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2006.08.28 Simon Keenlyside in conversation: Edinburgh Festival


Simon Keenlyside In Conversation; Edinburgh Festival.

28 August 2006

Interviewer: Svend Brown

Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, National Gallery of Scotland

(with thanks to Gwyn Davies)

The Edinburgh Festival website offers a recording of this interview for download



SB: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this Edinburgh Festival Insight Conversation with Simon Keenlyside, who I’m sure I don’t need to introduce to anybody here.

Before we get stuck into the main matter of the afternoon I do have to do a parish announcement about your chances of escape from the building should there be a disaster. There are two fire escapes [SK does air hostess impersonation, pointing out fire exits to great amusement]. What will happen should there be a horrible disaster is that an electronic voice will sympathetically tell you that there is a disaster and then you need to go towards those back entrances unless you have any mobility difficulties, in which case just stay where you are. [SK is mugging away, rolling his eyes and making chopping “you’re dead” motions with his hands during this]. And is there anything else to tell you on that side – no I don’t think so – oh yes, the stairs go straight up and you’ll escape into the open air and hopefully safety.

SB: So, Simon Keenlyside has been coming to the Festival for – how many years? 10 or 12 years?

SK: Oh, a lot, mmm

SB: As many as that?

SK: Whenever I can…..

SB: And in the interim he’s also been doing such prestigious projects as the Hyperion Schubert project, to which he was a regular contributor and, of course, singing the major baritone roles around the world. One thing that I want to ask you, speaking as an utter non-singer and quite an ignoramus about singers, is, how do you feel that your voice as an instrument has changed over that period – that you’ve grown through different roles and different possibilities?

SK: Well, for a man who professes to have no knowledge of singing that’s a pretty spot-on question. [Audience laughs] I’m a firm believer in the old fashioned – if you read a lot or even if you listen a lot to the recording careers of some of the singers that I admire anyway, there is a change in your voice. You know if you have a balanced voice time will gift you, if you’re lucky, erm, more weight. If you don’t have a balanced voice, then that weight will be nothing but trouble, but the proof of that was the new roles that the singers that I admire, the old singers, would take on once they got past 40 and it’s all very well for one to read “sing your age”, but you need to earn a living and it’s very difficult to always sing the role that’s appropriate at the age you are, but ideally you shouldn’t do too much too soon and blow yourself up, as it were, vocally. It’s rather…I’d liken it to a tree – a young tree is very malleable and a big tree will hold more weight, but if you don’t wait until that time you can damage the voice.

SB: That must be very hard to keep your patience, because I know that there will be very many pressures on young singers from promoters, from ambitious entrepreneurs who want to get the first Count or the first Figaro or whatever else. How have you managed that yourself? Have you just been very lucky in management or is it just personal stubbornness?

SK: I wasn’t good enough. [Audience laughter] Really. I wasn’t good enough. I had plenty of ideas, but, er, operatically I didn’t really settle down until my middle thirties. I may have done some… the occasional interesting thing, but I didn’t have the petrol that I knew that I needed and wanted… and so, thank God, I wasn’t picked up soon because I wouldn’t, I’m sure I wouldn’t, have developed in a healthy way. I think I’m in a healthy way…

SB: Do you think… I mean, are you speaking purely vocally… Yeah …or in terms of stagecraft?

SK: No, no, stagecraft – in a way… You can be 15 and have 10 years on the stage and be a wonderful performer at 25. I had plenty of exposure – in Scottish Opera. My start was in Scottish Opera – and that’s where I learned the backbone of my trade, really, but vocally you’ve got to be patient. You’re bursting to sing all sorts of things, some of the things you shouldn’t be singing and some of the things you wish you were singing – it’s very frustrating, always.

SB: So who do you trust to guide you right, because that must be quite a minefield?

SK: Myself, I think.

SB: It is an instinctive feeling within you?

SK: Yeah – you still – many singers, when things go wrong, will blame their manager for giving them this or forcing them to… the truth is that it’s down to you, yourself, and your teachers or advisers, but mine died so… [chuckling]


SK: So, I don’t know – I hear what he says, even though he’s gone. I wasn’t able to take on all that he taught me, but I didn’t forget it.

SB: And what are the opportunities or the roles and the repertoires that are opening up now for you that you’re particularly excited about [Ah, yes] …that you’re pleased to have reached the age of?

SK: Yeah, some are luck. Some, if you’re… I mean, I spend my life immersed in music and it seems to be so full of surprises – I don’t know…..you know, I didn’t know about many of the roles that came my way that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to do Iphigénie en Tauride when I was in my twenties – I didn’t know what the hell it was – I didn’t know what Monteverdi Orfeo was, but thank goodness that I wasn’t able to sing some of the things that I was going for, because those masterpieces were revealed to me by default. Now, I’m aiming more realistically and have the roles that I wanted to do earlier – and thank goodness I didn’t – Wozzeck, the Don Carlos’s, the Traviatas and Onegins and, er, more recital, because… ideally you’d like to keep your recital work and the opera separate but it often doesn’t work like that… and, er, the operatic stuff almost takes care of itself once you’re in regular operatic work, and that’s a dangerous thing. It has been with me. Because you find that you may have gone six months without a recital and standing on the stage is suddenly a frightening prospect.

SB:Really, so there’s a difference?

SK: There’s a difference in the stage, completely.

SB: So you manage your diet quite carefully, then?

SK: I try to, but as with everything else in life you never can, you’re like a cork bobbing on the ocean in some way, you really have very little control…

SB: That list of operas that you just reeled off there, there was…

SK: Yeah….

