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2005.02.16 Born into music

Born into music

From What’s On, 16 February 2005

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden’s Papageno, the celebrated British baritone Simon Keenlyside

Music has always been a presence in the life of Simon Keenlyside. His grandfather was a musician, his father, Raymond, played violin in the Aeolian Quartet and he himself became a chorister in Cambridge at the age of eight. Furthermore, being in the choir of St John’s meant that during his childhood he would travel the world to sing in Japan, Australia, America. This experience proved that singing could be fun. “It was such a joy,” he tells me. “The same joy as it is today. One understood and felt as deeply as I do now about what one was singing. I’m not sure how that was possible because a 12-year-old doesn’t understand everything, but on some level they do; they must do, because I did.”

This is partly explained by the attitude of conductor George Guest. “He was a wonderful musician who would always read the text to us and draw our attention to the meaning of what we were performing. ‘It’s not just noise,’ he would say and, even if as a child one couldn’t consider notions of death and suffering in quite the same way, it became deeply poignant and meaningful.” Guest’s approach also influenced Simon Keenlyside’s attitude to musical texts in adult life, as did John Cameron, his teacher at the Royal Northern College of Music.


John Cameron

“I always loved poetry and John was an extremely refined man who sang lieder in his daily life. That particular generation performed it in a more straightforward manner than later artists like Fischer-Dieskau, but as a role model I aspire to a singer like Gerhard Hüsch even though his way is not the only way. I love lieder and opera, difficult as they are to combine. It can be frustrating. You get your voice ready, with a nice edge and clang to it to do an operatic role and then you have a lieder recital where that edge may not be helpful.”

Hüsch was, of course, renowned in both spheres and the role of Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute was part of his operatic repertoire. As for Simon, he is revisiting that role now that David McVicar’s production is back at Covent Garden. Last time around in 2003 it rightly earned Simon an Olivier nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera but to ask if he is tempted to recapture that earlier interpretation is inappropriate, given his outlook.

”I once heard Menuhin talking about great violinists. He mentioned that some would repeat a performance exactly – I think he had David Oistrakh in mind – but added that he preferred those who were slightly different every time because they were living in the moment. And I must admit that’s exactly my way, even if it involves the risk of failing. In this Magic Flute pathos is important to my role but, if I overstep the mark by five degrees, I have gone into sentimentality and that’s absolutely pointless, worse than anything. In Austria and Germany they often dress Papageno as a farm boy and present a much more confident and aggressive character. That’s not necessarily wrong but it just isn’t in me.”


Simon has performed the role six times in I 5 years, often portraying Papageno as a woodland creature who positively belts around. But now that he has reached his 40s he is concentrating on the myriad details of characterisation, the combination of nervousness with spirit. He looks to directors and conductors for a collaborative approach in the hope that, within their own overview, they can develop and capitalise on what he himself can bring to the realisation of the role. Luckily this production was conducted by Colin Davis in 2003 and now has Charles Mackerras.

“I have the deepest respect for them: you wouldn’t expect me to say anything else on the record, but it’s the truth. Colin is my father’s generation and they were colleagues together. With him you’ve got to arrive knowing everything and, if you know what you’re doing, he’ll give you rope and tip you the wink. Charles’s manner is much more brusque and can be quite intimidating. He might be surprised to hear that, but that’s how it is and he will not mind my saying so. He’s very frank: ‘You’re flat, you’re sharp, you’re late.’ It can knock you off but, if you hold your nerve, you have so much to learn, as indeed I have. These two men are very different but they’re both wonderful.”

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