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2004.05.01 Der Neue Merker

Der Neue Merker May 2004 (Dr. Diemut Fuchs)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Interview with Simon Keenlyside

On the occasion of a new “Don Giovanni” production at the Théâtre de la Monnaie Brussels by Scottish director David McVicar, I had the chance of a conversation with Simon Keenlyside, the interpretor of the name part. Immediately after the performance on 20 December 2003 I met him in his dressing-room to talk to him about his personal view of the work and the current new production.

Mr. Keenlyside, during the last 10 years you have sung Don Giovanni in 4 different productions (1993 Glyndebourne Touring Opera, 1997 Ferrara, 2001 Zurich, 2002 Royal Opera House) which makes this your fifth production with different directors. During today’s performance I had the impression that you feel very comfortable with this set in particular?

That’s right! And this is due to some very different factors: On the one hand I think that the work’s character and more profound meaning are particularly well realised this time and are supported sympathetically by the stage setting and the lighting. For me it is particularly important that a director does not only know exactly what he thinks and wants, but also that he passes these notions of his on to the whole ensemble during the staunch and detailed rehearsals.

Although I now have some years of experience with the role of the Don myself, I cannot create my role every time in splendid isolation, but I want, and have to, fit into a new concept at a time that is logical for me. What’s particularly lucky for me this time is the fact that David McVicar’s present concept corresponds as far as possible with my own notion of the work.


I remember your statement from last year that you would be ready to sing Don Giovanni even as an Alien in a starship…

Did I say so? I would abominate a production like this and definitely would not want to do it – unless the director displayed an unusually charismatic power of persuasion and talked to me with an angels tongue… just the same, no, I think, I would not do it. But don’t nail me down to yesterday’s statements! I think it was Oscar Wilde who defined an artist as someone who is able to advance two completely different views at the same time. So…

So could you explain to me your personal notion of Don Giovanni, as a role and as a work? You were talking about a more profound meaning? What is the message?

Sadly many people regard “Don Giovanni” mainly as a work about sex and crime. A debauched macho who stops at nothing to gratify his lust. But to me this seems to be a purely superficial simplification of a work that in itself is very profound and vehement. For me the Don is not a simple stud but a “libertine” in the broadest and truest sense of the word. An anarchic freethinker whose debauchery is programmed in: one single revolt against laws, conventions and rules. The submission of women by seduction or rape is just an expression of his absolute defiance and arbitrary breach of all commands and taboos. He is looking permanently for confrontation with any kind of authority – social and moral as well as profane, and as the ultimate consequence, divine. The examination of the problem of authority seems to be the quintessential element of the complete work and this issue is broached on another level too, viz in the relation between Giovanni and Leporello. Here another kind of rape takes place, of the servant by the social authority of the ruling class personalised by the Don. For me “Don Giovanni” is the work of the eve of the French Revolution and it dramatises its cry for “liberté”.

Mr. Keenlyside, you were talking about several factors that made this present series of performances so pleasant for you. And this in spite of an extremely terse schedule: every two or three days a Giovanni and in between flights to London to the rehearsals for the world premiere of “Tempest” that have already started! Isn’t this getting too tiresome for you? In our last interview a year ago you described the role of “Don Giovanni” as “brutal for the voice” and said that you did not want to sing the Don in a longer series…?

This is also due to the conductors in large part. They restrain the orchestral sound so little that it is possible for the singer to be heard acoustically with “mezzaforte” at best when “piano” is prescribed. On the one hand, this removes vocal power and the possibilities for differentiation from the singer, and on the other hand a large number of nuances intended in the score will be lost on the audience. And it evens out all dynamic. I am very grateful that our conductor here (Kazushi Ono) has his left hand permanently ready to mute the orchestra which makes things much easier particularly for me, and in my opinion also adds to a larger transparency of the musical textures. Also, we not only had a very exact work with the staging of this new production but also exceptionally intensive musical rehearsals. How many conductors make the piano rehearsals with the singers themselves? Sadly you can only dream of things like this in many [opera] houses nowadays, although actually this is so essential to me.

The stage design and the lighting, i.e. the lack of it, were bestowed with some criticism. But you said in the beginning that it’s exactly this that has a considerable share in the realisation of the piece?

I know that many people have complained about the darkness on stage. But look at the work’s atmosphere: It is a nocturnal piece from the beginning to the end – you must not light it brightly. Don Giovanni can sing his serenade only at night after all, the graveyard scene as well as the feast at the end obviously are set at night too. Only the wedding company in scene 7 may take place by day, while it is arguably night again during the following festivity at the Don’s house. But regarding the darkness at the beginning of the opera I ask you: Who would rape a lady in broad daylight? I, for one would do so only in the dark!

So said with a roguish smirk, and he hurried away completely ravenous to a slightly belated midnight dinner.

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