SB: I mean, first of all you had your Monteverdis and so on but just within that last list you had verismo, you had expressionist German opera, you had some bel canto and British opera – it’s quite a range. Do you – you clearly, then, don’t find that people have stereotyped your voice in any particular repertoire?

SK: I’m sure they have – I’m absolutely convinced they have. You haven’t put me in the Mozart picture but most of my career has always been in here[?], always. Although I started in Germany, I was never any fan of the, what they call the fach system, where you have – you are classified as whatever it is as a cavalier or a lyric, and there’s a list of roles and those are the roles you will sing and you will not diverge from that. But life is different isn’t it? There’s no such thing as a bass or a baritone or a tenor really, there’s just a line and you’re somewhere pegged in there. Then they give you a role, which is on the list, that I can’t do, that should be in their fach list and there may be others that I can’t or could, so I’ve always done whatever I, I’d like to sing what I think I can, hopefully without too many mistakes.

SB: And do you find that… I mean if you’re singing a Verdi role or… in contrast say the Wozzeck that you have dramatically, just leaving the singing aside for a moment, just in terms of getting your mind into the right place where you can portray the character, do you find them equally demanding or do you find that certain operas really aren’t dramas so much as staged singing?

SK: Yeah, that’s a good question. Some of the things – when things settle down after the late 30s, about 40 – that I wanted to sing – I suddenly realised that I’d spent all my life singing pieces that were great music drama and I realised that I actually didn’t want to do anything else, that I didn’t really want to sing – maybe Ballo in Maschera, but I didn’t really want to do Puritani or – wonderful vocal vehicles – because time’s short, you can’t do everything. 47 now and that list of roles is already quite enough, thank you very much, without dropping too many of the ones that I’m still doing. I think I’d like to remain, as I seem to have become, ah for better or worse, an actor, an actor-singer, and there are many actors – erm it’s just theatre by another name.

SB: It was interesting actually watching you at the er Proms earlier this summer where Charles Mackerras – Roger Norrington, rather – conducted a mixture of excerpts from Mozart [Yes…] which always seems to me the hardest possible work you can give to a singer. Pick a scene or an aria out of an entire opera and just expect them to drop into the role and deliver a fantastic performance of it in front of 5000 people in one of the most ridiculously big auditoriums in Britain [audience laughter], it’s a great thing really, isn’t it? What I was curious about, watching you as opposed to many of the other singers, was that you did seem to be able to go straight into the role – the Count for example – and…

I’ve done it a lot! [audience laughs] …does that mean that just have a kind of shorthand, that you can get straight in there?

SK: No, I don’t think so. I don’t…it’s very interesting watching different actors, whether they be mime or straight actors or musical actors or opera, it doesn’t make any difference – some will go into their dressing room and “om”, others will seem to be messing around in the wings – but be careful because they might go onto the stage and be consummate actors straight away – you’ve got to find your own way. I, I hope, I really hope, that I respond to it moment for moment with the text. I mean the great gift is, once the text is available to you and you speak it, well then it’s a conversation as we’re having now and were we to go back to the beginning, the inflection would be entirely different, so I think that my… the works I’m involved in require that. Especially Mozart, with reams of spoken dialogue… and… with the Count – well, with an excerpt you’ve got to sink or swim – there’s no time. Giovanni was harder because to go in the last supper scene when you’re barking mad by that point [audience laughter] – well, there’s no time to prepare for it and even worse because it’s a 5 or 6000 seater house – you’ve got that – awful – packed – you’ve got to be brave. Do you sing for the microphone? No. You mustn’t. There are people who’ve paid money and they’re the people you must perform for. You know very well as you walk past that microphone – and every time I did I was thinking “oh, no – there goes my decent recording!” [audience laughter] But you’ve just got to perform it. You’ve got to.

SB: So that sense of spontaneity that you were describing there – do you demand that… I mean because if you’re doing a run of eight performances of a Figaro, for instance, how much spontaneity can you afford to have on stage without completely freaking out whoever’s delivering the other end of the recitative?

SK: Yeah, well my friend Susan Graham puts it wonderfully – she calls it “traffic control”. We wish that our rehearsal periods involved more traffic control for a four week rehearsal period – perhaps two and a half of them, even three, would be where you are standing, with whom are you relating to, and let’s leave the art for later, rather than coming in and having a konzeptsgespräch for the first two days, which is very irritating. So, as long as you’re in the right place at the right time, as I’m with you now, then the possibilities for variations with this conversation are limitless.

SB: Yes, but if you come through a door over there…

SK: Oh I wouldn’t do that…..

SB: instead of being there……

SK: …No, I wouldn’t do that, but you’d do anything else……..

SB: Yeah. Mozart loved to do that, didn’t he?

SK: I gather so, yeah……

SB: He loved to disconcert people on stage

SK: And when Mackerras brought in, er. When I first started working with Mackerras I wasn’t ready for him and he’s tough, his manner is quite brusque and you’ve got to be on top of it, because he hasn’t got time to wait for you. But later on, doing Giovanni with him with a new cast, he came prepared with a score from Prague, the contemporary score, with some of the appoggiaturas written in. And he said on the first day “I don’t care whether you” – to all of us – “I don’t care what you think about appoggiaturas, I don’t care whether you do what I say or not, but if you do ignore what this score says, here’s the proof that appoggiaturas were expected. They were written in from Verdi’s time onwards, they were written into the score, before then they were expected. If you do ignore it, you’re ignoring what was expected by Mozart and then he also showed us a letter from the memoirs of a singer called Mr Bassi – I believe he was the first, probably one of you knows better than I – the first Masetto, er, who wrote in his memoirs of the performance of Giovanni saying “how we messed around in the recitative and how Mr Mozart loved it”. And so Charles said “there we are, within reason, off you go!” [audience laughter] And I took him at his word! [SK laughs]

SB: But it’s always struck me as one of the tensions in opera, particularly if you’re doing a long run and presumably if you’re in a musical and having to do a year of eight performances a week, there must… you must discover things yourself that are not part of the rehearsal process [Yeah, oh always…] that you’re desperate to integrate into your performance, but you must have to respect… the rigid limits of what practicality requires.

