« »

2006.09 Opernwelt: From the spirit of language

From the spirit of language

Opernwelt 9/2006 (Jörg Königsdorf)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Simon Keenlyside on Mozart’s inexhaustibility, different roads to Debussy, the importance of lieder singing and his vocal models

It all began with Mozart: The English baritone Simon Keenlyside made his debut as the Count in Figaro at the Hamburg Opera in 1987. He has long since been one of the most important exponents of his “fach”, and apart from the important Mozart-roles, he has found his way into the Italian and the French repertory too. Recently Keenlyside was celebrated enthusiatically by the audience and by the critics in the name part of Debussy’s “Pelléas” at the Salzburg Festival as well as at the Berlin Philharmonie.

Mr. Keenlyside, you’ve just recorded your second Don Giovanni and completed a full series of performances in the new production in Zurich. Is Mozart really still the centre of your repertory?

Not at all. Too much Mozart actually would be frustrating for me because I can only use half of my voice with it. In fact, definitely less than half of my performances are devoted to Mozart. I consider myself only half as an opera singer anyway – the other half is reserved for lieder singing. That I’m known in Germany rather for my Mozart is simply due to the fact that I have not sung much else here.

In the Zurich production, Franz Welser-Möst cultivates a rather traditional Mozart-style orientated by Karl Böhm. In contrast, for your new “Giovanni”-recording you collaborated with René Jacobs like you did for “Figaro”. How do you as a singer manage extremes like these?

Actually the contrasts in performances are not as large as on paper. Most conductors are open to reason if you do not try to talk to them in front of the assembled orchestra. Conductors like Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado realise if you do not feel well with a certain passage anyway and accommodate you even if you don’t say anything. Neither was there ever a problem for René Jacobs when I sang a certain passage differently than he had actually conceived it. After all he was a singer himself and knows that opera is always a collection of compromises – not at all different to life.

Did the experiences with historically-informed performance culture nevertheless change your notion of Mozart?

Of course. With René Jacobs for example historically-informed performance is no end in itself, but it serves only to emphasize the music’s theatrical quality more. It only makes sense to sing flourishes and phrasings from Mozart’s time when you have internalised their meaning – truth finally always comes from the heart, not from the head. I learned a lot from Charles Mackerras in this – it was he who made me an appoggiatura-fan. Mackerras brought us facsimiles of performances in Prague from Mozart’s time to the rehearsals where the appoggiaturas were entered. He did not force us to do them but he said: It is your business if you do not do this but here you see that Mozart wanted these appoggiaturas.

How does the music’s character change with such short flourishes?

A simple example: When Giovanni wants to seduce somebody, be it woman or man, he sings in rhymes. But only if you sing the appoggiaturas too is the musical arc of these rhymes preserved. By the way, Mackerras also read letters of Abbate Bassi to us who describes performances – they show that there was always improvisation there. The liveliness of the whole was the ultimate ambition. And that’s exactly what I also try to achieve today.

Since your operatic debut as the Count from “Figaro” at the Hamburg State Opera you have lived for nearly twenty years with the central Mozart-roles. Have these characters matured over the intervening years?

It never was my ambition to sing Mozart like from a box of chocolates. For me this music always has said something about life itself. Take Don Giovanni: I grew up with the recordings from the fifties where great American baritones sang the champagne-aria with brilliant festivity. I never could do anything with this: For me Giovanni always was a charming but thoroughly unsound guy who manipulates his whole environment. It is less my image of Mozart that has matured but I myself as a singer: Singing gets utterly simpler when you get older. I have now many more colours at my disposal, „more toys in the box“ as it were, and know how to use them more economically. Nevertheless I think that no singer can reinvent a character again and again – no more than himself.

Your most recent success was Pelléas at the Salzburg Festival. But your colleague John Mark Ainsley lately doubted in this magazine (see OW 4/2003) that his role can be performed credibly by a baritone at all.

I completely disagree with this of course. For me it is precisely with Pelléas that it becomes apparent how absurd our thinking in stereotypes like tenor-baritone is. You either can sing this or not and that’s it. Otherwise you could also bring forward the argument that Debussy wrote this role for the qualities of a certain singer – and that therefore no one else can ever sing it as conceived by the composer. Apart from this I also think the sections that are difficult for a baritone in this role make sense for that very reason: In the fourth act when the emotional tension reaches its climax, a baritone is at the limits of his possibilities – thus conveying exactly the situation Pelléas is in.

Did you orientate yourself by using the classical French school of singing for your Pelléas – in the case of this opera the historically-informed performance culture has been passed down to our time on sound storage media.

I used to listen to these recordings a lot to learn idiomatic singing. But that was it basically. We have to be aware of the fact that fashion simply has changed and that a mere reproduction of this style would be understood in a completely different way today. For me the basis is what is written in the score. This is just different to Mozart: He did not write down appoggiaturas at all because he regarded them as natural, while Verdi did it when he wanted them. And with Debussy the essential is written in the score too. You just have to be particular about it and take into account for example that much shall not be sung at all in Pelléas but spoken.

It appears that the examination of language is pivotal in your acting as interpreter of opera as well as song?

Yes, actually I only sing in languages I know. Luckily I lived in Italy as well as in Germany for some time and speak both languages tolerably. I don’t speak Russian and Czech and I keep my hands off this repertoire. With two exceptions however: On my recital-CD I’m singing Yeletzky’s aria from “Pique Dame” and soon I’ll sing my first Onegin. A baritone simply can’t get past this role.

On your new recital-CD, the first one in the context of your contract with Sony BMG, some Italian arias are represented too, with “Come due tizzi accesi” from Cilea’s “L’Arlesiana” even a rarity.

Yes, this aria is in a way my tribute to Tito Gobbi. To listen to his recordings simply gave me a great deal. Just imagine: His voice regarded in itself certainly was not the greatest baritone voice ever but the way he used it, how he portrayed characters with it, that’s incredible. The Cilea-aria was one of his favourite pieces. And furthermore it is very beautiful. But to tell you at once: Though Gobbi was a model for me, he was not the only one.

Di Provenza il mar, il sol” from “Traviata” would have to be understood as a tribute to Robert Merrill then?

Yes, absolutely. Think of his great recording with Toscanini. By the way, Merrill, was still very young then – and for me an exemplar for the fact that this role simply should not be cast with an old singer. I consider such bio-casting to be nonsense, you do not place old dancers for such roles on stage either, but simply give suitable make-up to the young ones.

As an English lieder singer you do not exactly have an idiomatic home field advantage. Have you ever been shy of singing Schubert in Germany?

On the contrary, I tackled this deliberately at once and gave a good portion of my recitals in Germany and Austria for a long time. I thought: If this audience accepts me, the rest of the world will too. I think I am as qualified to sing this music as every German singer. Such songs are like a DNA-helix: There are so many twists and turns that you can analyse from completely different positions.

Do you sing a song by Hugo Wolf with its poetic roundabout expressions in a different way if the audience does not understand German?

No. I think that everyone who comes to a recital brings along a high measure of interest and previous knowledge already. That’s like an international club. When I made a song-tour with Angelika Kirchschlager in the USA we did not make any concessions in our programme and did not sing folksongs or the like. And the people were enthusiastic, even up to Carnegie Hall. If you are honest there is always a chance.

the original interview in German is available on the archive site of Opernwelt

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment