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2004.10.12 Transcript of the BBC Radio 3 “Voices” interview

Transcript of the BBC Radio 3 “Voices” interview

Simon talking to Ian Burnside

Recorded on 12th October 2004

All’ mein Gedanken – R. Strauss, S. Keenlyside (baritone), M. Martineau (piano)

Ian Burnside: All’ mein Gedanken by Richard Strauss, sung there by my guest on today’s Voices, the baritone Simon Keenlyside. Malcolm Martineau was playing the piano there.


Simon a very warm welcome to you. I’m particularly happy to have lured you into the studio as you’re a notorious non interview giver, and perhaps, the least “divo-ish” of our current crop of opera stars. Is this a policy decision, or has it just come out that way?

Simon Keenlyside: No, no I’m not averse to giving interviews about things I’m passionate about, i.e. music or singing, but I’m loath to talk about me I suppose, that’s what it is. I was rather sensitised by my years in Scottish Opera where the inevitable questions would be “So Mr Keenlyside, having studied Zoology, how do you find that informs your portrayal of the birdman in The Magic Flute?”….head in my hands.

IB: You had enough of that?

SK: Yes.

IB: Well, we’ll come onto your degree in zoology later!

SK: Thanks very much…

IB: I promise you not to bring Papageno into it. Can we go back to pre-Zoology days? You were a choirboy.

SK: Yes.

IB: Was that a good start in your musical life?

SK: It was an incredible start in my musical life. It was no different to what it is now. Until about five years ago I still used the same suitcase. We travelled to the same countries, often singing in the same places. We “did” Sydney Opera house when I was a child, and recording and touring… concerts. The normal life of a professional musician is what I had at St John’s choir school from aged eight. As a child it was an odd existence, but well, so long as you’ve got love in your life as a child I don’t think that matters either.

IB: And did it stand you in good vocal stead?

SK: No. I don’t think it made any difference vocally at all, because there’s no correlation, in my opinion, between a child’s voice and the adult’s voice. That’s just luck. But the musical beginning, that was an altogether different matter. George Guest was quite wonderful.

IB: Well we have a recording of you from the archives, singing a Welsh Lullaby, “Sua Gan”, and very beautiful I think it is too. Does it bring back happy memories, playing this?

SK: It brings back memories of endless coach journeys down to Wales to do charity concerts, raise concerts for various good causes that George used to crowbar in, and of touring and experimenting, even as a child with preparations before singing. Even as a child we were told no peanut butter and no swimming before concerts. Both with good reason I think now myself, but you know, whether you eat your Wiener schnitzel before the concert or after the concert. Do you put it in your pocket, or what do you do? All those things. Musically it brings back wonderful memories.

Sua Gan – Welsh Lullaby. Choir of St John’s College

IB: The Welsh song “Sua Gan” sung there by the choir of St John’s College Cambridge under George Guest, with my guest Simon Keenlyside as treble soloist. And very beautiful that is too Simon. It also lays down a Welsh theme, which is something that continues in your life.

SK: Yes, Wales has always been home to me really I suppose. I know… I can understand the pride which the Welsh carry with them travelling round the world. Nationhood is not really so much for me, I don’t know why, it just isn’t, but it just happens to be the part of the world that is most important to me. Don’t get down there much. I’ve got the farm down there, and my life’s experiment of planting trees and bird boxes, and leaving that tiny little patch a little bit better than I found it.

IB: It’s a long way from any international airport, and juggling your career in Milan, Vienna, the Met whatever, with building bird boxes… you have to really want to do it, don’t you?

SK: Yes. I love it. I mean three hours away and I’m in another world, thank God.

IB: And what proportion of time do you manage to spend down there?

SK: Not much. Last year was 10 months touring or something absurd. I got the balance wrong last year.

IB: Well, can I take you back now to a time after you were a choirboy, after you’d done the Zoology degree, when you went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Was this a deliberately anti London move?