SK: Well, I can’t answer for the musicals because I don’t know how they do eight shows a week – I suppose they’ve got microphones but they’ve still got to work. Anyway, three shows a week is the limit, apart from occasionally we have to do more, but if it occurs to you in the rehearsal period then you just hope that you have a producer that is, er, prepared to cooperate and work with you. If it’s a revival, they’re more than likely not there. Sometimes I ask permission from the producer, but more often as not you just within, hopefully, with the respect of whatever the mantle of the production is, you start to invent, you know. I’ve never considered a revival, personally, as being a revival – it’s just… I’ve no idea what the person before me does and the detail of that is of no consequence to me, I’ve never seen it. I know his overview, I know his costumes and that will give me a lot of information, but unless they’re going to come back, what are you expected to do really – get on with it – there’s an audience there to entertain – you’d better do it because you’re going to fall flat on your face if you don’t!

SB: So, you’ve worked with a huge number of different opera producers and indeed some choregraphers who were working [Mmm] with vocal music? What for you, from a singer’s point of view, makes a great producer, as opposed to just, you know, somebody who can deliver a good production?

SK: Yeah, things changed as I got older. When I was younger and I really was thinking “Oh my God, I need work”, I would try to show all the toys in my box and it was a very small box of toys. And then as I… more opportunities were available to me vocally and physically, it occurs to me – some of my colleagues get cross if you’re involved in a production that is simply wrong, wrong, but I still try and do it, because tomorrow I can do my Giovanni and it doesn’t matter – there’s hundreds of more that I’ll do, why not give this producer the benefit of the doubt, you never know, something may occur to you on the way. Otherwise I will not learn anything else. If I do my thing, I won’t learn, so I always try and work with whatever the overview the producer comes with. What’s a good producer? Well, let’s be basic again, I like just the basics. Know what the words mean, please – because if I’m expected to turn up, as a foreigner, understanding the text and knowing my notes, then I would expect a producer to do the same. I often find, sadly, that is not the case, so that’s disappointing. So know the text and even if you don’t speak it, and that’s OK, have a very good understanding – even with the libretto in your hand, even with the CD booklet in your hand – that’s fine, fine, as long as they come with ideas and they know what you’re saying and to whom. And, er, ideas and cooperation, I mean that’s what any actor or any singer would want really, somebody who comes in with fascinating ideas is always thrilling.

SB: What about the visual dimension to opera?

SK: What about it? [audience laughs, SK laughs]

SB: Well, how much – I guess what I would be interested in…

SK: Sorry, Svend, that was rude

SB: to what extent you go through the rehearsal process, presumably you’ve seen models of sets and costumes and you’ve had fittings and whatever else [Mmm] but then you actually get on stage for the last week or so and do the full rigout. Um have you had a situation where that has been the turning point for the worse, and conversely, a turning point really for the better in creating a magnificent something out of of something that was merely good before?

SK: Well yeah, but also added to that is the abilities of the singer, the actor and speaking for myself, I’m slow, so it must be very frustrating for a producer – I’m willing and I’ll try anything, but I’m unwilling in the early periods – going back to traffic control – I want to know where and when before I’m prepared to sort of expose myself, because it’s… er, well, it’s not painful, of course it’s not, it’s not like a miner, I’m not doing anything that‘s painful, but it’s embarrassing to expose yourself and show your vulnerability when you haven’t got a clue really what you’re doing, so I’m slow with that. With me, if it’s a new production, or even if it isn’t, I’m unlikely to show much before the last week anyway [right] because I want to know where my feet are going, where the lights are, where my colleagues are, what am I doing to/with whom, before, you know, ratching it, ratcheting it up. Always with a costume it’s going to get more interesting…

SB: You don’t have a sort of method with the costumes and the set?

SK: Method?

SB: Well, you get those actresses you know, who always start with the shoes

SK: I know you’re angling for something [much laughter] but I can’t quite see it – You’ve go to move the net curtain a little bit more……

SB: It’s a line, it’s a line

SK: Well yes, actually yes – I don’t know – I can only speak for myself. With me, I don’t mind so much about the costume but if my shoes are impossible, that‘s a real problem for me. So I like to get the shoes as soon as I can – because a new pair of shoes at the last minute is very crippling, isn’t it, ladies? [Audience laughter] Terrible!

SB: No, I guess you always get the impression from the outside that once you’re in the machine of an opera production actually you’re pretty much in the machine and you have to fit in as another cog, because there’s so much that needs to be considered.

SK: Oh, very interesting, but that’s a sore point for me because the – I mean no disrespect, who am I to comment on it – but the school of curtain going up and clapping the set, I find it very irritating, because often that means people just standing in a set, that’s not a production, for me that’s not theatre, for me. I like going to see the interaction – of course you want a set and costumes and lighting that support – that’s what I feel, that support the theatre on the stage and the producers that I like, that’s all I can say, not the best, I couldn’t possibly, I’m not the doyen of all taste, but the ones I like are the ones that work on theatre, theatre, so when you say a cog in the machine, yes, but that bothers me a bit. I think they should be just another layer to support what we’ve been rehearsing, an ensemble.

