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2006.06.16 Royal Opera house interview

In conversation with Simon Keenlyside

Recollections of an interview with Christopher Cook

14 June 2006

Clore Theatre, Royal Opera House, London

We believe that the BBC will at some time in the future either broadcast this interview, or produce a transcript. Until that time, we have compiled a “collective memory” of the evening based on notes and recollection. This should not be read as a verbatim account.

Many thanks to all who have contributed. If you would like to add something please contact us on webmaster@simonkeenlyside.info

The warm-up

[The audience had to enter the Clore Theatre through a side entrance]

CC: to the audience, “Now you know what it’s like coming in by the tradesman’s entrance!”


SK: Speaking of the tradesman’s entrance, I once I had to do a recital at Harewood House, Lord Harewood’s place. I had no idea it would be so gorgeous, and I parked down the side of the castle – the tradesman’s area, and as I got out of the car this voice said [SK in a loud, condescending accent]

“What are you doing down there – you idiot!”


“What are you doing there you idiot, parking below the salt!”


“I know my place and I’m happy there.”



Photo Andreas Klingberg, Opernglas September 2006

CC: I had to rather twist Simon’s arm in forcing him to make his music selection.

SK: You said if I didn’t choose the recordings then you would choose them for me!


Childhood and Cambridge

SK: I was sent away to Boarding School, St John’s College Choir School, Cambridge when I was just 8. It was exactly the same as I do now – more so – 4 to 5 hours a day for 6 days a week and reduced holidays. Touring all over the world as I do now, recording – more than now. We were little professionals.

CC: Did you enjoy it?

SK: Well, I didn’t know anything different …..

CC: Did you have a hand in choosing it?

SK: It was my Mother’s choice. Well that’s Mothers for you isn’t it. I don’t think Dads are particularly bothered.


My Dad was a fiddle player with a famous string quartet called the Aeolian Quartet. My favourite, private music still is string quartets. When I was little they played every single night – it could be Beethoven or it could be Haydn – so I’d hear it every night (my bedroom being next to the music room). That’s what I grew up with. And then I went off to choir school.

CC:  Did you go  back to St John’s as a choral scholar?

SK:  Yes

CC: I didn’t know that. Why did you go back to Cambridge?

SK I wanted to go back. I knew that singing could be fun, but if children in England want to sing they have to have a strong constitution because they are going to be bullied a bit at school, by their fellow students – but I knew it could be fun and I wanted that fun again. And my voice broke well enough and was pretty enough, to just about squeeze back to Cambridge.

CC: But you chose not to read music but zoology

SK: Yeah, because music for me was, at that time, my way out. If you’re 8 and you’re sent away to a boarding school without any sentiment, you don’t understand it. You don’t know why you’ve been thrown away, why you can’t go home, why nobody visits you. But I had music, and at that time (not now) it was consolation. It was gorgeous and I loved it, but it was a consolation.

I worked for the RSPB in my teens as a voluntary warden on reserves around Britain – taking people around, showing them the birds and things, and I loved it, but I knew very well that if I were to follow that line I think it would have encouraged a part of me which is a little bit too much to the fore anyway, namely, I’m an anti-social person. I’m a bit of a hermit, and it would have encouraged too much of that. I would have disappeared from the planet, and I didn’t want that. I can still see wildlife. I have more opportunity than most zoologists today to see the creatures that we share the planet with – and that’s magic.

CC: So when did the moment come when you decided not to be a zoologist?

SK: I’ve always been a zoologist! I am a zoologist!


CC: When did you work out a career professionally?

SK: Well look. The opportunities to be a zoologist are slim. Slim, slim, as slim as being a concert pianist really.


RNCM and SaleHarriers

RNCMA drawing of the Royal Northern College of Music.

CC: … and how did it happen that you went to the Royal Northern College? How did you make the decision that you’re not going to be a zoologist, you’re going to rejoin the human race?

SK: I was advised to go to an audition in Manchester – I stayed in the YMCA. Initially they put a piece of Bach in front of me – I can’t read Bach…

I think I can say that I speak music well but I don’t read it very well. I don’t know the syntax very well, I should know it a lot better – I’ve had every opportunity. I used to be so self-conscious about never owning up to that, but now I it doesn’t matter as I’m earning a living.