SK: Yes, it was. Good question. When I was at university the natural thing to do was to come down and be a session singer, and it was relatively easy for us at King’s Choir and John’s Choir to join the “old boy” network. And I wanted to learn to sing, and earning money at that point would have been, I’m sure of it, detrimental to learning how to sing. Because in the religious repertoire, as you well know, – alto, tenor and bass and you have to fit in with the tessitura that’s written. And I, as a baritone, was spending all my years at Cambridge trying to sing bass, and I wasn’t a bass, I needed to go and find out what, actually, I was. So it was a definite, distinct, conscious decision to go away from London and learn.

IB: And did you find John Cameron, your teacher, or did he find you?

SK: You know, it’s so much luck. If you don’t trust your singing teacher 100% you’ll never get anywhere. And yet, of course, there are so many teachers that’ll send you the wrong way, or at worst ruin your voice. Ruin a young voice or even encourage a singer to make this in a tacit way, some Faustian pact and get a large voice too soon, which would have ruined me as it has many other singers. So it was a long slow haul, we made it.


John Cameron

IB: But John Cameron you did trust?

SK: I did, Yeah. He was Australian, he was in the second world war, going up through Italy reading Goethe poems. I can’t imagine how that went down in his tent.

IB: A bit dodgy!

SK: I don’t know how a rural… a man from a rural background in Australia, managed to be so passionate about German poetry, 19th century poetry, but he was. And he was crazy about poetry, lieder as well as singing, and he encouraged me always never to give up my song singing. At least, because he said a long voice in terms of range is a healthy voice. And in addressing lieder songs, melody, French songs as well, you’d find out not only your weaknesses but your strengths and you’d keep your voice flexible. And I also think now that a flexible voice is going to be a healthy voice.

IB: Yeah, sounds…

SK: Apart from the joy of this repertoire.

IB: Indeed. Well we’ve got a bit of John Cameron now that you’ve chosen. A bit of Elijah. Why this Simon?

SK: Well because I had a lot of songs in this choice with piano and I thought it would make a nice change. John made many wonderful recordings. But also because Elijah was our singing lesson every day for five years, pretty well. And one day I would say to John, “How come all the other students are addressing technical matters using words that I like like passagio and vuolto and coupo and all these things?” And he said [puts on an Australian accent] “Well if you want to something with passaggio and vuolto, we’ll talk about it like that in those terms if you like”. So we did for a few weeks and I found, of course, that it was no different, and we had a good giggle and went back to addressing technique through a piece that we knew I knew well, and could try again and again, and that was Elijah.

“For the mountains shall depart”. F. Mendelssohn Bartoldy (Elijah). Sung by John Cameron (baritone) with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

IB: John Cameron in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Sir Malcolm Sergeant was conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

SK: Well the reason I chose this, apart from my… as it being my singing lesson as it were, was also because I think this is an example of old fashioned singing. It doesn’t matter good, bad or indifferent, (I think it’s wonderful), but a modern singer, I think, perhaps wouldn’t have the same options. Would have sung it for a microphone, because microphone technology, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I think that it’s in some ways detrimental to the proper… I see as healthy singing. The microphones pick up everything so close, the click of a clarinet key, or you swallowing, that only those singers that are capable of making this miniature and perfect sounds will be able to get around the microphone. Rather than those old recordings, for example Dieskau, those live one from the Mozarteum in the fifties or sixties, when you feel that you’re sitting 15 feet away. No closer than you would be in life, and I think that singers of this generation, John Cameron’s generation at Elijah and earlier, were able to sing on full support, on full voice without it blowing the mike, and…

IB: And you think we’ve lost something from the changes in technology then?

SK: I wonder whether it’s the tradition in himself… the master Dieskau, who was capable… Dietrich Fischer Dieskau who was capable of singing such incredible mezza voce, and became a tradition in himself, that people imagine Lieder singing, song singing, must be miniature. Always miniature, and I think that’s a pity. And that’s why I’ve chosen some of the other more outdoor voices, more seemingly simple, but I find that just as elegant…

IB: We’re going to hear you singing a Schubert Lied next.

SK: …And I wouldn’t choose myself, I would not include myself in this category.