SB: So do you have a single most rewarding experience?

SK: No, I don’t – no, I, I……

SB: Just too many to choose from, or just too few? [Laughter]

SK: Ooof. Oh, I mean, maybe a half hour period in an evening might have been great fun and the rest of it wholly unmemorable but um… Maybe you’ve sung the aria well and the rest of it was terrible…

SB: Right –

SK: No, lots of wonderful adventures, yeah lots. Some because they were exciting – a movement Winterreise I was involved in was fascinating – I didn’t expect it to – it bowled me over, it was so beautiful. That was thrilling for one reason.

SB: Just in case anybody in the audience doesn’t know exactly what you were doing there, do talk a little bit more about that, because it was a fascinating and beautiful production

SK: Yeah, well, I’d done, again by default, I’d been involved in Monteverdi Orfeo in Brussels. The contract had come in a very long time ago and there was nothing else in my diary of any consequence, so I took it on. And I like doing the occasional, erm, job that is off the centre line, particularly if it’s physical, and for me Magic Flute is that. I like to use my body sometimes, not always, but sometimes, and if there’s no Flutes every few years, then I’ll do something else. So this Monteverdi Orfeo was with a contemporary, a famous contemporary dance company in New York, the Trisha Brown Company. And they were so fascinating to me, they were so careful. They’d done two years work before we arrived. They’d built all the movement on their own dancers and then pared it down for us leaden creatures, so I really enjoyed that. When another slot came in the Lincoln Center in New York for me to do another job, I was casting my eyes around for ideas and my friend Malcolm, the pianist today, Martineau, he was trying to help me and we were coming up with – and Malcolm said “why don’t you do this small chamber Schoenberg piece?” and I was thinking in the end well Why? Why? I wanted to do something that I really loved. But I was…I couldn’t think of anything and in the end I came up with Winterreise, because I thought even if it’s terrible – I hadn’t done Winterreise by this time – then I’ll have Winterreise under my belt. And for the future, for the recital performances, that will stand me in good stead. And I wrote lots of letters backwards and forwards to Ms Brown – you know – far be it from me, but she asked me – suggesting that perhaps we didn’t have the whole company on the stage and perhaps if it could be theme and extemporising from the dancers, so I could state the theme – or,so that it would be minimal. Anyway, what she produced was just quite extraordinary and, and wonderful. Not, as often happened to me when we went round the world “what are you going to dance next, Mr Keenlyside?” [Laughter] I wasn’t dancing, I was moving in it but it was beautiful. And the lighting was absolutely fabulous, too. So I was very, very proud to be part of that. It was very frustrating though, because… er, I am, I’ve always been, very physical, I can do things but not that. A non-dancer cannot do one thing that a dancer can, not one, and let me promise you that that’s true, because everything they do comes from the tip of their toe to the top of their head or fingers and that was very frustrating, because I couldn’t do what I saw in my head, even though I loved it and it was a wonderful job.

SB: And was it illuminating for you to go through that process? You said “at least I’ll come out of this with Winterreise” that had been a worst case scenario, but obviously it was a very good scenario. What did that do for your understanding of the piece?

SK: Yeah, for two reasons- first of all simply by virtue of the fact that I’d done it nearly 500 times ah, obviously I was more familiar with it than I might otherwise have been.

SB: You’d just about got the words under your belt… [Laughter]

SK: I still make mistakes.

Yeah, but I’m not worried about that because I remember seeing Dieskau at the end of his career – how many Winterreises must he have done – on television doing Winterreise from cards, so I thought – oh, if it’s OK for him… [Laughter]The other thing was er that when you’re moving around, it wasn’t a lot of moving, but it took my mind off the verticality of it, I wouldn’t see this impossible thing coming up. I might be standing on my head at the time when it happened, so it loosened me up a lot there.

SB: What, for other recitals?

SK: No, for the Winterreise – some of the technical issues didn’t occur because I wasn’t thinking about them. Which is interesting.

SB: You said earlier about – you know, we were talking about having a balanced diet between opera and, presumably, platform work and recital work. One of the things I was going to lead to with the question about what makes a great producer of opera – and you said it was somebody who found the drama and really worked on the drama of the moment – when you bring that to a recital, presumably there’s only the two of you working on it, [Yeah, of course…] that must give you… does that give you, immensely more satisfaction or is it just a slightly different experience?

SK: Well, I think… I think the most avant-garde thing you can do in er theatre and music and art is to tell the truth. Frankly. And I think in answer to that question is – I can’t really live without chamber music and song and that’s why I do it. These poems are in my head all the time, there’s a poem for every – even if I don’t know them – there’s a poem for everything that’s ever happened in my life or ever will… not just – you know, it doesn’t have to be a Greek one – and the music too, I’m dealing with the most fabulous music, so I have to do it. But the truth is, I’m far… I’m much more ill at ease on the recital platform because it’s me, but I don’t care.

SB: What, because, sorry to go back……

SK: Well, because I find it, I feel awkward.

SB: There’s no character…?

