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2008.02.28 Opera de Paris website: Wozzeck

Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside:

He is fascinated to discover a character…

From the Opera de Paris website, 28 February 2008



Alban Berg’s opera marks Simon Keenlyside taking over this role. The impression is of a baritone who has taken on one of the richest roles in modern opera.

OP: The flexibility of your voice makes you comfortable in a very large repertoire – from Monteverdi to Verdi, from Mozart to Berg, from Schubert to Thomas Adès. Can the same voice grasp such different styles?

SK: I would dare to say that it can’t. Someone cannot sing The Trout by Schubert, for example, with the same voice as for Don Giovanni. Basically, singers use the same support, the same technique but they must think of their ability to bring the variations of colour which a specific style requires. As an extreme generalisation, I would like to say that Verdi, for example, demands a voice like Louis XIV, in other words: “an iron hand in a velvet glove”. In Mozart’s operas, while the recitatives demand colours close to the melody, the music is more ecstatic. When in lieder, their immense diversity embraces the colossal orchestration of Prometheus by Hugo Wolf just as well as the miniature delicacy of Schubert’s Gondolier.

OP: Wozzeck is an important role for all baritones. Why do you like it?

SK: Drama interests me. For example in the Mozart Operas, where the dynamic of the theatrical action demands that the singer draws on all the vocal colours which are at his disposal. The beat is never fixed. As for Wozzeck it acts, above everything, as a Drama which unfolds in real time. The exploration of individual characteristics is a fascinating task even if, effectively with Wozzack, I would not want to tell you much more because I’m discovering the person. Also, however, I think of another person in the operatic canon who is breaking: Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande, a figure who has never ceased to interest me throughout my career. I can’t see another possible comparison with Wozzeck. In him one sees displayed the mind of a submissive man who has personal pressures as well as external ones and who questions this. Can a mind be lost in these circumstances or can it be lost as a result of very great cruelty?

OP: Didn’t the vocal challenges of the part frighten you?

SK: Studying the score, one quickly sees that the composer clearly picks out the moments where he wants the interpreter to sing, the moments when he wants it semi-spoken or completely spoken. Berg is very precise on these points. The range isn’t larger than in most Italian or French roles. Simply the required colours are very extreme.

OP: Beauty itself, constant beauty, basically, is not very interesting.

SK: In Rheingold, when Alberich curses love, he must produce a sound equally as ugly as his feeling. He cannot sing this happily. In the same way, in Wozzeck, one does not wait for the beauty of voice from Franz, that one hopes of Wolfram in Tannhäuser. However, it is very difficult to express the anger, or only the meaning of this extreme emotion, while being in control of the voice so as to be able to sing without damaging the voice. It’s a puzzle to which we seek a permanent solution. Initially I work with a pianist, then I listen to my horrible working tape. I learn slowly. For several weeks the walkman is stuck in my ears.

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