When you spend your whole life in music, for the composers that you deal with most of the time, you can predict well what the intervals will be. If you make a mistake it’s only one or two options and you can put a little arrow in or something. But with Bach that’s not true. Bach will always surprise you. So I was presented with my piece of Bach and I had no idea what to do. I sat there waiting for them to come back, knowing I couldn’t sing the piece. But they let me in on a performance course – which has no theory – and was only £500 a year, which is a big plus.

But the, the truth is that I went to Manchester for two reasons. One. I wanted to avoid the Oxbridge mafia – not that there is anything wrong with it, because you can earn a living straight away – but I knew I wasn’t a bass and I wanted to learn to sing without being confused by getting paid work. That may sound confusing but the whole point in being in a choir is to blend in and the whole point in being a soloist is to stand out. I didn’t want to confuse myself by doing session work.

The other reason was that there was a fantastic athletic club in Manchester called Sale Harriers, which had the British 200M and 400M indoor champions, (Bill Tuck [??] and Carl Hamilton). I wanted to train with them, so that’s where I went.

CC: So you were running and singing?

SK: Yeah

CC: Who taught you singing?

SK: My teacher was a wonderful Australian singer, John Cameron. My lessons would start at… fhhhh… [with eyes raised to ceiling] 10…O’… clock… in… the… morning [laughter].. I’m glad now because when I have to do an 11 O’clock broadcast it doesn’t hold any fears for me as I had my singing lessons at 10 O’clock [laughter]. Then I would spend the rest of the morning working in the library ‘til lunch, then I’d be in the gym for track work, and at the track in the evening. That was it every single day, every day, every day.


John Cameron

CC: What did John Cameron bring to your relationship, teacher and pupil?

SK: Good question. If you don’t trust a teacher, you’re sunk. If you do commit 100% to them and they’re wrong, you’re sunk again. Of course there is a great deal of luck, and personalities also play a large part. I was very lucky to get John because he was patient, and I needed a lot of looking after. I was very edgy, and difficult. If I couldn’t do a piece at I’d get furious with myself and then of course it was worse, but John was very laid back. When I’d done something ridiculous, he’d come and find me, dust me down and say [in a deep, calm Australian accent] “Now we’ll start again, quietly, gently….” And that’s how it was really.

CC: Did he help position your voice?

SK: Yes. You have different sorts of teachers. There’s a range – nowadays the fashion is to have scans of the inside of the throat. Maybe that works! But it’s not for me. There is nothing it can show you. Yes you can have a slide show of the vocal folds and chords and whatever else happens nowadays, and I think that’s fascinating, but I don’t think, particularly for myself – and with no disrespect intended to anyone who wants to do that.– I can’t see how it helps. For me it’s something you have to feel as a sensation, and when you get it right your teacher has to say “remember that. That’s the place. Remember that”.

CC: You make it sound like a singer’s version of a dancer’s muscle memory?

SK: Yes.

John’s way was to attack technique through a piece of music. At one time in my 3rd year of being with him, I asked to go to another teacher for advice about technique because John never used to talk about technique, and he let me go. But you end up having the confidence of knowing you know the terminology, without necessarily being able to sing and that can be a dangerous thing – John wouldn’t let me use terminology. Luckily he took me back when I realised that I wanted to come back to him.

In my case John just used Mendelssohn’s Elijah. We worked a little every day, maybe going through a few pages of the movements, and most problems cropped up – how to get across what we call passaggio, how to get chest voice or head voice, or how to link one note to another, or how to diminuendo up – all of it, slowly bit by bit we attacked the technical glossary through the music.

CC: Let’s now listen to a Schumann song “Stille Tranen” with Graham Johnson playing with you. This was a very early recording…

SK: Not so early this one,

CC: relatively early?

SK: Well they all are, I’ve not done anything much!


I don’t know, when was it? 8 years, 8-10 years ago?

CC: Let’s have a listen

“Stille Tränen” from The Songs of Robert Schumann.