SK: No, there is character – there’s a story to tell and in a way, as my father used to, as one of his friends told him when my father used to get very nervous playing the violin and his colleague said “well it’s a form of nerves, Raymond”, which of course it is. It’s a little glib answer, but it is true – you’re thinking about yourself to that degree and you should be thinking a little more on – the Pathé newsreel, as it were – of the pictures in your head. Easier said than done. No, I do, I do, and I love Lieder and French song so much that I can’t live without it. But it’s hard for me, whereas the stage work is much easier, I find much easier. Not easier, but easy – I don’t get in the way so much [Laughter]. I don’t really care about that, I feel a bit, oh, almost aggressive about it in a way. I’ve seen other singers far greater than I’ll ever be and they were as fiddly and fussy as I. I think the truth is when you go to a recital if the performer fiddles so much that they annoy you, as I may do to many of you who may or may not have seen me, then I’m sorry and I’m wrong, but if it’s supportable, if you can just about put up with it, and the music comes across, then who cares? You know, we all struggle…

SB: So this balance that you strive to achieve – is that something which is changing all the time as well? I’m just curious about how, you know, what we can maybe expect from you in the next ten years. (Yeah) You’re obviously very aware of the different ways that your voice is developing.

SK: Yeah, yeah

SB: Where do you think you will be going in the next ten years?

SK: Oh, God, I don’t care where I’m going…..

SB: Really?

SK: No, no, I mean I have planned the roles, the opera roles – and I’m careful for example not to put in two Wozzecks in a year because I’m worried about that amount of punishment on the voice – well, and the number of Giovannis, which I find just awful. Or the Flute, which surprisingly is extremely punishing because of the amount of dialogue, so I think if you just take care of the basics and keep the other balls in the air, that’s what I try to do. Enough space for putting in recitals, which I really must do, I’ve been a little bit lax in paying attention to that. Erm and going home. Really. Going home.

SB: And one of the things that you’ve done recently, which, I wasn’t particularly aware of you as somebody who did contemporary music, I’ve always associated you with earlier repertoires, but of course one of the things you’ve done recently is Thomas Adès’s new opera The Tempest. Is that something which you can imagine doing more of, working with living composers?

SK: Well, there’s a case in point Svend, because I took on Tom Adès’s Tempest because I was in the car and I’d heard Powder Her Face on the radio – that’s a previous opera of his – and I thought that was nice. And there wasn’t anything at Covent Garden for two years hence and so this Thomas Adès piece came in and so I said OK. It wasn’t because I was a great fan of Tom’s, although I’d heard that. I was very lucky, because Tom had written a masterpiece and that Tempest is a great work of art and I’m privileged to be part of it, and I’m not afraid of saying that. Some of my older colleagues, my old teacher, the ones who worked with Britten in many of the operas he wrote, I used to ask them “did you know you were involved in a masterpiece?” and they said “oh yeah”. I think the usual adage ‘you don’t have to be a genius to know genius’ is true. So I did Tom’s because it was convenient, not because I was interested in modern music and the same with Lorin Maazel’s 1984. It kept me home.

SB: Right. So it’s not going to be a passionate cause that you’re going to pursue?

SK: I think I’ve paid my dues with the modern repertoire… [Much laughter]

SB: Future Festival directors better take note..

SK: Of course I will, I will from time to time – but it’s about balance again. In the last two years I’ve done two modern operas and that’s enough.

SB: Is that a hell of a lot of work?

SK: [emphatically] Yes….

SB: Presumably…

SK: Good lord, yes – it’s a lot of work! I’m not a very good reader and I hope I speak the language of music but I don’t read it very well, so it’s a lot of work and a lot of money, because I need to book a pianist every day and work gently, brushing sand off it, as it were. But I’ll always make time for Tom’s piece, because it’s glorious.

SB: And now that you’ve learnt it, I mean…

SK: Oh, no, you forget it. Are you kidding?

SB: Really?

SK: Oh, yes…….

SB: It doesn’t stay with you at all?

SK: We’re all like that, six months later, you put the score in front of us and say, “do that” – unless you’ve done it a lot – and we’ll, all singers, will swear they’ve never seen it in their life before! [Laughter]

SB: I think it’s time to broaden out the questioning and see if there are any questions from the floor: Sir…

Audience member: I’d like to ask a question out of ignorance. You talked a lot about singing and moving at the same time and I wanted to know, does the body have to do lots of different things if you’re singing at a different angle? I’m thinking in particular – I saw you sing Billy Budd at the ENO last year and sometimes you were sort of hanging from the scaffolding. [Laughter] What do you have to do with your body in order to continue to sing effectively, or does it not make too much difference for you?

SK: Well, there’s a lot of hard work behind that. I know the bit you mean on that scaffolding, because it wasn’t spontaneous. I worked, when the rehearsals finished, because I didn’t want to do it in front of my colleagues really. When they go I’ll stay behind and practise – which jump from which foot and from how far away, time and time and time and time again. And then in the next rehearsal when the next scene comes, or even my colleagues, then I’ll do it as if it was spontaneous, but it isn’t. And that position on the scaffolding was completely straight – my left hand, my right? [laughs] the other hand was on this, so my body was open for the public and my right foot was hooked on a beam, so it may have looked tricky but actually it was a very straightforward position. Some are harder – and that also depends – you have to make a trade-off. If it’s very quiet and the orchestration is light you may be able to afford to be in a position – if you’re in a death scene or something where you can look very awkward. Generally speaking, that won’t work if the orchestra’s full. So I think it’s a bit about keeping an open mind and not coming in and saying “I will not do this, I cannot do this, I will not do this”, because you’ll surprise yourself. Just… a good producer will say ”give it a go” and they’ll also say, if you say “I can’t do it”, they’ll say “OK, try something else”.

SB: What’s the most extreme thing – because over the years we’ve seen people suspended, and people lying down – what’s the most extreme thing?

