2007.12.01 Opera News: “Simon says”

Simon Says

Adam Wasserman, Opera News, December 2007, vol 72, no. 6


The always-engaging Simon Keenlyside stops by for a conversation with ADAM WASSERMAN about recording his debut recital disc, the upcoming performances of his first Wozzecks and how he keeps the oldest roles in his repertoire feeling new.

Simon Keenlyside may maintain a career that takes him to the world’s top concert and opera stages, singing works by composers as disparate as Monteverdi, Verdi, Richard Strauss and Thomas Adès, but all his performances bespeak a remarkably consistent emotional honesty. For a singer on the order of Keenlyside, autopilot seems have been the only onstage option he’s never entertained. Fortunately, the versatile British baritone evinces a similarly candor in conversation, modestly playing down his accomplishments while chatting about the familiar challenges that keep him on his toes.

Despite coming from a musical family, Keenlyside is quick to note that he is an artist for whom things have not come easily; a singer who was admittedly “not good enough” in the early days of his career, he now possesses a powerfully lyrical instrument that he says was only burnished through the crucible of countless performances. Next month finds him returning to Covent Garden’s production of Die Zauberflöte as Papageno, while March and April in Paris promise his first performances of the title role of Berg’s Wozzeck, a role that seems tailor made for the baritone’s music-dramatic sensibilities. OPERA NEWS caught up with him after the conclusion of a Met run of Figaros that found his well-traveled Almaviva sounding as vivid as ever.

OPERA NEWS: You’ve just finished a run of Met Figaros as Count Almaviva, a role that you’ve done all over the world. How do you stay inspired when performing a role that you’ve taken on so many times before?

SIMON KEENLYSIDE: I’ll never get tired of the piece — I’ll never get to the bottom of it. It’s a joy. I’ve done the piece with Bryn Terfel a lot — we did it in Milan — and I’ve done it with Anja Harteros, who’s fantastic too, in Munich. So it’s not as if it is a new experience, as it is for some of the people in the cast. But it’s also wonderful to see new, young talents like Kate Lindsey, the Cherubino, coming through.

But you know, most of all, it’s not this holy period piece that we’re led to believe. It’s a mirror to all humanity. It’s a mirror to ordinary human life. I, as far as possible, like to try and be a conduit for that. It’s fantastic fun, but the dividing line between you having fun and undermining the piece completely is sometimes a rather thin one.

ON: Your first recital disc, The Tales of Opera, was recently released in the United States. What was the impetus behind the decision to make this record?

SK: Look, it’s only a bit of fun. That’s the truth. It’s only a bit of fun. It doesn’t impinge on my professional life. And that’s not a loaded answer at all. My life has been in the theater. At 46-years-old, I just thought for a bit of fun, when they asked, “Do you want to record something? I’d say, “Well, yeah.” It’s largely a diary of what I do, or am doing in the near future, or have done a lot in galas or whatever. I thought, better stick to what you do rather than starting a lot of repertoire that you haven’t sung.

ON: All of the pieces as heard on this disc really evince quite a lot of nuance and consideration. These arias sound as if you have lived in for some time.

SK: Yeah, I have. I don’t think it’s a bad admission what I’m about to say, but when you record these things, you record them in such a short period of time. You do six hours a day for three or four days and it’s still not really enough time. But you’ve got to be a realist — these things cost money and the record companies were generous enough to let me record them and write the disc notes and do little doodles in it. That was nice of them. So I couldn’t have expected to have a day off every couple of days, which frankly you would like as a singer. Singing six hours a day is not a lot of fun. So some of the tracks, they’re not as good as I would like them to be.

For example, I remember including, because I felt I had to, Ballo in Maschera’s “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima.” It’s a fabulous piece of music and it’s a yardstick for all Italianate baritones really. So I’d like to have done that better. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t, given the time constraints and fatigue. So I thought, well, that’s good enough and it’ll give me something to talk about. The truth of the matter is that sometimes recordings, just as performances, are about compromise. Equally I had to leave out a Don Giovanni aria, which I can sing in my sleep — the “Champagne” aria, for example — because I was too tired.

ON: I would imagine that when fatigue starts to set in during a recording session, attempting to record and re-record an aria in an effort to nail every minute detail becomes an issue of diminishing returns.