IB: It does beg the obvious question, how has that affected your own approach, in your recording career?

SK: I found it very difficult, very frustrating, I don’t record a great deal anyway. And so, consequently I don’t find… as with my professional life, finding my way around a warming up regime, an eating regime, an exercise regime, a rehearsal regime, I’ve never had the time to work out a regime that would work to… have a comfortable marriage with a microphone. And therefore, I find it very difficult. For example in this next song I chose a completely modern approach, I think actually. Which is a miniature “voce” which sometimes I’m able to do and sometimes I fail at. I think some songs, of course, obviously require it. And I think this song… I would say that wouldn’t I? but I think this song “Himmelsfunken” does require it, it’s the tiniest of sounds.

IB: Well let’s hear your microphone voice now.

SK: [Laughs]

IB: “Himmelsfunken” by Schubert. Malcolm Martineau as the pianist.

“Himmelsfunken” by Schubert. Simon Keenlyside, (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano).


SK: It’s as if you’re hanging, hundreds of miles above the Earth, looking down. And… And in every space trip, for example, the astronauts always look down, and they invariably say “you know when you look down at the Earth you don’t see any boundaries. You don’t see any, any lines”. And you think all those wars, and there’s nothing, there’s no barrier between one country and the next. And this song and the text, it’s like that. You look down… and you talked about Wales earlier… Well of course it’s “Wales for the Welsh!” It’s wonderful, and good luck to everybody, but it’s just another bit of the world.

IB: Cosmic thoughts there in Schubert’s Himmelsfunken by Simon Keenlyside, my guest today, singing with Malcolm Martineau. You’ve brought along a few of your vocal role models in your briefcase. One of them is Gerhard Hüsch, who we’re going to hear now in a different Schubert song, a German baritone of an older generation. What buttons does he press for you?

SK: Hmm. It’s all about… in the end of course you can’t please everybody, I quickly realised that. You have to choose how you want to sing you know.  And somebody, for example in coloratura might aspirate with a “ha ha ha ha ha” sound and others do it from the diaphragm, and eventually you have to decide what it is that you want to do, rather than change for each audience.

And… I… don’t use old singers because they’re old singers with someone looking through rose-tinted spectacles as if they were better in that age. I choose them because I think that, as with an actor, if you try and give too much information all at once, I think eventually it becomes counter-productive. You give no information, you need to focus. When you watch Rowan Atkinson or someone, watch his eyes, as I did in the Palace Theatre in Manchester, in comedy. Right at the back. If he’s standing still and he uses his head in a certain way, one little movement will be very telling.

So I find with singing. If you gun every important “stichwort” like “Liebe” – love, or like “hate” or “pain” or whatever it is, I find it extremely irritating. The singers that I loved, and love, are elegant simplicity, and when you want to make a point you make it. One point, and I think it’s much more telling then. When we talk we have an arc, a natural arc, and we don’t, unless we are weathermen, have a breath… every… word… And it makes a nonsense of the sentence. So I find with Hüsch and Fassbaender and Schlusnuss and many others, and many modern singers too. I find that tradition, almost naive, it seems naive, but it’s just as sophisticated. It’s more sophisticated in my mind, but it’s elegant simplicity.

“Der Musensohn”, F. Schubert. Gerhard Hüsch (baritone), H.U. Müller (piano).

IB: Schubert’s Der Musensohn with Gerhard Hüsch singing with Hans Udo Müller. Simon, I want to take you into the opera house now, and examine the operatic Keenlyside. Looking down the list of some of your title roles that you sing I’m struck by how dark they are. We’ve got Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas, we’ve got Billy Budd, we’ve got Don Giovanni. We’ve recently had Prospero in Tom Ades’s Tempest, not that that’s a title role exactly, but there’s a sort of dark saturnine quality linking these different fellows. Is that intentional?

SK: I think you have to blame the librettists and the composers for that.

IB: [Laughs.] No I’m blaming you for accepting the roles…

SK: Well I don’t know any comedies… [Laughs.]

