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2006.03.01 Interview with Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)

Interview with Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)

number 47, Lent term 2006


The ultimate Billy Budd

Baritone Simon Keenlyside

Athlete of the opera house

Simon talks to Richard Wigmore about his days as a chorister scholar and his plans for the future

“If you sang as a young boy you got picked on. It was lucky for me that I was sporty and athletic!” Three decades later Simon Keenlyside (St John’s 1980) turns that athleticism to spectacular artistic account. As Papageno he has regularly stolen the show with acrobatic stunts that would have landed most baritones in hospital. As Britten’s Billy Budd at English National opera he sand magnificently while swinging blithely from girders and sliding down ladders. In Tricia Brown’s staging of Schubert’s Winterreise in New York and at the Barbican he performed one song lying suspended by dancers and another executing dizzying leaps.

No one who has seen Keenlyside in the opera house could doubt that he is a born theatre animal. Yet until his mid-twenties he barely gave opera a thought. His father, Raymond, played second violin in the Aeolian quartet and his childhood was saturated by chamber music. “Where other children would have nursery rhymes, I’d go to bed with the sounds of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. To this day my quietest and deepest delight is to listen to late Haydn and late Beethoven quartets.

As a child Keenlyside studied the violin but never took it seriously. Singing was a far more pleasurable means of self-expression. And at eight he became a chorister at St John’s. “Almost everything I know as a musician I learnt from George Guest there. He was a force of nature, and made music a reflection of life. He’d tell us stories to kindle our imagination and would dramatise an anthem by getting us to imagine we were marching to Jericho with our trumpets. His feeling for words is what set me on my path as a singer.”

When Keenlyside returned to John’s as a choral scholar in 1980, with what he terms “a nothing baritone voice – the best you could say about it is that it was undamaged”, he initially read anthropology, juggling his studies with rehearsing Messiaen and Tallis in the morning and playing rugby in the afternoon.

The natural world has always been fundamental to me. As a teenager I was a warden for the RSPB and knew most European bird songs. “At first I enjoyed the anthropology course. But then we came to the end of the physical anthropology and all the hominid stuff involving biochemistry and genetics. That was beyond me, so in my final year I changed to zoology. I found the whole canvass of evolution utterly wonderful. I had Adrian Friday on mammals, Adrian Lister on the Pleistocene and Jenny Clack on fish, all fantastic teachers, and I thought, whether I fail or succeed, I’m doing what I’m passionate about”.

A career in zoology, though, was never an option. “Half of me is very unsociable. Even back then I realised it wouldn’t be wise for me to be a warden on an island or to work for the RSPB or a conservation organisation because it would make me a total hermit. I did keep up some of the fish stuff, sorting out fish fossils in the Manchester Museum while I was a student at the Royal Northern College. Today I have a farm by the sea in Wales where I plant trees and dig ponds. And travelling to places like Australia and California, I get the chance to see things that no one except David Attenborough would!”

Studying with Australian baritone John Cameron at the Royal Northern, Keenlyside devoured reams of French and German songs. “John was particularly passionate about German poetry and song – as a soldier in the war he’d secretly read Goethe poems in his tent, and he instilled in me a deep love of Lieder. In any case, when I was in my mid-twenties my voice wasn’t ready for opera. John was rightly concerned that I should not force my natural vocal weight, like some singers do – a Faustian pact you pay for later with wobble and nodules”.

By his final year at the Royal northern College, though, he realised that singing Schubert and Fauré on the ever-shrinking music club circuit was never going to be a living. So, now just short of thirty and still an operatic novice, he decamped to Germany and took a job as house baritone in Hamburg. “My first role was the Count in Figaro. The day I arrived I was walking around the set in jeans. The next day I was on. I had to make it up or sink, and after that nothing could frighten me!

It’s often like that on the Continent. Only last week I did a Don Giovanni in Vienna without knowing the production. The difference now is that I have a bag of toys and can choose some and lose others. In 1988 I had nothing – though I remember watching an Italian TV broadcast of a Restoration comedy and writing down a few gestures I could steal and crowbar in somewhere. It was a hell of a learning curve – and I’m still on it.”

After eighteen months in Hamburg, where his riles ranged from the Count to a transvestite in a German cabaret (“deeply depressing”), Keenlyside was lured in Scottish Opera. It was here, and in guest appearances with Welsh National Opera, that, with less hype than he near-contemporary Bryn Terfel, he gradually consolidated his reputation as one of the most thoughtful and versatile lyric baritones of his generation. By his late thirties he was established as one of Britain’s few truly world-class opera singers, in demand by leading houses from La Scala to the Met for his Papageno, Count, Don Giovanni, Barber, Billy Budd and Pelleas. His first CD, of Schubert songs, prompted Gramophone to describe him as the finest baritone singer of Lieder this country had every produced. And his stunning staged Winterreise with Tricia Brown (“The most satisfying art I’ve ever been involved with”), where he mingled athleticism with balletic grace, could have filled the Barbican four times over.

Now forty-six, and at the zenith of his career, Keenlyside is clearsighted about the future. “I’ve probably got around fifteen years, and I think I can see the end of my little tunnel. I’ve done most of the roles that suit me and some, like Papageno, I’ll never want to drop – unlike some of my colleagues who dismiss it as kid’s stuff, I find The Magic Flute fathomlessly profound. In Wagner I shan’t go beyond Wolfram in Tannhäuser. I know there’s Beckmesser, but I’m afraid it’s not a role that excites or fascinates me. I’ll never get tired of doing the stand-and-sing roles like Germont in Traviata and Posa in Don Carlos – parts where you really have to act with the voice and pin the audience to their seats with inflexion, nuance and colour. I probably shan’t sing Billy Budd again – you can’t go on doing youthful innocence for ever, and I’m moving down from Pelleas to Golaud. The two new roles I’m most excited about are Wozzeck and Rigoletto, which are both great theatre and call on a huge palette of colours in Wozzeck, in particular, is a mountain any baritone wants to climb. I was supposed to do it a couple of years ago in Paris, but I fell through the stage and damaged my hand. It’s rescheduled for 2009, and I’m not going to mess up this time!”

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