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2007.01.16 Der Standard interview

Der Standard, 16 January 2007 (Petra Haiderer)


Translated by Ursula Turecek

Nervousness is vanity

Simon Keenlyside, recently the brilliant Count Almaviva at the State Opera, rounds off his guest performance in Vienna with a song recital at the Mozartsaal of Konzerthaus.
The British baritone on his passion for song, musical reviews and the charm of obituaries.

Vienna – “You sing them because you have to – lieder are an affair of the heart”, finds Simon Keenlyside. “There is always an opportunity but you cannot earn much money with them. The business does not deal correctly with song recitals. They are staged at opera houses more and more often, you have to adapt the programme to the oversized room. In Vienna and London you are spoiled. At the Wigmore Hall there has been a recital every evening during the last 20 years, I think.” He does not share the current opinion that you have to make a name in opera before it’s the lied’s turn.

“On the contrary! To acquire the essence of song at the beginning of a career is a great help. To learn the repertory in addition to an intensive operatic activity is very difficult.” But vocal management is very necessary. “For a Posa or Don Giovanni you need something metallic in your voice, the pungency. For songs the subtle nuances must be allowed to sound. The adjustment takes a few days. I try to let about a week pass between opera and song recital.”

At the Konzerthaus the Londoner will sing songs in German, French and Russian. “I would prefer a less complex programme”, the baritone laughs, “one composer for each half of the concert. But the hosts are my employers and have their own ideas.” He finds it hard to sing in languages that he does not speak fluently. “I see the disappointment in the faces of fans when they come into the artist’s dressing room after the concert and tell me in a language I have been singing the whole evening long that they enjoyed it, and I cannot answer in this language. ‘What does he have to tell us?’ is written in their faces.”

Like many singers Keenlyside (born 1959) feels more exposed on the concert podium than on the operatic stage. Paternal advice guards against too much nervousness. “My father, a fiddler, always said that nervousness is a sign of vanity. And that if you immerse completely into the story and the emotion there is no reason for sorrow. I don’t see it quite like this, but there is very well a grain of truth in it. You have a story in your head that you have to communicate. Song is opera without a hat!”

No unfunny picture: the pictorial being a very special talent of Keenlyside. The baritone has invested his debut album (Sony BMG) from last year with a particular flair by his own cartoons. “Drawing amuses me. It also makes it possible to remember specific moments. In a Pelleas-production the stage consisted mainly of water. We had to stand in water up to our bellies. Although it was warm – the stage steamed – a soprano insisted on rubber suits and protested when I did not put it on. I simply had to draw this situation!”

Cartoons are not the only unusual hobby of Keenlyside’s – he is also quite taken with obituaries. “Military obituaries are fascinating”, he says with flashing eyes. “Men who experienced World War II, who often had to suffer from the trauma for the rest of their lives, in spite of this frequently achieved great things for society. I am aware that the obituaries are written by people who loved those men but nevertheless these lives show something exemplary.”

His own grandfather was less exemplary – with a lasting effect on Keenlyside’s relation to musical reviews. “He was a famous fiddler but a bad father to his daughters. When he died they found boxes full of reviews, articles and photos. But what does this mean given human failures. It is yellowed paper. Reviews make me nervous.” The future does not. “A Wozzeck in Paris, Eugen Onegin in Vienna, 2010 Rigoletto. Where is not yet certain. I can still choose the place. Isn’t this wonderful!”

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