Click on the photo for details of this recording


SK:[When his singing starts] Too late… Flat…

[Clearly uncomfortable and trying to make light of the situation, i.e. sneaking a look at CC’s notes]

[Toward the end of the recording, at the repeat of the final two lines , the recording gets stuck and oscillates for a few seconds …

“Stets frölich sei sein ein ein ein ein ein ein Herz”

… to great laughter]

SK: Don’t laugh! That’s very difficult to do! It’s like double declutching [giggling and gesturing with hand to his throat].

Muddy Waters has a track where he does that. He keeps it in. It’s very spectacular when he does it!

Art and recording

CC: It is apparent, even before the gremlins struck, that you don’t like listening to your recordings and are fiercely critical of yourself

SK: Mmm. Look, if you tell the truth in art there’s a chance that you might get the point over. If you don’t, it’s just a “vocalise” [sung purely for practice]. And I’ve grown up in live performance, so for me I find it very difficult to go to a recording studio. In the right performances you leave your technique in the wings when you get on stage – you get into the car and you drive, as hard as you can all the way down the road. That’s it. And you forget about it afterwards.

CC: Is the thing about the recording studio that there is no audience there? Knowing you’re in front of the microphone with nothing around you?

SK: Well, that’s a lot of it.

There are three things about recording:

DON_G_FerraraFor example I did a Don Giovanni recording – my contribution to that recording is poor. I loved the show – we were in Ferrara with Abbado and we had a great time. The shows were wonderful but we did 7 performances in 10 days, and in between those 7 shows we had to spend 6 hours a day recording. Who can do 10 days in a row recording-singing-recording? That’s one thing I find very difficult. The Strauss recording, 5 days, 6 hours a day – It’s impossible.

So that’s a daunting prospect – even though it’s my turn at the wheel now and that I can do pretty well anything I want to do – last week I was doing an arias disc for Sony, and it’s still hard, the recording was from 4 O’clock every day. Every day. Italian arias, German arias, all day, on your own with an orchestra. That is impossible.

Secondly, in an opera you choose your arc. You choose the little details. You choose when to move the tempo on, for example in Giovanni, you choose where to get more violent, more aggressive, more hysterical toward the end. In a recording that doesn’t happen.

And thirdly: We’re the same, the audience and the singers. We’re the same club. You got it, we got it. I find it difficult to explain. If I’d been a football player, well you would never say to a football player “of course you do this for the applause” of course they don’t. They do it because they are crazy about football. So it is for me. But nevertheless, when the audience is there it’s lovely to mesh with them. If it’s comedy, even with surtitles your timing with the audience’s reaction is critical. You don’t get that with recording.

Recital vs Opera

CC: Was there a point in your career where you made a conscious choice between concert platform and the opera house?

SK: I was talking to Graham Johnson about that earlier this afternoon – we’ve got a concert in Vienna on Monday. For the first 10 years people were saying to me “why don’t you do more opera?” in the second 10 years they’re saying “why don’t you do more Lieder?” [Laughter]

It’s just the way it goes. We’re all floating along this current called fate, and you make a decision and another set of options opens, and you make another decision and another set of options opens, and you then stop and think you are nowhere near where you thought you’d be. But it’s the same for all of us.

CC: When you were saying earlier that when you go on stage you get in the car and drive, there’s something about opera that clearly grabs you in a way that maybe a recital doesn’t?

SK: No. No, it’s just different. There’s no compromise whatsoever in Lieder recital – none. You are on your own… there’s a genius who’s written the music, plus a genius poet, and you have to try to be the conduit through which this wonderful music and poetry flows

Lieder is difficult because it’s static, you are next to the piano and you have to be very accurate, but I enjoy singing it. Opera has more interaction, between you and the other singers, between you and the audience, between you and the orchestra. A good opera singer is an actor who sings, on stage we are all actors.

“Crudele! Perché finora” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Click on the photo for more details of this recording


CC: You chose this as an example of an operatic recording you could live with. I’m surprised you chose this, a duet, and not the Count’s aria. Why didn’t you choose one of Mozart’s Arias?

SK: Because the arias don’t stand well by themselves, they only work if you have the build up and the tension beforehand. The arias aren’t that important – beautiful but not important to the story. At least not for baritones. What is there in Giovanni? One minute 50 seconds for the Champagne aria, and that’s it. It is a stunning many layered piece without the arias.