SK: I tried to do it as few times as possible. I really did. During the process I was put firmly in my place by my father. He was a musician and was in a wonderfully famous string quartet. Only last month, he was grumbling about the same things that we all grumble about nowadays — not enough recording time and not being paid for them and all these things. He’s 80 years old and he said one day, “I can’t believe it. They just reissued my string quintet. We didn’t get paid at the time and nobody even told us it was coming out,” … the usual old musician’s grumble. So I just smiled. He went upstairs to have a listen to it and I feigned disinterest because I knew the record very, very well. It was just reproduced under a different guise and a different label. He came downstairs, and he was pensive, and said, “You know, Si, I don’t really mind about any of that stuff. But I am proud of one thing,” he said, “It was all done in one take.” I thought well, that puts the modern recording process [in perspective].

[Doing multiple takes] is not always a good idea, because you want to get it right, but don’t want to fiddle too much. I think it’s not about what people perceive when they hear it — it’s what I feel when I know that I did it in one or two takes, or maybe three and maybe just tinkered with something. Basically it’s just the pacing of it. You are able to control the arc when you don’t record it note for note, bar for bar. I take my hat off to those that do it well and like doing that — good luck to them. I don’t mind a bit of roughness sometimes. If the overall thing is acceptable, I really don’t mind it. I also think in certain things — again, you can overstep the mark, particularly in live performance — that roughness can have its own color. Ugliness is also valid.

ON: In March and April you’re singing your first performances of Wozzeck in a new production at the Opéra Bastille. I would imagine that the process of preparing for that opera is a challenge.

SK: It’s not really a leap. I mean, it’s a new role, but it’s not a leap. No more of a leap than doing a modern opera like Thomas Adès’s. Every new role — and what I’m saying is a cliché, but it’s just true — is daunting. You do a modern opera and it’s daunting. You do Don Carlo in Vienna, it’s daunting. Wozzeck of course is an enormous mountaintop. Where am I? Nowhere! (Laughs) And I’m hoping that thing is going to reveal itself to me fairly shortly.

I’ve only seen Wozzeck once or twice and was daunted by the fact that the orchestra drowned the singers — and they were big voices — completely. Then I heard it another time in London with Tony Pappano and Matthias Goerne — who’s a wonderful singer, but is not known for the power of his voice — and yet you never lost him. So obviously the first time I heard it, it was done poorly.

But why do it? You know, the voice is always developing. You only have to look into the discographies. Your voice changes and it gets more powerful as you get older. I like using it. I would get bored doing the same stuff and I want to spend it. That’s sort of a wonderful dramatic challenge — I seem to have become an actor-singer and I like that. I think it’s a daft thing to say — I think all opera should be, ideally, musical theater. We seem to be surprised when people are interested in drama but there are loads of people out there who are good at that and people like me who are certainly interested in it. So to do, on the one hand, something like Traviata, which is pretty stand and deliver from the point of the baritone role, or Don Carlo, which is dramatic but not the same drama as the Schiller play … then on the other hand, Wozzeck, which is pure theater — not the most difficult to sing, but it’s just a very difficult piece of theater — it’s just a great challenge. I’m really relishing it.

ON: The breadth of repertoire that you’ve performed over the span of your career is expansive, to say the least. You’ve taken on operas written by composers ranging from Monteverdi, to Mozart, to Verdi, to Strauss, to Adès and now Berg.

SK: I didn’t intend that. The truth is, again, I think the most avant-garde thing you can do on the stage is do what the score and the script say. The most surprising thing you can say in interviews is to say the truth — I wasn’t good enough when I was younger. I wasn’t good enough to do the things I really wanted to do. I had lots of worthy ideas but I had not the juice to do them. So I was forced to take whatever work came along and if it happened to be Cavalli’s Calisto or all sorts of other things, it was because I didn’t have the choice of the roles that I really wanted to do. I also wanted to try desperately to stay home or near home. That didn’t work. Capriccio, for example — that was just a job for me that turned out to be an utter joy. That’s the way it goes — you bob around on the ocean currents and you just have to be in the best shape possible should luck come along. Not that you’re always even going to get it, because you might not.

ON: How do you manage not only look to after your voice doing such a wide variety of roles, but also maintain your enthusiasm for pieces that you may have already performed a number of times?

