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2006.05.16 Tages-Anzeiger: Don Giovanni, a mosquito

Tages-Anzeiger; 16 May 2006; page 54. Zurich journal.

Translated by Ursula Turecek.

Don Giovanni, a mosquito

At the moment, baritone Simon Keenlyside is performing a terrific Don Giovanni at the Zurich Operahouse.

A conversation about animals and theatre. Recorded by Susanne Kübler

Originally I studied zoology, at Cambridge. At the age of 20, 21 you can’t yet be a real singer and I’ve always been interested in the creatures around me. The step to singing was not such a big one afterwards –I’ve at least as much opportunity to watch other creatures now as I should have had as a zoologist!

What animal would Don Giovanni be? A mosquito… No, seriously: He is compared very often to a tiger for example, and that’s not just stupid. There are images of tigers from Mozart’s time where you absolutely find traits that Don Giovanni has got too. He is a typical “child” of the Enlightenment after all, a period that discussed questions of responsibility and morals completely anew. Just like you can’t damn an animal for being an animal Don Giovanni is simply what he is – and he says as much. Therefore I believe that you absolutely can give something like an animal tension to this character; but you must not exaggerate this, as he is made up of many other things too.

I am often considered as Mozart expert but I am not; on the contrary, I take care not to sing too much Mozart. Mozart-roles are rather low for every baritone and my voice is rather high. I never want to abandon Wagner, Verdi, Debussy. Neither new works: In this regard I feel a certain responsibility, not exactly with a very capital R, but still; singers I admire have always sung contemporary works, Giuseppe di Luca for instance; only that the contemporary was Puccini then.

But for me acting is just as important as singing. When I’m preparing a role I need a good part of the rehearsal time only to speak the text, to try the tone of voice and to consider where to put my feet. Thus I keep a clearer head than if I should sing immediately. In this respect the work with director Sven-Eric Bechtolf in Zurich was really great, he is an actor himself and he knows how to focus his people in one direction. As a singer you have maybe ten ideas that would all be convenient but if you realise them all at once it is of no use. You have to decide.

If I like complex characters? Why, there are no simple characters in opera – but yes, Britten’s Billy Budd is rather simple, Debussy’s Pelléas too. They are young men, in opera they are often of limited interest. They represent youth, idealism, naivety, in any case not real life. Don Ottavio in “Don Giovanni” too: He is very decent, for sure, but nobody will ever like him. Whereas they’ll surely like Don Giovanni. He does not fit into the black-and-white-pattern, thus he is closer to reality; here theatre is a real reflection of life.

That applies to Faust too which I’m going to sing in Zurich next year, in Schumann’s „Scenes from Goethe’s Faust“. By the way, I got to know Franz Welser-Möst who will conduct it here too, with this piece; at that time he was still in London and I stood in for Thomas Hampson. 10, 15 years have passed and we are good friends since then (which is not self-evident – that a singer is friends with a conductor – this is a different animal species) and I like to work together with him very much.

I like Zurich too. A few day ago I was so tired, then I went across the Zürichsee for four hours, just looking into the water and thinking that maybe I’m working a bit much at the moment. It was wonderful.

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