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2006.10.01 Swiss Magazine Saisonklänge: Baritone without shenanigans

Simon Keenlyside: Baritone without shenanigans

Interview for the Swiss Magazine Saisonklänge, Nr. 23, September 2006 (Gabriela Kaegi).

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Sporty elegance: Baritone Simon Keenlyside

Half past one was arranged. At half past one sharp he is standing there. But previously he had kept us waiting for more than one year. Interviews with Simon Keenlyside? No way.

Afterwards, in his dressing room at the opera house he brushes aside the arranged thirty minutes with a gesture. Ask what you want, I have time.

In the manner that he sits right at the edge of his chair he has nothing, nothing at all in common with Don Giovanni of the evening before who sweeps about the Zurich stage in a subtle and charming way, athletically and driven rather from the loin. Keenlyside on the next day is friendly, apologises about his not completely perfect German and is above all at pains to do his job as well as possible. Asked about this difference he first gives a great laugh. Then: “Well, seriously! – it would be rather absurd to state today that I am what I perform. The thing is called theatre, it means to make believe.  We singers are ordinary people who only claim that they are something else.”

Well – if you hear him talk about his childhood you could almost believe him to be commonplace. Father and grandfather were musicians and played little Simon to sleep with Haydn and Mozart, it is true. But nevertheless he, playing the violin himself, never thought of treading in their footsteps. He did prefer singing which, however, was not only simple: “Singing boys were quite beautifully teased. Luckily I was fit and sporty.” So he came to the choir school of St. John’s College in Cambridge at the age of eight where he learned everything that could be useful for his later life as a musician. “And my voice at that time? The best thing about it was that it was completely undamaged.”

Linguistic instinct in the singer’s luggage

One of his early singing teachers packed the feeling for language, for words and their careful handling into his singer’s luggage. So when he sings French, Pelléas for example, he polishes his organs of speech until he has got every linking off pat and every nasal is still full of sound. With Schumann or Strauss he does not take any rest before every “ch” or “k” is smooth but still formed articulately. And he trains his Italian until he does not get entangled when speaking or singing rapidly and can do it in his sleep. He has no choice, he thinks, “because I’m singing in my mother tongue very rarely. It is also a respect for the work that I make an effort to speak the particular language.”

Success with Pelléas and farewell

His professional beginnings with singing were far from given to him. The youthful voice was a baritone’s but light. And if you don’t want to make a Faustian deal, his teacher advised him, stay with lieder singing first. But it was difficult to scrape together a living with this. This is Keenlyside too: Art is noble and may fly high but he prefers to keep his feet to the ground.

His first engagement – this was in 1987 – took him to Hamburg at the State Opera and threw him rather ruggedly into opera’s everyday life. “the very day of my arrival I went through the “Figaro”-settings in jeans and shirt, the next I was already stuck in Almaviva’s costume and things were serious. I sang the Count twelve times, never saw the conductor before and recognised my different Countesses only because they wore the same costume.“ After a full year he left Hamburg: never again a “house baritone”.

Therefore the stagione-system suits him perfectly and he becomes downright enthusiastic about his work at the Grand Théâtre Geneva where he sang Pelléas a long time before his success in Salzburg. “I had a wonderful time in Geneva, yes, I think this was one of my most beautiful Pelléas. We were stuck deeply in this extremely French atmosphere: The conductor Louis Langrée, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the production by David Caurier and Moshe Leiser – everything was French.”

At Easter in Salzburg he sang Pelléas for the last time – “it was at the same time my most beautiful one”. Simon Rattle conducting and animating carefully on the one hand, his partner Angelika Kirchschlager with her enchanting Mélisande on the other. But unforgettable mainly because Keenlyside bade farewell to this part with this production.

“Every stage character has its expiry date too. I’ll soon turn 50 – time to part with this youth. I had to say goodbye to Billy Budd in December already – he is even younger. I confess: Two roles within so short a time, this does put me off balance a bit. But I’m telling myself: There are other fish to fry!”

The choreographed Winterreise


It’s with German songs that the young Keenlyside became great. But at that time he started more from the image of the singer at the corner of the grand piano. Only later he got in touch with one of the leading contemporary choreographers, with Trisha Brown. She produced Monteverdi, he sang Orfeo – and turned into a moved singer. Then – three years ago – Keenlyside surprised in Lucerne with a choreographed Winterreise. Not to be misunderstood: The singer himself was a dancer too. In a light linen suit and barefooted he stood or lay or strode across the stage and sang.

“Tell anybody that an Englishman sings Winterreise while dancing – and he will die with laughter. I can understand this. I’m asked about it in interviews still today: Will you by any chance dance Schwanengesang next, Mr. Keenlyside? But I resist provocation; it was a wonderful project. And even if it had become a flop: I was sure that in any case I would be closer to my subsequent Winterreises than my previous ones.” So far an hour has elapsed. Why do you behave so touchily with the press – is written on the paper as a last question. Shall I? Shall I not? Better leave it. “You know”, says Keenlyside biding farewell and off the record, “everybody always says that I am so touchy with the media. I don’t know why I have this reputation.” No, I don’t know why either.

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