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2007.05.06 Send in the clown: Sunday Times interview

The Sunday Times May 6, 2007

Interview with Hugh Canning


Send in the clown

As Simon Keenlyside lines up his superb Pelléas for the Royal Opera, we meet a physical singer who’s not afraid to take a risk.

When Simon Keenlyside gets into his sequined clown costume on Friday, for the male title role in Pelléas et Mélisande at the Royal Opera, it will be, he thinks, the last series of performances he sings as the doomed, mythical prince – a role he has made his own internationally. Or maybe not.

“I wish I had kept my fat mouth shut now,” he says when we meet during the run of his previous role at Covent Garden: Prospero in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. “But I do feel that. The problem of how old an operatic singer should be for a role is a bit of a thorny one. Pelléas is a young man, so why would I put my neck on the line, continuing to do it after 50, for example? I want to be the one to say it’s time to drop that one, rather than for someone like you to say, ‘He’s looking a bit long in the tooth.’”

In fact, Keenlyside hardly looks his 47 years; and, on stage, he has always been an energetic performer and a brilliant actor, with an athletic physique. When Stanislas Nordey’s static production opened at the Salzburg Easter festival, the British baritone’s Pelléas was its only really watchable component. But he is compelling in nearly everything he tackles. His tragic Billy Budd; his dark, brooding Hamlet; his agile, funny, sexy yet deeply touching Papageno – all are fully rounded histrionic portraits that demonstrate his range. He is a stage animal, too, who has developed and grown in stature over the years. He also thinks he has calmed down. When he first sang Britten’s young foretopman with Scottish Opera, early in his career, he recalls one of the chorus members opining, in a stage whisper: “Someone tell Simon it’s Billy Budd, not Billy Smart.”

“He was right, of course. You can’t fool around on the rigging all night, so I was glad to have a chance to get it right at ENO.”

Keenlyside is one of the most reluctant opera stars I have ever met, famously shy of the media – he rarely gives interviews, and then grudgingly – and almost painfully self-deprecatory. “I didn’t particularly want to talk to the press, because I didn’t think I had much to say. When you’ve done a role a lot, then perhaps it can be interesting, but when I was young, I was exploring myself. I felt uneasy, knowing that I knew less than other people in the business.”

From a singer who made his name primarily as a lieder and concert artist – perhaps the most intellectually demanding areas of classical singing – this doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he insists: “Even though my career has been on a long fuse, I think I got in the way of myself psychologically. I’ve always been a nervous man.” Certainly, there is something restless about his manner, which can be unsettling when you meet him – but that’s probably what makes him such a complex and fascinating person on stage, and in the emotionally and psychologically demanding art-song repertoire at which he excels.

Singers who know him well say he has settled down since he got married, last summer, to Zenaida Yanowsky, one of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, an artist whose histrionic range seems as diverse as his, and whose theatrical appetite is as voracious. In recent seasons, he says, he has spent much of his time – perhaps 10 months a year – singing abroad, but now he seems less enamoured of the travelling that is the international singer’s way of life.

“I don’t like it, but that’s the job. I am trying to stay home much more in the future, otherwise my wife will serve me with divorce papers. She does galas and things elsewhere, but when you’re in a ballet company, you’re here. That’s it. Zenaida is happy here, and so long as they give me the roles I want at Covent Garden, I’m happy to stay too.”

It seems the Royal Opera management has taken the hint. This season, Keenlyside will have been in London for an unbroken three months, rehearsing and performing Prospero and Pelléas; next season, he will appear in three roles and two new productions. In January, he will reprise his incomparable Birdcatcher in The Magic Flute; at the beginning and end of the season, he will star as Oreste in Robert Carsen’s Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck) and as the Marquis de Posa in Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo (Verdi), opposite Rolando Villazon.

For some time now, Keenlyside has been dipping his toes cautiously into the heavier, more dramatic Verdi repertoire, while distancing himself from such obviously youthful parts as Billy Budd and Pelléas. “That has been conscious,” he says. “I love talking to young singers now. They say, ‘I wanna do this, I wanna do that’ – and my heart goes out to them. When is the right time to tackle something? If you leave Schubert’s Winterreise too late, you’re not too old to sing it, but perhaps too old to make such a big emotional journey with it. Do it too early and you might get booted around by you lot [the critics]. I did wait to sing some of my heavier parts, but British singers are much more tentative about taking on those roles than our European colleagues. In my case, I’m glad, because I wasn’t really ready.”

He is luckier, perhaps, than earlier generations of British baritones, who had to compete internationally with native Italian singers – they appear to be thin on the ground these days – but his patience and caution have paid off handsomely. “Maybe we do too much these days, and there isn’t much of a company system to nurture young singers. You look at where these great Italian singers started doing the big Verdi repertoire – in 700-seat theatres, and they had to wait until they were my age before they got to ‘export’ their art to the great international houses.”

Certainly, Keenlyside has had his setbacks, mainly from the injuries he has sustained from the reckless physicality of some of his stage performances: “I’ve had 25 years of working in a dangerous environment. It’s not the stage so much as the wings. As you come from the dark into the light, or go from the light into the dark, it’s terribly dangerous when you can’t see a step or you’re walking around trap doors. A lot of singers get injured. You just don’t hear about it. If you’re doing Pelléas, where the whole stage is covered in water, you’re going to slip over. I did that in Geneva – two cracked ribs. There are lots of physical roles: Don Giovanni, and Papageno, of course. The whole point of the man is running around – it’s a role for an actor.” But then, as I expect Keenlyside to show as Pelléas at Covent Garden, he is a consummate actor in all his stage roles.

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