IB: No guns are pointed at your head! But is this just market forces that you’re responding to or is there a pattern here that we can draw?

SK: Well I really think I’m just responding to the repertoire availability and that’s what it is. That’s the opera for you. Tragedy, tragi-comedy…

IB: Well you’ve also done lots of Papagenos, I mean…

SK: I don’t find that a jokey role at all. I find a deep, deep pathos in that, and deep melancholy for a lot of it, and I don’t think that’s me. I think that’s what’s in the score.

IB: What Keenlyside traits are you drawing on as Mozart’s Count, the role in which we are going to hear you now?

2005 Nozze Vienna2

SK: I’m responding to what Da Ponte’s genius gives me. And as I was told quite clearly by Ricardo Muti “You’ll never get to the bottom of the double entendre in this Mr Keenlyside, but do your best!” [Laughs.] It’s a life-long work. I find this so wonderfully profound, I’ll never get to the bottom of it. The three dimensional aspects of this libretto are just indescribably wonderful.

“Crudell Perche finora”. W.A. Mozart (Le Nozze do Figaro), S. Keenlyside(baritone), P. Ciofi (soprano). Concerto Koln, R. Jacobs.

IB: Simon Keenlyside with Patricia Ciofi in part of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Rene Jacobs was conducting the Concerto Koln. Simon when you are singing in English do you change anything? Is it a different process?

SK: Well I must admit it is obviously more satisfying in England because you don’t need surtitles, and people get the joke when there is a joke, if there is a joke…

IB: Technically do you do anything differently, any adjustments?

SK: No. I don’t find English as hard as French operatically. ‘Course song is a different matter. When you’re singing your songs you can give them a palette of colours, as you well know, which is so much larger – and you don’t have to be on such full support, trying to get it out to two and a half thousand people.

IB: Well, “Love bade me welcome” by Vaughan Williams is next. Not many jokes here but great, great warmth. I adore this song.

SK: I had to choose this one because, I’m not a religious man but… so for me I substitute the word “religion” for “love”.

“Love bade me welcome” from Five mystical songs by R. Vaughan Williams, S. Keenlyside (baritone), G. Johnson (piano).


IB: That was “Love bade me welcome” one of Vaughan Williams’ Five mystical songs, poems by George Herbert, Simon Keenlyside singing [sic] by Graham Johnson. Staying with matters English but moving on to Benjamin Britten. Is “Billy Budd” a role that requires a particular state of being? Do you have to go into “Billy Budd” mode when you’re singing.

SK: Oh, I’m no Billy Budd, that’s for sure! No and I can’t bear it, personally, when I see Billy Budd portrayed as a saint, a Christlike figure, even as a latent homosexual. I find the whole thing a total red herring.

IB: Well this goes back a bit to Papageno not being funny as well doesn’t it? I mean…

SK: Well if you try and play “Aren’t I funny?” the one thing you won’t be is funny.

IB: Yeah.

SK: And likewise, how on earth do you act being naive? It’s nonsense. To have a whole ship’s company in blue shirts and to have Billy Budd skipping on like a lamb with his head in the captain’s lap in a white shirt, for me is deeply distasteful.

IB: So how do you cut through this then Simon?

SK: I don’t know. I mean I couldn’t say on a microphone what occurred to me and what help I’d been given to get there. But I think the boy is a normal boy, what 17 year old is guilty of anything? As for Benjamin Britten, Benjamin Britten has always been extremely important for me even from childhood.

Those records you played when I was a child in Cambridge, Britten wrote, quite pointedly, wrote nothing… wouldn’t include us boys from Kings or Johns in any of his operas because he, well rather ignorantly actually, considered that all the Cambridge boys sang in a way that didn’t suit his intentions. Perhaps that is true of Kings because the Kings boys used to sing in a particularly mannered way because they had to, because the accoustic in Kings is so difficult. But we were outdoor boys, we were outdoor singers, we were rough and ready, just in a way I was so frustrated. When we would do his… sing his music, and he wouldn’t come, and we got no chance to meet him, and that was a pity, because we met Messiaen and we met all sorts of other people.

