Aires at the end of his career.  Generous, an hour and twenty minutes against the forty minutes or less which is the norm today, and with a public that’s grateful for it and is in symbiosis with him.  That’s what I like.  Of course, it is a concert in Buenos Aires…

Q:  (I mention that a family friend Heather Harper – whom he speaks of with praise – sang there with great success).  Would you like to sing at the Teatro Colon?

SK:  If the public is still like that, of course.  And the room is important.  If the conditions were right, yes of course.

Q: (Those who have ears and eyes, read and listen.  And think).  Anything else?

SK:  Yes, you interrupted me with the singers.  I don’t claim to be famous; I just want to sing the music and the roles well enough for people to appreciate them.  Because, after all, as a great saxophonist says (yes, don’t look at me like that: I like jazz too and I went to listen to it when I finished my performances in San Francisco: after Don Giovanni, you can’t have an early night and a singer has to live too) whoever wants to progress, go further, in music (and remember music is a synonym for life), will do it.

Frankly, I was impressed.  Because it’s certain that one can, or must, go further.  But, to do it, a mere mortal needs help.  Artists, the real ones, are important for just that reason.  And I don’t remember a single Keenlyside interpretation (I regret not yet having heard him in a lieder recital) from which I/we haven’t come out with a different view, a new question.  And it seems that the baritone has decided to make the journey (he’s well equipped to do so without wandering) and, above all, he admits, even wants travelling companions.  Note to self.


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