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2007.07.30 Musik und Theater (Werner Pfister) interview

Musik und Theater (Werner Pfister) July/August 2007

Translated by Ursula Turecek



“You cannot betray yourself” – baritone Simon Keenlyside

Words on the clothesline

He is the inevitable Don Giovanni, and the world’s factotum as virtuosically playful Figaro. But he also sings Posa and Pelléas, Wagner and Puccini – and lieder again and again. One of the most versatile singing personality of our day: We met Simon Keenlyside for a conversation at the Zurich Opernhaus.

M&T: If I’m informed correctly, Simon Keenlyside, you celebrate an important jubilee this year…

Simon Keenlyside: A jubilee? What do you mean?

M&T: You have been singing for exactly forty years…

Simon Keenlyside: My God! Is it really such a long time already? Yes, 1967 – I was eight by then – I came at the choir school of St. John’s College Cambridge as a boy soprano. I sang there until 1974.

M&T: A unique chance for a boy. Was it also a uniquely good time for you?

Simon Keenlyside: It certainly was an incomparable start into my musical life. Heaven knows, Sir George Guest, our chorus master is certainly a famous conductor. I owe him my complete approach to music. They were wonderful times but also exhausting. We boys had to work hard like professionals, not only concerning our voices but also our education in general. Furthermore we gave many concerts, toured Japan, Australia and the USA. We barely had any holidays because then disc recordings were due. Those were difficult conditions. My parents were allowed to visit me only three times in three months, and even then for only two or three hours. That was just enough for tea and some cake. I don’t know if it isn’t better when children grow up among their families and remain children as long as possible. Looking back today I rather opt for this. In any case you must know which price you pay for it.

M&T: Did your education as a boy soprano help you later with the education to become a baritone and an opera singer?

Simon Keenlyside: This is a difficult question. This early musical education was certainly very advantageous later. And accordingly early I had a concrete idea about what singing really means. But from the purely vocal point of view a boy soprano sings a little differently from a fully grown baritone.

M&T: For your singing education to become a baritone you took comparatively a long time…

Simon Keenlyside: Because in the beginning it was not necessarily certain if my voice would be sufficient for an operatic career. But looking back I am very glad that it went like this then. I was very lucky, I could give my voice the time it needed to develop in a completely natural way. Today young singers often travel with big roles from opera house to opera house. If I had also done so myself and sung “Don Carlo”, “Traviata” or “Eugene Onegin”, I don’t think I would have survived vocally. Furthermore, and this is an important question for me, which parts should you sing with fifty [years] if you have sung all the big ones with twenty-five already? There also must be new, interesting roles for me now ! Then I was happy that I was allowed to sing Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, “Iphigenie en Tauride” by Gluck or Debussy’s “Pelléas”. You should always sing what comes up to your own age. Birgit Nilsson did not start with Richard Wagner right from the beginning and even a Franco Corelli did not sing the really large-calibre repertoire in his beginner’s years. When you make a Faust’s pact with the devil too early in your career to get a big, dark, heavy voice – believe me, then you pay for it later. You can well betray others when you sing the wrong parts. But finally you cannot betray yourself.

M&T: You made your debut in 1987 at the HamburgStateOpera, at a house with an ensemble of its own. Does such a company with an ensemble offer the ideal conditions for young singers to be able grow and develop vocally?

Simon Keenlyside: A very important question because it is not easy to answer. Firstly, the fixed affiliation to a house and an ensemble also involves an important decision concerning your life: that you are willing to settle down there. Secondly, if you are at a small house with a small ensemble then you have to take on the big parts of your own fach very soon because there are no others singers for them. However, if you are in the ensemble at a big house then you sing only small servant’s parts possibly for years, thus hardly getting a chance to grow into bigger parts. What is crucial in this question is the respective theatre manager – if he is interested in the development of his young singers and therefore also willing to take a risk. Alexander Pereira at the Zurich Operahouse and Ioan Holender at the Vienna State Opera are among this – I almost would like to say – “ancient” school of theatre managers.

M&T: One of your “trademarks” as a singer, if I may say so in casual terms, is your remarkably careful handling of the word, of the sung language.

Simon Keenlyside: For me this is so particularly important because I adore the German lieder repertoire. It means infinitely much to me in my life and that’s why I almost have something like a love affair with the German language. In the international singers’ world we converse mostly in English at rehearsals. For me this is partly a little boring and furthermore on the whole it is not good at all. When I rehearse “Pelléas” it is much easier for me if I not only sing in French but also speak French in rehearsals. “Wozzeck” in turn should be rehearsed in German. I think this is a question of respect for the language and the work.