SK: The hardest thing is to sing well… [Laughter]

SB: Right …. Another question

Audience member: Simon, I believe, I understand we’ve heard your last Billy Budd?

SK: Yeah

Audience member: Sad, but do you have any leanings now towards Wagner?

SK: No, not really, there’s not much for me. There’s only Beckmesser… and I’m not on fire to do that right now. There’s plenty of time – if it turned up – it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t. A great piece. And Wolfram in Tannhäuser, which I like doing and have done for years in Munich, as you know. Er, I’ve been flirting with the idea of doing Siegmund for years. But then the bosses in the opera houses – I don’t mean to be very rude… [Laughter]

SB: Oh go ahead…

SK: …perhaps just a little… No, it’s just – the old system where you were fixed in a house was a good one, in my opinion, for two reasons: first of all the bosses would get to know your voice and nurture you and know what you were capable of doing, which is the most important thing and I think… and they built – two things – secondly, they built loyalty – so if and when a singer got to be famous or good, they’ll do the favours, they’ll come back and they’ll do the smaller roles mixed in with the bigger roles, which is great. That’s why you have people like Hermann Prey singing the small but pretty role of Harlequin in Ariadne because he was fixed in the house, so he could do that. And I, now, because we’re all freelance, they don’t care, they glance through CVs, they can’t afford to take a risk , it’s their own careers on the line, so if I start doing Siegmund I’ll confuse them beyond all measure! Particularly since I’ve been doing Pelléas, which is an extreme role and when I’m doing Pelléas I can sing nothing else for at least a month because it’s so high and young. And Budd, not any more, but for the same reason, if you use too much chest sound and covered sound, Italian open throated singing in Budd, you suddenly have somebody who’s ten years older and that’s not what you want. So that, plus the fact that I, you know, the post[?] roles, particularly Flute, I didn’t want to present them with a problem, so I’ve given up. I’ll do it with a concert with my friend Franz Welser-Möst, maybe with the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra or something like that – keep them happy!

SB: Sir – at the back

Audience Member: Mr Keenlyside can I ask what is in your mind when you say goodbye to a role?

SK: Yeah, that’s a good question. A lot of pain. Er, you would say, of course, don’t be sentimental, it’s only music, dadada, but er, the adventure I had, for example, with Billy Budd, began 15 years earlier, when I wasn’t singing it, so this is the whole – half of that arc of my adventure was when I wasn’t singing it in public, the yearning to sing it – I was in college singing little roles, I was studying with a man who was in the first performance, two men who were in the first performance, I loved the piece, I heard it time and time again with other people, I was sitting there going “I wish I could do that”, so by the time I’d started to do it, I could already see the end of that journey. Yeah, knowing that somebody will offer it to me, and has offered it to me, but realising that it’s not in my diary and couldn’t be for the next two years, that takes me to 49. That’s life isn’t, you gild the lily and it’s no more beautiful, we’ve all got to go….and that’s part of the same arc, you know, it’s painful, but I’m lucky that I’m healthy and the voice is healthy enough and there are other roles. For example, Pelléas is OK, because I’ve got my eyes firmly set on Golaud as a role – but Budd, that’s it. Yeah. Difficult…

SB: The lady in the middle

Audience member: Yes, I was going to ask actually about this morning’s repertoire. I notice the programme notes describe “Songs and Proverbs of William Blake” as Britten’s greatest song cycle and I wondered whether that was your view and perhaps a more general question is, what draws you to perform particular repertoire in the concert hall?

SK: Mmm. I don’t know about the programme notes, because I haven’t read them yet, I’ll probably read them at home some time or on the plane or something, and I couldn’t cast judgement on the Song Cycles because I’m not familiar enough with them all. I happen to love William Blake’s poetry, I adore it, I love this white hot truth that, like Shakespeare, he points it straight at you – he says “that’s what you are”, but he doesn’t judge you, and I love Britten, so the marriage was rather nice, and I really enjoy those, but there’s nothing else actually of Britten’s that I do. I think that’s it. I do very little English song, I just happen to love those and Brian McMaster and James Walters[?] said, asked me if I’d do them, so I crow-barred in some other things which I thought appropriate. Why appropriate, the other stuff? I happen to think, just for me, that the tonality, or the mood, of Betelgeuse, the Holst piece, was a good er liaison into the Britten. I like that, that’s why I went straight on and if I’d had a break there I wouldn’t have got that point across, even though it’s not an important point and it doesn’t matter. Likewise the Howells – the poem was by Blake and to me it had resonances, obviously because it was a boy, but it had resonances of the chimney sweep, and so I stuck that in within hearing range.

The first song I put in, since you ask, just because – I just told the BBC man this – I was in Madrid – rather an oblique answer – but I was in Madrid and after every performance I would go in a taxi to a flamenco club called “Casa Patas” and I’d go in and there’d be – some old man came in one day, on his own, on the stage and just came on proudly with his cravat. And just started knocking on the table and then he started a cappella singing this song, with nothing but a walking stick, and I loved it and in my little head, if for no other reason, I was doffing my hat to a folk tradition, and that song that you, I’m sure you all know, and it’s probably in the programme notes anyway, on my sheet music it was transcribed by Grainger when he, walking through the countryside in Lincolnshire, heard a Mr John Saxby singing that whilst on a farm gate. And I couldn’t think of where else to put a folk song other than at the beginning, so I just thought I might as well just stick it in there.

SB: It sounds like a very, sort of, synthetic process. Is your bringing together of programmes that kind of process always?

