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2008.03.01 Forumopera: “I must try to understand Wozzeck”

“I must try to understand Wozzeck”

A conversation with Simon Keenlyside.

forumopera.com (Ruth Walz) March 2008


English translation by Jane Garratt

Outright star of the present lyric landscape, Simon Keenlyside approaches an inevitable and gruelling role for the first time: Wozzeck. In his dressing room, on the eve of the opening night, the English baritone thinks above all that he must communicate with the public.

Wozzeck is a challenge, but not for me. To overcome the role, vocally, is not the true challenge. The true challenge, is to manage to involve the public and to succeed in raising good questions. Why does Wozzeck kill Marie? Because he became mad? Because he is too much in love with her? Did he sink into madness, or does he crack because he is at the end of his tether?

The challenge is to communicate these questions to everyone in the room. This role is new for me. He is a figure beyond categorising as “hero” or “villain”. It is not a question of admiring him, or on the contrary to feel sorry for him or to be horrified by him, one must simply try to understand him, by replacing him in his context: he is subjected to intense pressures for years and years, and he ends up cracking. Would I have acted in another way in his place? Wouldn’t everybody do so? All this pressure must be observable on the day of show, as though all the auditorium was on a tectonic plate. I have to be open to all the questioning and to be very receptive, more than usually, because it is about being taken up by the role! Christoph Marthaler is a very interesting man for this because he just does not ask us to keep and to assimilate our thoughts, nor to learn his acting directions by heart. He also encourages all proposals which we can advance; he is very attentive to all that we say to him or what we show him and he knows how to give all the team a desire to be passionate about the piece. He heats us to be white-hot, because he wants at all costs to come up with something new in every session of the rehearsals! Sometimes it is gruelling, because to offer something interesting, it is necessary to give of oneself, to be exposed, and therefore to run some risks … But we don’t die from it! (laughs) Of course, Sylvain [Cambreling] helped a lot me, because he knows this work extremely well! He knows by heart every measure of every page, but nevertheless leaves us, there also, rather free. He knows how to communicate his ideas to the singers, while leaving them a room for manoeuvre and by trusting in them. I had already realised this when we did Pelléas together four years ago.

Of course, Wozzeck and Pelléas are figures far away from the roles of Verdi, Wagner or Mozart that I also sing! But I do not think that it is essential to categorise the repertoire in that way. I prefer searching for correspondence between different styles: the Lied – or melodies (I like very much Poulenc’s «Travail du peintre »!) –it seems important to me to play the opera. And then, interpreting two very different figures, because of their styles and their respective epochs, offers different feelings: when I sing Papageno or Don Giovanni, they in no way feel the same thing as when I sing Rodrigo in Don Carlo! To compare so different roles, is like comparing a marvellous day of summer with a marvellous showery evening: I do not want to express priorities, I want to love all these figures. I need their differences. To sing a broad range of roles allows me to find out about different epochs, different everyday artistic [modes], different historical periods: besides music, books and pictures are also part of my everyday job. And it is marvellous to follow an occupation which always brings us back to arts, and to beauty! Finally, to have a vast repertoire is also a privilege: few artists can choose what they want to sing or not sing, and it is also anopportunity to exhume little known workss, such as the marvellous Calisto by Cavalli! Also one can show the same roles to young singers.

The road for a young baritone contains surprisingly hard obstacles to be overcome: they have to be wary of Mozart! Contrary to all expectations, he is a very difficult composer to sing. Papageno is exhausting for voice, one must pass continuously from singing to the dialogue… At any instant, one has impression of making a “Sprechgesang”! The role really requires a lot of work every day and a voice in very good form! Don Giovanni is a marvellous role, I would like to dedicate my life to it, but there also, the voice is not handled carefully, even though there really are no arias. Count Almaviva is well suited for young voices, but there it is the stage commitment which must be complete! Mozart is an attractive composer but a bit perfidious: it is more difficult than we think, and one can burn one’s wings there. Harlequin in “Ariadne of Naxos”, Schaunard in “La boheme” or Valentin in “Faust” are in my view the best roles for the young baritones.

A word to the wise [is enough]!

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