2007.01.01 Prolog Nr. 105 Vienna Staatsoper magazine

Prolog Nr. 105, January 2007

(The Vienna Staatsoper’s free magazine)


Translated by Ursula Turecek


Everything in the orange juice

Simon Keenlyside can be heard as Count Almaviva

In January Simon Keenlyside sings Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, furthermore he gives a song recital at the ViennaKonzerthaus. Since August he has been married to Zenaida Yanowsky, Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, which is an important reason for him to reduce his international engagements that have kept him away from Englandfor up to ten months a year. He does suffer at the thought of not being able to sing in Viennawhere he made his debut in 1999 so often any more. But love has priority! Therese Gassner spoke with the baritone.

In December 2006 you sang the Italian Don Carlo in Vienna. Would the French version in the production by Peter Konwitschny here in Viennaappeal to you too?

I would indeed be interested in it because the French version stays closer to Schiller’s original. But this would mean having to learn another five act-opera and during the same amount of time I could learn something else.

Is it true that you enjoy acting on stage?

I would indeed call myself a singer-actor. I am against the statement that operas are not plays. Of course the singers are bound by the music but I think that art – and life – are in the details and there are innumerable possibilities of variations for a singer-actor on stage.

You acquired your Italian repertory with Piero Cappuccilli.

Yes, he told me two things above all: One was that I should not take too much time with the Italian repertory, as nobody would engage me as Englishman without an Italian name and even with a perfect voice for Italian repertory it needs time. And the other was: “Prima la voce! Always the voice first.” As a young man I did not know what he meant. I thought he meant this stupid way to just stand and sing. But that’s not at all what he meant. When we sit here on these chairs and talk as we do now, what could be more honest than that? It is not a question of fidgeting with your arms. It only is a matter of tone and details. And that’s exactly what he meant. Act with your voice! Acting should be something with which to serve the piece and make information more comprehensible. Movement shall be concentrated and used like a weapon. You can also stand still and just act with your voice.

When you rehearse a new role, do you give it a try at a smaller opera house first or would you sing it directly at the State Opera too?

This is a very good question. In an ideal world I would not necessarily want to sing Don Carlo for example for the first time at the Scala, this would be mad. Not only because it is the Scala but also because it is Italy and the audience would hear me in their mother tongue. For this reason I did not make my first tour with Winterreise in Austria or Germany but in Israel. So I could sing it several times until I felt at ease with it. But the world is not always ideal. Particularly with songs you make a new programme and go directly to the Wigmore Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, Musikverein or the Carnegie Hall. That’s just the way it works.

In fact you also recorded your first Don Giovanni in 1997 directly under Claudio Abbado.

It was an opportunity that I could not miss. To be honest: It was wearisome, because we had seven performances in ten days and it was very exhausting. You would not do this in an ideal world.

You had the opportunity to work with specialists of historical sound like René Jacobs and Sir Charles Mackerras.

Yes, and I very much enjoyed it. Both are researchers and people like me need researchers because I am no scholar, but I love to learn everything around a piece. René Jacobs or Sir Charles Mackerras spend their whole lives rummaging in archives so that our Mozart becomes more “genuine”. On the first day of rehearsals for Don Giovanni in my first year at Covent Garden, Sir Charles Mackerras had a score from Prague, a few letters and documents with him. He said in his dry but wonderful way: “I don’t care if you do what I tell you. Of course I would be glad, but if you don’t do it you are not acting against my words but you act against what was required of a singer at Mozart’s time. And here is the proof.” In this Prague score there were entered the appoggiaturas, that is the flourishes, from Mozart’s time that were expected from a singer. “If you want to make me look silly you can make the appoggiaturas in a bad way and it will sound terrible. The original intention was to make them quickly and gracefully.”

Do you use these things in normal repertory business too?

Yes, that’s what I do. And I found out something with the appoggiaturas. There was one thing I could never understand: When Giovanni wants to seduce or to argue somebody into something, or if he is talking to aristocrats he does so in rhymes. It never worked with me because the rhyme often comes in the middle of a musical phrase and if I want to emphasise the rhyme I destroy the phrase. But if you use the appoggiaturas that are explicitly desired, you emphasise the rhyme without destroying the musical arc. And what is particularly amusing: Most people, even conductors, do not even notice that I do all the appoggiaturas. You simply talk, that’s all.

I have read that you use only half of your voice with Mozart. What did you mean by this?

People in the 18th century did not sing as high as we do today. You just have to compare the vocal range of the baritone roles in opera scores by Mozart, Verdi or Debussy. In my pitch of the voice a whole quint or actually an octave – if you compare it to Pelléas – has been added for which Mozart did not write at all. In addition the orchestras’ pitches have become higher. With the female parts it’s different of course. Mozart explored their voices considerably more. Just think of Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio”.

In March 2009 you will sing “Eugene Onegin” in a new production here in Vienna.

I should have done my first Onegin in Paris five years ago. But then I had a stage accident at Covent Garden and had to cancel. So this will be my first Onegin here in Vienna and I am really looking forward to it very much.

Did you ever cancel because you did not feel at ease in a production?

No, but I have suffered in the past and I think that I would cancel in the future if the stage direction and the settings are too difficult and it is a difficult part. I hope that this will never happen! If you arrive and the set is made of a dense [sound-absorbing] material you cannot change it. If I come to a house as marvellous as the Vienna State Opera, with all the preparatory work I’ve made, to be allowed to sing here, would I pass on it because of sets that are singer-unfriendly. That’s not worth it.

It is remarkable how large your repertory is. How come?

If I give an honest answer nobody will believe me. It is because I’m interested in it. I’m interested in doing Wozzeck, Onegin and Don Carlo and I’m still interested in doing Papageno. I don’t see any contradiction in it. The great singers from the past did the same. They were fixed in an ensemble and there it was normal. Nowadays singers travel much and always sing the same five or six roles. But if you look at Hans Hotter and the list of his roles, it is huge! It is ten times larger than anything I will ever do! Another reason why my repertory is so large is that as a young singer I was not yet able to sing everything vocally. If any opportunity arose, like Monteverdi’s Orfeo, I did this instead of doing another Barber [of Seville]. And this simply was super-interesting!

You also have an enormous song repertory.

The song programmes I am doing now (he pulls out a little book with tightly written notes) are all written down here. This is my whole repertory. All of these are different programmes. Brahms, Wolf, Schubert, Schumann, Bach, Ravel, Fauré, Duparc. They are all in my head. And the wonderful irony is that in my little head as a little foreigner and with my simple German more German poems are stored than with many German-speaking singers!

Do you study the text first?

Always! Always!

With opera roles too?

No, not with opera roles. But with Wozzeck I’ll probably do it like this. With the German songs I have formed a funny habit of learning them. I force them into me. I speak them in rhythm. And then I play a little game with myself: I adjourn to a park and try to run in the correct tempo of the song and make one step per syllable. If I make a mistake I have to go back to the start at the beginning of the park. The idea behind it is to come through the whole park. This can take weeks! It is hard work to get these words into my head. But I love it, I really love it. One month ago all these notes fell into orange juice, I almost lost them. Most of the German and French songs I have also on an ipod, a wonderful tool. But it fell into the orange juice too and does not work any more. But fortunately I have everything in my head!

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