Mozart is pitched quite low – for baritones. While I was recording the Count’s Act 3 aria, which I usually have to stretch for, I went and spoke to Jacobs really enthusiastically and said that I’d found it so much easier this time. There was a little pause and Jacobs said “but it’s in Baroque Pitch, didn’t you realise?” I had no idea – and from that moment on I was worried about singing the lower parts.


I’d had no problem until that point, and we’d recorded all of the first act already, but from then on I worried about it. It’s all psychological.

Singing and dancing

CC: How did you come to do a danced Winterreise?

SK: I was invited to work with Tricia Brown and Rene Jacobs on Monteverdi’sOrfeo. I was so stupid – I’d never even heard of Orfeo, and it’s such a wonderful piece. It was very difficult working with dancers, even though I was pretty fit, because they work in bare feet, and I had no muscles in my feet. I used to go home and sit with my feet in two tubs of iced water, and I couldn’t stand up in the mornings. But I loved everything about that production of Orfeo. It was one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done.


So when I was given a slot at the Lincoln Centre and asked what I would like to do I went to talk to Tricia Brown. And we discussed for a very long time what Lieder we could do, looking at the text and the music and in the end chose Wintereisse. I’d avoided doing Wintereisse because if you are in your 20’s and give a wonderful performance the critics will say, “Ah but wait till his voice matures in his 40’s”. And if you are in your 40’s and sing it badly the critics say “what a mature performance”.

Tricia worked on the piece for 2 years with dancers before she came back to me, and she’d leant every word of the piece – which is impressive because she’s no linguist. And then we tried to work me into a routine which worked with the dancers and didn’t make me look like a block of wood. The dancers got frustrated because they could do more but I couldn’t.

CC: Did this help you sing the piece?

SK: Yes, immensely, because before I was worried about the singing, but if you are singing while standing on your head or trying to keep your shoulder in the correct pose, the singing is the least difficult bit. And we rehearsed so many times, if I couldn’t do a movement we changed it until I could do it. I sang the piece 500 times – maybe 1000 times – and then it wasn’t difficult any more.

Songs and Accompanists

CC: let’s hear another piece

“Love bade me welcome” from 5 Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams.

Click on the photo for details of this recording


CC: Having successfully recorded this Vaughan-Williams and the Britten arrangement of the Purcell Realizations, why haven’t you recorded more English songs?

SK:  I’m European. I’m from a mixed-European home, I like English songs but I like songs by Schumann, Schubert, Faure, Debussy, (and others) more and there just isn’t time. you can’t sing everything It takes me at least 3 months to learn one lied, so there are also time constraints. Also, I won’t sing a programme that someone else has put forward for me to do – I will only sing ones that I have designed. The only person I’ve allowed to put together a programme for me is Graham Johnson, for a disc of English songs that we started recording together – it was a beautiful programme, but I got bored with the project and never finished it.

CC: How important is the accompanist in Lieder singing?

SK: I worked for many years only with Malcolm Martineau. He was the accompanist at an audition that I went to, because there was a chance of earning some money and I needed the money. And that was it, after that I only sang with him. But later I heard Graham Johnson playing…

…Graham, erm, no, I’d say this if he was here… Graham does not have the best technique. But you can have 98% technique, but if you don’t have the other 2% of something that makes a great performance you have nothing. And Graham has that completely. I approached Graham and asked if we could work on the recital platform together.


Graham Johnson

I had of course worked with Graham Johnson before on the complete Schubert edition – he is a very erudite scholar with an enormous background knowledge. When I recorded Trinklied with him, Graham told me…

[SK doing an impression of GJ’s voice]

“Now Schubert lived in Gertriedegasse at this time (I can’t remember the actual address – I’m making this up). He worked in the morning between 6 and 11 am (can’t actually remember the actual times) and this was written on 4th October (can’t remember the actual date) when the Battle of Augsburg had just ended and returning soldiers were marching past his house. Schubert would have been aware of this. Then he wrote this piece. Now, does that help your interpretation?”

[SK looks dumbfounded]


CC: Your next choice of music is Mahler

SK: I love the Mahler Das Knaben Wunderhorn, which I recorded with Simon Ratlle.  I’d only practised with a piano accompaniment and although the orchestration is wonderful, it’s very loud, and I didn’t have the volume. It was difficult to sing. (I won’t sing that again?)”.