SK: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s done for you. Er, the order of which of those – the Howells and the Holst – I found was more naturally because I put them towards the the Britten, the Britten Cycle and again, like a lot of things I find in my life, it’s easier to say what something isn’t before you say what it is, so I knew that I couldn’t put the Grainger at the end, I couldn’t put it, so I stuck it at the beginning. I just have fun with it, you know. I think you can get too wrapped up with what’s right and what’s wrong. And you only have to look – my father was a string quartet player and in their world you start with the modern music and finish with the Haydn. In our world you start with the early and finish with the late. Who cares?

SB: Any more? The lady in the back there…

Audience Member: It seems to me that when I’ve been listening to operas in the last few years that the orchestras seem to me to have become increasingly loud. I saw your Billy Budd at the ENO and I was conscious of that in a number of places and I wondered if you, as a singer, were conscious of that?

SK: [whispers] Yeah… [Much laughter] Yeah. I wish I saw this gesture [makes hand gesture for quiet] more from conductors – it isn’t too much to ask. They’re often too wrapped up in the orchestral sound and they’re totally and utterly wrong. Many of them talk the talk about being friendly to singers and they understand singers, and many of them do, but they won’t go out and balance it and when it gets into the pit eyeing them, watching them, I don’t see that enough. The good ones do – mentioning no names – but many, many don’t, and even though they’re marvellous musicians they wreck it, by letting the orchestra have its own head. For example, the Vienna Phil, they always play up, they don’t play in the pit, I don’t even think the pit goes down any more, but it’s a, it’s a courtesy extended to them and in return they’re always more involved and they always play down. You stick them in the pit and you don’t give them any instruction, they can’t hear what’s on the stage anyway, you can hardly blame them for playing out. Yeah, it’s a problem and of course instruments are sharper, especially on the Continent, the brass is louder. Wagner, take Wagner, a case in point. We know what Wagner wanted, he built a theatre for us, we know what the pit is, he’s written the dynamics in the score, so why on earth do we hear people just yelling it all over the world? Now there are some great, great singers, but Wagner wanted bel canto – beautiful singing – lyric singing too. If you go back to what the source is, you look at the theatre, it seems to me incomprehensible that people can just ignore that and play it fortissimo from start to finish.

SB: Fascinating, isn’t it, because so many Wagner singers actually spend a lot of the rest of their time singing operetta? Yes, not the attitude you’d expect to…

SK: Verdi, too…Verdi’s next…

SB: The lady behind you had a question…

Audience member: Oh yes, I was going to ask you how you found working on the part of Winston in 1984? How did it affect you as you were playing the part and were you able to shake it off – I’m talking emotionally – how did it affect you? Were you able to shake that off readily?

SK: Yes, it’s true for every role, er, I would say that every singer would do well to leave, to shake that role off, to leave it at the stage door. To be as ordinary, to be what they are, an ordinary citizen, at the stage door, but to do so any earlier would be a little foolhardy and personally, I can’t speak for other singers, I don’t like seeing anyone in the wings just for the five minutes after a scene that’s stressful – the end of Giovanni is the perfect case. I think I’m probably mad as a hatter for five minutes – just leave me alone for five minutes! And in that piece, the torture scene was upsetting, yeah, it was upsetting. You’ve got to always keep half a pace from total involvement, not least because you’d be a hazard to your colleagues and to yourself, but you couldn’t get your voice out, your voice would be too tight and you wouldn’t be able to sing properly, but even so you must keep just that tiny bit of distance but it is affecting. It would be disingenuous to say it wasn’t. And in that mad scene I didn’t like it at all. I had an incredible producer – as I speak I’m trying to remember his name – oh my God …he’s one of the great artists in the world [audience prompt: Robert Lepage] Robert Lepage, wonderful, wonderful. I didn’t get to speak to him much because Maazel came, I think Maazel had partly sponsored it – and it was a very interesting piece, much more interesting than the critics would have us believe, I think, and a very interesting evening in the theatre, I felt – but he also had his input and nobody wanted to gainsay him because it was his money and his baby, so Robert took a back seat, but he was wonderful and I would say to him ”Robert, I don’t think I can commit to this scene again today”, so he would leave me alone. You’d show him something, enough, and he’d say “OK” – otherwise it would be upsetting, doing it again. An actor, a theatre actor, would probably sniff at me for saying that, I don’t know how other people do it, that’s how I feel……

SB: The lady right here…..

Audience member: Going back to the previous subject about loud orchestras etc, is there never a time when somebody has asked somebody of the whole setup, has asked to go and listen and judge? [SK Judge a balance? Some do some do] Does the conductor never hear that he’s too loud? [Laughter].

SB: Or does he care?

Audience member: Does nobody dare ever say it?

SK: Well, there’s a bit of that, of course, of course, but you know you’ve got to be sensitive to – you can’t ask a conductor in public many of the things you would ask them in private – because you put them on the spot and make them feel bad, I feel, I feel. There’s obviously an amount of psychology involved in doing it in public.

Audience member: And he’s not interested to know how the balance is?

SK: He’s interested, they all say they’re interested and they probably all are interested and some even send people into the auditorium and say “how is it?”, but then you’ve got to take into account that the person in the auditorium is probably going to say “yes sir, fine sir, no sir, thank you sir” [Laughter] and that is often the case, or, when it gets to the performance, they get carried away, you know. Even a great musician, a conductor, will often get carried away, particularly in something like Wagner or Verdi.

Audience member [This question is indistinct, but is repeated by the interviewer]

SB: The lady saw the Billy Budd at Covent Garden a few years ago, in which the hanging scene was quite terrifyingly realistic and visual and was quite relieved when Simon came back on stage to take a bow. In a sense, it’s another question about how involved you get with the reality of the role at a given time.