SK: I don’t know about others, but two things come to mind. First of all, I think a long voice is a healthy voice. Whether you choose to make that long by doing songs or whether it’s the occasional Baroque or post-Baroque piece, I don’t know. You find out the holes in it.

The other part, I think, applies both to work on the stage with producers as well as to new repertoire. You know, you can’t necessarily do more than a couple of different versions of a role. They’re just not in your body — any of us have got a certain number colors in our body. But if you keep yourself open and try to help the directors, if they’ve got one kind of overview of the work, then you never know. Something might be revealed to you. It might be only a small thing but even that is useful to put in your box of toys. I love doing hundreds of performances of the same thing. I never get bored of it if it’s a piece I love. There’s always something to tinker with, just as I think art and life are all in the detail. When it comes down to it, if something tickles my fancy and I want to explore it, it may only be a five-second piece of the work, but it’s still interesting to me.

I think also with new repertoire, sometimes you find things in your voice that you weren’t expecting. That’s always interesting. That’s what I think it’s all about — if you keep yourself interested, there’s a chance that the audience, too, might be interested.

ON: You’ve been an exponent for both innovative reconsiderations of traditional works — like Trisha Brown’s staging of Winterreise — and new works, like Lorin Maazel’s 1984, and Adès’s The Tempest. The latter of which seems to have been about as well received as any new opera can hope to be.

SK: It’s funny, because a lot of my past coaches or teachers were involved with the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s operas. Ted Uppman, for example. And if you asked them, any of them, “did you know you were working with a masterpiece?” All of them would say with no complications, “Yeah, of course we knew. We knew about that.” I know that what Thomas Adès has written is a great piece of art, a great work. I don’t know whether that makes Thom a genius or not, I don’t really care. I know that he’s written a great work of art and for all time for the operatic canon. I know that. The point is I don’t think it takes genius to know genius. I’m not talking about Thom, I’m talking about his piece. It’s a great piece. And after all the yapping about whether it’s Shakespeare or not real Shakespeare, anybody who’s a student of art only need look to, for example, Mozart. Mozart used of what you might call doggerel or very simple libretti to cloak the profundity of the actual musical work. Read what Goethe or Wagner had to say about that. So I’m not really bothered about those who say, “Oh yes, but it’s simple text,” and “What a pity he didn’t use Shakespeare.” I completely disagree with that, and I have my allies. Fortunately, I hide behind their skirts. It’s a fantastic piece, but it’s very difficult to sing.

ON: After singing an opera like The Tempest, or Wozzeck, or Don Carlo, what is it like to return to a more placid ensemble role, like Germont?

SK: You know why I’m looking forward to Traviata? I remember my manager saying “Why Traviata, Simon? It’s a secondary role.” Well, for a start I’m interested in ensemble stuff anyway as long as the role is interesting. Secondly, I think that piece has been, sort of, hijacked a bit — not always, because Dwayne [Croft] does it here and it’s fantastic — I heard it the other day. But a lot of places in Europe, they use older people and I think they’ve forgotten the ancient art of makeup. You look at the old recordings of Toscanini here with Robert Merril and Licia Albanese and he was 23 or something at the time. He’s one of my very favorite voices of all. It’s a bel canto sing.

ON: I would imagine that returning to a piece like that also has its benefits on the voice after having sung something like The Tempest.

SK: That’s a very interesting subject actually. The notion of fest, that is being fixed in a house, having a company — we don’t really have that any more, it’s only in Europe, and even now not so much. That means that you go around with your roles in your back pocket, your calling cards, and then you could get a lot more tired, I think, than perhaps some of the older singers. You know, a house such as the Vienna Staatsoper would have some of its greatest voices singing middle-sized roles because they would mix it up. A singer could do a Macbeth and then they, maybe just to help out, would do a Harlequin in Ariadne. That meant your voice is not being perpetually strained. Personally I very much like mixing it up. Even though I’m taking on a whole raft of Verdi stuff over in Europe and Vienna — Macbeths and also Onegins and God knows what — I will never drop things like Marriage of Figaro or my Traviatas because they keep your voice, put it back in the middle line again. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be hit by a bus or blow my voice anyway. But nevertheless, it makes me happy.

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