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2007.09.01 Crescendo interview

Crescendo, 1 September 2007

Axel Brüggemann

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Zwei Herzen im Dreiviertel Takt…*


For a long time operetta has not been as honest as on the new album by Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside.

Two all-rounders who aren’t afraid of anything – not even of an excursion to operetta. Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside can afford it. For a long time now there has not been an album where the light music was taken so seriously. Both singers interpret operetta with a dedication that only Fritz Wunderlich had before them.

crescendo: Miss Kirchschlager, Mr. Keenlyside, you are both experienced opera singers. Now you move together to the not exactly dazzling genre of operetta. Why?

Kirchschlager: We sang a little operetta recently, after a “Pelléas”-performance – and we felt as if we were on holiday. We let ourselves go and simply had fun.


crescendo: Operetta is often said to be empty, simple and primitive.

Keenlyside: But that’s not different in Italian opera either. Take a look at the second fiddles in “Traviata”. I prefer Louis Armstrong’s attitude: There is just good or bad music.

crescendo: In Germany operetta is the art of the 50ies, in Austria it is among the live tradition until today – what about England?

Keenlyside: Nothing! We don’t have any tradition. There was an operetta company once but it has not existed for quite some time now. As for me, I formerly heard operetta on records. I think that the tradition of Léhar and Kalman was interrupted by World War II and think that it emigrated to the USA, secretly. Composers like Kurt Weill or Erich-Maria [sic] Korngold continued this operetta-music and added a little Broadway to it. I don’t understand why people mock operetta and not Weill – for me, the one thing is the logical continuation of the other.

crescendo: How do you as an Austrian see this?

Kirchschlager: In Austria we grow up with operetta, it’s true, but in the end I am confronted with the same problem as Simon. Why, I don’t listen to operetta every day. I simply feel the call to put my foot into this world and see what it’s like there. It is about finding an attitude to life. The music is wonderful, the texts are very funny at times – it is virgin soil musically, maybe a Land des Lächelns [Land of smiles].

crescendo: And yet operetta is an open and even political genre. The Couplet traditionally integrates current affairs – its interpreters were the predecessors of Harald Schmidt and David Letterman.**

Kirchschlager: That’s true, of course, and you can see that directors take to operetta’s political dimension again. But for me personally the point is not to reanimate operetta. The reason why I sing it is because the music is so wonderful. I wish that you put on the CD and feel better than before afterwards. What’s wrong if you say that operetta simply should make you happy? I don’t mind being happy.

crescendo: Neither of you can be assigned to a definite repertoire. You are specialists in diversity.

Kirchschlager: For me specialism is a counterproductive phenomenon of zeitgeist. Formerly there were a soprano, a tenor and a bass – end of story. Today even mezzosopranos are classified in dramatic and lyrical mezzos and recently Barbara Bonney told me that somebody wrote about her that she was the first heroic soubrette. How absurd is all of this! When I sang Lauretta from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” I was warned that this is a soprano- and not a mezzo-part. Yet Lauretta is much easier to sing than Cherubino. I simply don’t feel like being pigeonholed – it would a cause vocal simplicity that bores me.

crescendo: Is the specialism a reason for the fact that we are in the era of vocal perfectionism?

Keenlyside: In former times singers like Hermann Prey sang Wagner, Verdi, operetta and even folk songs. Like this they developed a voice in which an infinite lot of colours came together. A tenor like Mario del Monaco certainly did not always strike the right notes but you believed him in every role because he performed it emotionally. Today he would probably have difficulties in establishing himself in the polished opera market.

Kirchschlager: My teacher Walter Berry once said to me that he would hardly have a chance today because many other things than only the voice are important now.

Keenlyside: The last tenor who was able to establish himself with a very characteristic voice was José Cura. I’m afraid that the possibilities of the recording methods have added to this development. There are many small voices that carry to the tenth row at most but on a CD they sound perfectly dubbed and resonant. This opens singing also to singers who do not come from the roots of the stage but mainly play with the possibilities of technics. On the other hand many first-class stage voices are told that they do not communicate on a CD. In former times artists were recorded that asserted themselves in performance – a career began on stage, not in the studio.

Kirchschlager: That’s also why I prefer live recordings, you can get the best idea of an opera’s emotionality with them. When I began to teach myself some time ago I realised that I am not capable of conveying vocal technique. My point is to awaken people, to ask them why they sing. I want do see their eyes and the abolute will in them to want something. It’s this that seems to me to be the largest deficit with many singers at the moment.

crescendo: The voice seems to be a criterion for success less and less: Let’s take a so-called tenor like Andrea Bocelli…

Keenlyside: Yes, and that also makes me mad and angry. That a million flies eat shit does not mean that it tastes good. I wish all the luck of the world to the Charlotte Churches and Russell Watsons. But they have a completely different profession: We are old chairmakers who patch every chair by hand. We are not owners of candy floss-factories. The biggest trouble is that we are sitting in our classic corner and try to call attention to the difference. But in doing so we bid farewell to the discussion because we are put into a corner as grumblers at once. It’s like with a religion: If you say something against God the churches feel attacked but at the same time they take the privilege to say that they feel sorry for you because you don’t believe. There is no dialogue in which you can talk about opera’s fundamental values with the fans of the shady classic. We know our truth but we don’t always get anywhere with it.

Kirchschlager: The worst thing is that people think they hear classical music when they put on these records because they are sold as classical music to them. But in the end I don’t believe that these mock opera singers fill people with enthusiasm for real opera. By the way, I also don’t believe that people would go to real opera if these other singer weren’t there. This is a matter of a completely different world, with completely different intentions. But of course you ask yourself at times why you tear out your heart when someone comes, presses the right marketing buttons and achieves much more. On the other hand: real truthfulness always wins – in any case it lasts longer.

Keenlyside: This is not only a phenomenon of opera alone. Take a look at politics, there also it’s not the most clever and considerate people that prevail, but mostly the self-promoters. We deal with a temporal phenomenon here.

crescendo: So the metamorphoses you describe are a mirror of our time – the voices are the soul of the presence?

Kirchschlager: Of course it cannot be a matter of conventionalising and copying the old things, of going back into the 60’s. If we act seriously on the assumption that opera changes by-and-by, that people communicate with each other differently, singing changes too of course. But that’s exactly why it is important to position yourself with your voice, with your repertoire and with what you are doing – to take a position.

crescendo: It’s not only the voices that seem to have changed but also the musical interpretations – the great conducting personalities are all very old. Do you also feel a change in the pit?

Keenlyside: In the 50’s and 60’s there was the reproach that the singers had too much power. Today it is the other way round, I’m afraid. Opera’s complete power is with the directors and particularly with the conductors. It is time to come back to a cooperation that is about mutual ideas of music.

Kirchschlager: But fairly one must say that Kleiber, Böhm, Furtwängler or Karajan were sovereigns too….

Keenlyside: Yes, but sovereigns that ruled their empire mostly from the voices. On the old recordings there is a mutuality between pit and stage – everything is standing on the baseground of music and you hear the enthusiasm of cooperating. I think that the old ensembles added much to this mood. They broke up to a large extent. Today it’s different artists that meet in every performance. The big operatic family that worked on ideals together is nearly dead.


*This is a quotation from an operetta – “Wiener Blut” – meaning “Two hearts in three-four time…”

**Harald Schmidt is a German comedian with his own talk show on German TV treating political subjects among others. David Letterman is a late night talk show host in USA.

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