Are you sure you want to play it – It’s long!


CC: We are patient.

“Wo die schönen Trompetten blasen” from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Click on the photo for details of this recording



CC: You started your professional career in Hamburg

SK: Yes, playing Almaviva, but also lots of small “soldier Fred” roles. That allowed me to stand on stage watching the soloists perform and learn from them how to do it in things like Meistersingers. I wouldn’t have chosen to play most of these parts, but that it was invaluable for me at the time because it made me learn and listen to things that I wouldn’t otherwise have done.

CC: You say that you start with the words?

CappricioSK: Yes, which is more important, the words or the music. Someone wrote an opera about that [Laughter].

The words are very important. For me the poem, poetry, is very important. The words come first.

But I also have to like the music and I won’t sing something that doesn’t work for me. The orchestration is also very important and the way the singers interact with the orchestra, and how the many different layers in a piece work together. A singer can be singing something happy, but the accompaniment can be saying something else altogether and you have to work that into the performance and think about what is really going on in the piece at that point. And the context of the piece

CC: What makes a good performance?

SK: Trust. You have to trust the people round you because if you don’t trust them you won’t take risks and it will be too safe. You won’t feel able to be uncomfortable in a role and that’s important, you have to take risks. I find playing Giovanni very dangerous for my voice, I can’t do it many times a year.

But I find the role uncomfortable, psychologically too, even behind my professional one step back from life – when I am performing, sometimes I push the professional boundaries too far. There’s life and there’s performance, and they are separate, but you have to have truth in a performance or it’s nothing. Why do it? Truth is the really important thing. I get uncomfortable singing Giovanni, he makes me uncomfortable, and that’s the genius of the Da Ponte libretto and Mozart’s music. They have so many layers and such truth. I sometimes have to go and drive very fast afterwards.

What I don’t want is for a man in the audience to nudge his wife and say ‘I see Don Giovanni’s up to his old tricks again” I want him to feel horrified and disgusted.

My grandfather once talked to me, when I was very young before I was sent to school, about performing – when he thought I was going to be a violinist [indicating the height of a very small boy]. He said that if you are in a theatre where people are moving or coughing it doesn’t matter. If one person in that audience hears what you are doing and feels it, you play for that one person.

Look. Figaro is just behind the French revolution. Figaro is about relationships and liberty and Giovanni is about class. When I was in Tokyo I sung Giovanni in front of the Empress. I had to sing ‘”viva la liberte” and it made me think. They don’t like it, royalty don’t like it.”2007_Papageno

You can hear the silence in an audience. There’s a bit where Papageno says ‘what do I want? What is it that I want?’ and you can hear the audience thinking ‘what do I really want?’

You know, it’s like at the end of a Shakespeare play at the Globe, when the actor comes on and says that’s it, it’s the end, it’s all just been a play. I believe that it really matters, art matters – it’s important and you can reach people through art. I am always totally committed to every performance I give and I want to communicate this to people. What I feel, is that it’s not just things happening in a theatre, it’s life, it’s relevant, it’s urgent.

… and finally

CC: Will you go on singing these roles? Papageno, The Count, Figaro?

SK: Yes, I’ll always enjoy singing them. I would never want to not sing them but I won’t sing Cosi, Cosi fan tutte, again because it’s a puppet show, the singers move from one situation to another and that’s it [indicating separate boxes with his hands]. There is no possible character development so it’s a boring sing for the baritone and the soprano even though the music is sublime. Also Ford – Falstaff – he’s just a cuckold and nothing more, not very interesting

CC: Before we hear your final selection, had you always wanted to sing the role of Mercutio in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette?

SK: No, it was just a job, I’d never heard it before, but I liked the opera when I heard it.

CC: Are you pleased with how the recording turned out?

SK: I didn’t know about it. I’d never heard it until you played it to me yesterday. It’s still in its cellophane wrapper.

CC: Let’s listen to Mercutio’s Queen Mab aria

“Mab, la Reine de mesonges” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Click on the photo for details of this recording


SK: There are more words in that one aria than in some whole roles……..

CC: Simon Keenlyside, thank you

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