I can’t describe how… the process of getting to Billy Budd because I don’t know whether it’s successful or not. The things that I mentioned before are the things that I won’t do. If I’m given a white shirt I’ll do my very best to destroy it before I get anywhere near the stage, as in the Vienna production. The rest is see how we go, see what company we’ve got and see what decisions we can make along the way.

“Look! Through the port…” Benjamin Britten. Simon Keenlyside (baritone), London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hickox.


IB: Simon Keenlyside as Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” with the London Symphony orchestra and Richard Hickox. Of your chosen baritones, Simon, the next one you’ve brought along is Giuseppe di Lucca, another throwback to a different generation.

SK: It’s because he is elegant. It’s because he uses colours and doesn’t just sing loud, which I’m afraid is the tendency these days, and I think it’s not just the singers who are at fault. The orchestras play too loudly. He has plenty of iron in the middle of the voice but it’s not… it’s got a beautiful velvet cover to it. And that means it’s going to cover but it’s also very beautiful. He sings with an open throat technique which for Italian singing, I think, is something to aim at. You wouldn’t use it in Lieder. The throat is open at its widest and the resonances are thrown up into the soft palette behind and it’s even all the way up and down. I like that. I think he’s a wonderful exponent of that. He uses beautiful threaded diction, as it were clothes pegs on a line. The last thing I like about him very much, as with some of the singers we mentioned before, Hüsch or some of the others… Fassbaender, Schlusnuss is that they use colour, not just for its own sake, but also to show the intention. The… They choose a colour that is manipulative, perhaps that’s because it’s shining through them. They’re a conduit for the text. You find yourself in the audience manipulated, affected, and not really knowing why. And I think that’s the mark of a great singer.

“Ah vedi chi’io pango” – G. Verdi (Rigoletto), Giuseppi de Lucca (baritone), Giulio Setti.

IB: The Roman baritone Giuseppi de Lucca, that’s in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Simon, is Rigoletto on your hit list?

SK: Cheeky monkey! Erm… yes it is on my list, I have to admit, but it’s not right now, this minute. I’m starting with the lyrical Verdi and now there are conductors around, of course there are conductors around who want the same as I want. Which is the old notion of Bel Canto, which is lyricism in the orchestra too, colours in the orchestra, and as that last aria, I think, illustrates, the attention to detail and colour…

IB: And text…

SK: And art and text is wonderful.

IB: Does this take us neatly into the Danish tenor Aksel Schiotz…

SK: Very much so…

IB: Who you’ve also brought along in your kit bag.

SK: Yes. Aksel Schiotz as a tenor in this Dichterliebe doesn’t really have even a very good A natural. Which for a tenor should be middle of the range…

IB: A walk in the park…

SK: Yeah, but it doesn’t matter to me. What he has is… either he is a bottle resonating with the right intention for this text or whether it’s conscious or not he serves the poetry marvellously. With a great vulnerability and a fast vibrato, and a… a sensitivity that I find the approach as a young man to this song cycle Dichterliebe is very appropriate.

“Allnachtlich in Traume”, R. Schumann (Dichtetliebe), Aksel Schioltz (baritone), G. Moore (piano).

IB: Aksel Schioltz there, singing part of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Gerald Moore. Simon Keenlyside we’re ending with a piece of Mahler, St Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish. And in a way this takes us back full circle to the fishponds that you started telling us about in Wales.

SK: Thank you Ian for BBC link…

IB: Intentional!

SK: No, I love this song. I love it for the depiction of the wonderful hypocrisy of the modern world, of any world of any time. Of St Anthony going down and telling the fishes, and preaching to them. And they all agree and nod and smile and change their ways. And he finishes the sermon and they return to the river intent on continuing exactly as they did before.

IB: And err… that tells us all we need to know.

SK: Yeah.

IB: Well happy pond building. Happy tree planting.

SK: Bless you…

IB: Simon, thank you very much.

“Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”. G. Mahler. S. Keenlyside(baritone), CBSO, S. Rattle.

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