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2008.04.02 Altamusica Interview “a fresh Wozzeck”

Interview with Altamusica, 2 April 2008 (Mehdi Mahdavi)

Simon Keenlyside, a fresh Wozzeck


Translated by Ursula Turecek


Click photo for details of the production

He opened the Mortier era with a Pelléas walking on a tightrope before he regulated the steps of his Winterreise to Trisha Brown’s. Under the baton of the Cambreling-Marthaler duo Simon Keenlyside creates a Wozzeck whose vocal magnificence does not at all affect the impression of humanity on a knife’s edge. Still a fresh impression of a debut working at the first attempt, completely in command and suitably considered.

Did it help you to tackle the title-role of Berg’s Wozzeck with a team that has grown together as much as the one that Sylvain Cambreling and Christoph Marthaler  form.

When a conductor is always there and takes part in every rehearsal, he understands what we do on stage, while it is a little difficult to convince a conductor who arrives at the last moment. With Sylvain who often worked with Christoph it is much easier because he has seen the whole journey. Although I had arrived for this role debut knowing the score by heart and with my own ideas I needed much help. Sylvain had something to say about every beat because he has conducted this work several times. He could tell me to be careful when he thought that certain musical intentions that you heard with the piano did not come through the orchestral structure.

I think that it would have been impossible for me to tackle Wozzeck in a revival. I was lucky enough to have a team that was patient with me and enough time. For an artist it is important to take a risk during the rehearsals. Often it is not easy to do so when the conductor is there because musically he permanently controls everything.

I can’t do two things simultaneously. Most of the time I first focus on the production and then on the music. But here I had the time to do both at the same time. To make eight or nine run-throughs during the last week of rehearsals is rather brutal because naturally you can’t sing a role every day, sometimes twice a day and you have to trust in the director and the conductor to be able to pull it off.

Do you feel at ease in this role after this second performance ?

I don’t know, I’m shattered now! Even if, like in Vedi’s Otello or Falstaff, the music of the 19th century is at the same level as this incredible piece that Wozzeck is, it is situated completely opposite. Because the panorama that is offered by the libretto is a visual one. In the music of the 20th century this panorama is a mental one, through this psychology of the soul that I am so interested in.  The voice is more part of the general structure. The story is told in all its complexity by the orchestra and not by the libretto any more than when Verdi uses Shakespeare. Here two lines are enough to represent something like in a painting by Picasso because all the details, the psychological nuances are in the orchestration.

Is the actor more important than the singer in this role?

The question is always the same. Strauss wrote a complete opera, Capriccio, only on this subject. From time to time that balance leans towards the actor while in an aria you have to remain calm because the psychological progression happens through the music.

In the film Aria very great actors had to play an opera aria but they were worse than the worst singers. When I saw it I realised that time was not the same concept in the music because it is not linear. In an aria the drama on stage grinds to a halt, but the psychological process continues. It is very interesting to compare the way in which the operas of the 19th and of the 20th centuries like Wozzeck are constructed.

Everything I’ve said about the psychology and the complexity of the orchestral structure is true, but to play or to sing is more or less just a question of measure. You have to play and to sing because it’s theatre. But to play does not necessarily mean to move. Sometimes it is only a vocal nuance. When a great Shakespeare-actor says a monologue he does not run in all directions, he does not juggle, he does not do cartwheels, he only reveals great images to build castles in the sky. This is what we must do.

If the audience does not understand the language in which we sing the danger, the temptation, is to overact and this would be a gross mistake. To sing Pelléas in Paris or Wozzeck in Berlin is fantastic because you can speak to the audience in their proper language, but these great pieces are universal. Opera is a difficult art and you have to prepare for it before you come.

Is Wozzeck the most challenging role you have sung ?

This role is not difficult to sing. You must be careful not to make mistakes. If you climb a rocky face of 50 m height you can fall all the same, it is very risky even if it is not so high. The difficulty is not important. Posa in Don Carlo is rather longer, Don Giovanni is much longer and more dangerous to sing because of the aggressiveness you have to put into your voice.

Wozzeck is a rather short role but rather brutal in the character’s psychology. You feel the danger one week before the first night when you have to do it again and again without end, but once you have cleared this hurdle this role is not more or less difficult than any other. I will be careful not to sing it too much during one season. But I can say the same for Don Giovanni and even for Papageno – dialogues always do damage to the voice.

Christoph Marthaler’s production seems to be very demanding physically.

Everything that has to be well done is demanding. If you do not make demands on yourself you abandon the audience. I do not practise an art for comfort. There is no room for courtesy in art, nor for political correctness. One has a tendency to say something about humanity to the audience: it is active, immensely enlightened, there is nowhere to hide. These pieces are masterpieces that speak to us of our common humanity, of what’s good, of what’s bad, of what is madness, of what is normal.

I want the audience to ask these questions when they leave because it’s not about what I, Simon, think but about what the piece speaks. It’s not a question of knowing if it’s easy or difficult. It is the communication that is relevant. And this can’t be comfortable. The works of art are born from lack of comfort, from extreme dissonances, from the continental drift of emotion. This is what I want to talk about. Have you ever seen an opera, a play or a poem that is about perfection and permanent happiness ? We fight to be happy. And it’s from this fight that art is born.

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