SK: You have to be very, very careful. Just talking about the safety thing – health and safety is the bane of most of our lives. I think I can say that, because they usually, they very, very often, concentrate on the fatuous things and the very dangerous things are totally overlooked. But I won’t go into any details in any particular productions, but there were bits in that Billy Budd which were utterly lethal and in every Billy Budd and you must be very careful to look after yourself, because you can be sure the crew will – they’ve got unions and everything else – but the singers on the stage are often – you take a risk at your own peril. As regards that hanging, what it was, it was a wonderful idea that six men, you stood on a hatch and six men lifted you up on the hatch, so you’re standing above their heads, what are you now, seven or eight feet up, and then they put the rope round your neck and then they step back, but my head was up, the Budd’s head is up, so he doesn’t know when he’s going to be dropped and every night there’s the shock of when that hatch hit the wooden floor – it was a very loud noise. That was disturbing. I went into the rehearsal room, quietly, and with a safety harness, of course. The safety harness is attached obviously under your, actually it’s in your crutch that one and up the back. And we practised how far one could drop without, er, castrating oneself. [Laughter] And I remember – for me it was 18 inches – any more than that was extremely painful – so 18 inches was the drop, but the rope here – I know it’s safe, I knew it was safe, they were very, very safe at Covent Garden, we had a number of rehearsals and we had rehearsals every single day… before the show and in the interval, but even so there’s this much slack on the rope and it was very upsetting, yeah, I didn’t like it. The music is just wonderful, though.

[Inaudible question. Laughter]

Meanwhile, what you didn’t know was that I was there thinking I’ve read somewhere [SK chuckles] that when you hang, your tongue goes out, you [laughter] you wet yourself and so I was fiddling with this plastic bag trying to see if I could get… [makes appropriate gestures] …my colleagues were looking at me “What are you doing?” [Laughter] “It’s theatre, Simon, theatre!!” So we had a lot of fun, too, so it wasn’t too distressing all the time.

SB: I think we’ve got time for two more questions. The lady at the front here.

Audience member: I’m interested to hear you say you were considering singing the role of Siegmund – it’s so totally different from some of the (inaudible) [SK: Yeah, isn’t that fun] And, it’s heldentenor – how many other people have done Don Giovanni… [SK: Oh they have] …and Papageno and then Siegmund?

SK: Siegmund – has been, as you know, the highest note, only twice is an A or an A flat even…

Audience member: It’s not just that though…

SK: No, you’re quite right, of course, of course it isn’t, it’s not even just the tessitura of the day. I used to be a runner in my 20s and the difference between the 200m runner and the 400m runner is that you have to do the heats and the semis and the finals. If you’re a 400m and that’s a different animal – it’s just like a tenor, a heldentenor. Lots of baritones can sing the role once, but to do the rehearsals – you arrive on the first day on your hands and knees with the voice shredded as an old rope. But I know I can do it and I love it. Pelléas is an extreme, a great extreme, it may not be, the orchestration may not be huge, but actually believe you me in a 4000 seater house or a 3000 seater house, again orchestras play terribly loudly, you can find yourself yelling against the wind if you’re not careful and it’s a difficult thing to combine with any other role, so I would just say that it happens to be a colour that’s available to me, so why not give it a go?

SB: Last question

Audience member: Could I ask what advice you’d give to young singers today coming up? What is the best thing to do, or what you advise them not to do? It’s a very dog eat dog situation and have you any advice for the young?

SK: Yeah, I knew somebody would ask that. Well, it’s difficult because… you know, there’s an ivory tower answer and then there’s the real life – roll your sleeves up. I was the same – you’ve got to earn a living, you’ve got to pay bills. It’s all very well saying you shouldn’t do this role, or you should have a rest after this role or you shouldn’t combine Lieder with a performance of something brutal on the voice the night before, but that’s the way it happens.

I suppose I could give something general, in my opinion, which is… practise. I mean it’s not so fatuous, practise and not just sing every day, practise. Understand your voice, what it does, find the weaknesses and work at them. It doesn’t have to be a lot every day, maybe not even every day, but work at them and… and… get yourself a balanced voice. A long voice, in my opinion, is a healthy voice, I mean the range, and if you have a balanced voice – as I said at the beginning – I think time may, there’s no guarantee, time may gift you something else. But even if it doesn’t, you have more options. If you go, as every young, certainly male, will do, every young male will think that a loud voice is a good voice. Many professionals, many opera companies will say a great voice is just a loud voice. That is the worst thing that any young singer can do, is try and sing too loud, too soon. They’ll be able to do it – many young men will get this big hollow sound – but I can guarantee that in their mid to late 30s that will be it. Whereas there’s a chance, even though it’s frustrating, with a balanced voice, with the slimmer sound, time may well give you more. Never sing, who was it, I know, it’s, it’s such a glib thing [puts on camp, false upper class voice] “never sing louder than beautiful, dear”. Who was that? [inaudible audience prompt] There you go. but it’s true. Don’t sing too loud, too soon, don’t get preoccupied with it, get yourself a balanced voice and practise, work out how your voice works. It doesn’t matter how anyone else’s works. You know, there’ll be the Bryns of this world, who come out fully formed, plop, at 23 with this fabulous Rolls Royce of a voice, but there are others, great voices in the past, who took a longer route – just do your own thing and work hard – there’s no short cut for hard work.

SB: And on that note, would you join me in thanking Simon Keenlyside.

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