M&T: A respect that American singers above all are sometimes lacking a little…

Simon Keenlyside: Don’t generalise! Our operatic world would be much poorer without all these excellent singers from the USA. And I for myself don’t presume at all to correct other colleagues. I can only speak of myself and my own experiences. If I do not really internalise a language in my singing then I cannot act convincingly with my voice either. Actually it never is about the question of the primacy of music or language in opera, of word or sound. Both are one, like a child that has a father and a mother. You cannot separate language and music. Singing always means both – and I would not want to hear the “Vier letzten Lieder” (Four Last Songs) by Richard Strauss as pure vocalises for example. That’s the point! Vocal music – and just this one – cannot live without language. On the other hand the line is just as important in singing. The language should never interrupt this line. As a singer you hang the respective words and sentences on a clothesline, so to speak. Without this line it does not work. That’s exactly what the big challenge is in singing for me.

M&T: How do you manage to sing vocally exertive Verdi-parts and give a recital a week later?

Simon Keenlyside: Actually you reply yourself: a week later. I need at least a week in between, ten days are even better. Because you have to rehearse before a recital too, haven’t you?

M&T: However, does not Verdi – you sing Rigoletto among others, in fact the Mount Everest for a Verdi-baritone – damage the voice for lieder singing?

Simon Keenlyside: This depends completely on how you sing Rigoletto. I considered where to sing this part for the first time for quite a while. First I thought of one of the little Italian opera theatres. But then it was suddenly clear for me that this was not a good idea: In Italy everyone has a clear perception of what a Rigoletto must sound like. I did not want to expose myself to these prejudices because my Rigoletto sounds different. Even as Rigoletto it is not absolutely necessary to maul your voice with the hammer, as it were. On the contrary, you have to handle your voice with particular care here.

M&T: So it’s a question of the singer’s intelligence?

Simon Keenlyside: If you want to see it like this… (smiles) On the other hand I have made mistakes too. There is no recipe that applies to all singers. There are those who drink milk before every performance – because it is said to be good for the voice. Others don’t drink milk at all – because it damages the voice. Some don’t speak a word the day of a performance, others talk constantly. There are no general rules.

M&T: In comparison to thirty, forty years ago much more acting is demanded from today’s opera singers. At times so much that singing almost becomes a minor matter…

Simon Keenlyside: It would be the singer’s mistake if his singing became a minor matter. In any case there were singer-actors who were exceptionally gifted as far as their acting was concerned in former times too, among the baritones Tito Gobbi for example. Incidentally I repeatedly talked with Piero Cappuccilli about this. A helpful colleague, and he always said: “Prima la voce”.

M&T: But he was more of a singer than an actor…

Simon Keenlyside: If you see it like this you make the same mistake as I made then myself. With “Prima la voce” he did not mean: first the voice and only afterwards the acting on stage. He meant that you have to express the playing, the acting first of all with your voice. If a singer really succeeds in this, and Cappuccilli was an absolute master in it, he can well do without gestural activity. Sometimes I also do too much of a good thing, pretend something to the director that really I am not. A good director, for example Sven-Eric Bechtolf in our Zurich “Don Giovanni” realises this at once. You can more easily “pretend” to the audience without them realising it; you cannot fool a director like Bechtolf.

M&T: Don Giovanni has become something like your central part for you by now…

Simon Keenlyside: Not necessarily any more. I’ve sung more “Bohème” lately than “Don Giovanni”. But you are right, I made many “Giovanni”-productions.

M&T: How do you succeed in putting a, so to speak, new Don Giovanni on stage in each new production?

Simon Keenlyside: You can’t do this, this would be a wrong idea of our profession! I, for one, can’t do it – in my head and also in my body there are no more than two Don Giovannis, but two rather different conceptions of the part. Once I asked a famous British Shakespeare-actor with whom I am friends and who developed a new “Hamlet”-staging then, how many different Hamlets he had in store by now. He said: just one. So I thought: If it is not expected from an excellent actor to bring a new concept of their role for every new production, why should it be expected from a singer? Finally it is not possible. My voice does not have infinitely many colours and nuances at its disposal. There are some facets that simply are not there, neither in the voice nor in my body. So I have to remain honest with myself. Cobbler, stick to your last, as it were…

M&T: Yet you will venture into a new fach in the recording studio in July: Into a Viennese operetta CD together with Angelika Kirchschlager. What is the relationship you have to the silvery age of operetta?

Simon Keenlyside: In Vienna I recently watched a really genuinely Viennese “Fledermaus”. And very soon I realised that I never could do this. It is too difficult for me – there’s too much text; everything must have Viennese charm and style because otherwise the lurking danger is that it becomes kitschy. So I keep away from it – at least on stage. I did sing a “Merry Widow” in my early years, it’s true, but in English. That was incredible fun! It is great music and at the same time a demanding challenge for the singers. The great opera stars of former generations, Heinrich Schlusnus, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, Richard Tauber – they all loved to sing operetta. And then I won the Richard Tauber Competition in 1986… (smiles) Seriously, the main emphasis of my career will also be in opera and in lieder singing in the future. But why not make an exception once? Because it’s real fun. “Csardasfürstin”, “Zirkusprinzessin”, “Giuditta” – this music still has the subtle smell of old Europe.

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