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2008.04.25 From Turandot to tree planting: Western Mail interview

From Turandot to tree-planting with opera singer Simon Keenlyside

25 April 2008 by Mike Smith, Western Mail


As the judge of a major singing competition, opera star Simon Keenlyside is concentrating on other people’s performances rather than his own. But, as he tells Mike Smith, it’s also giving him the chance to enjoy some time out in the countryside he adores

There’s no doubting that Simon Keenlyside is one of the hottest opera singers in the world. But, off stage, you are more likely to find him planting daffs in Carmarthenshire than sipping champagne with adoring fans.

For it is where he lives with his wife, the Spanish-born prima ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child. And thanks to his latest project, he is now able to spend more time at home in Wales.

While Keenlyside, a baritone, may be much in demand from international opera houses, he is currently listening to others singing rather than performing himself.

He is among the judges for the Welsh Singers Competition – the search for the young competitor to represent Wales in the 2009 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World – which takes place at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, in June.

When I catch up with Keenlyside – the son of the violinist Raymond Keenlyside – he tells me all about his love for the Welsh countryside.

His passion for nature is nothing new. As a teenager he was a warden for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – he can still recognise every British birdsong – and later returned to Cambridge, where he had been a boy chorister, to study zoology. But he has long considered Carmarthenshire as his home.

“My father had a long house cottage in Carmarthenshire and, because I was at boarding schools, all my holidays were in West Wales so it was my only home,” he reveals. “I bought the tiny cottage from him in 1985 when I was a student and I extended it, renovated it and planted umpteen trees.

“I then had the opportunity to buy the land around it – 17 acres of hill farm. We bought the farmhouse and for the last six years built it from the ground up. It looks like it has been there for 200 years. The long house is now owned by my brother and sister and they have extended it.

“We still have a lot of flowers to plant. We are planting between 6,000 and 10,000 bulbs a year, mainly Welsh bluebells and Welsh daffs. We are also planting 10,000 indigenous trees. When I complained that I would never see the oaks fully grown someone said, ‘You look at someone else’s trees now and someone will look at your trees in the future’.

“I want to bring the wildlife in. I can’t have the sheep in yet because the trees are too small. It will be at least five years before I can let the sheep in. But if I can’t keep the grass short I can’t get the wildflowers so it is quite an interesting equation.”

How much time Keenlyside gets to spend in Carmarthenshire depends on his and his wife’s work schedules from year to year. However, he says that as the children come along and they are bringing up a family, it will be a different priority.

“Wales is home,” he stresses.

After studying singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, Keenlyside won a Peter Moore Foundation Scholarship and chose to join the Royal Northern College of Music to study voice with John Cameron, who opened up the world of German Lieder to him.

He made his first appearance in a major operatic role in 1987 as Lescaut in Manon Lescaut and since then he’s performed in Don Carlos, Falstaff, La Boheme, the Barber of Seville and Turandot among others.

It was a production of Magic Flute that brought Keenlyside and his future wife together – he literally fell for her.

“I am one of those people who doesn’t get out much. I was only ever going to meet another singer, a ballerina or stage hand,” laughs the 48-year-old.

“I was at the Royal Opera House with the Magic Flute and I fell through the trap door and broke myself in pieces. I was hungry and went for a dinner upstairs, waiting for the doctor to come, and there she was.”

While Keenlyside has a varied schedule ahead of him and wants to spend more time at London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, he says he won’t be giving up his international profile.

“I am not going to slam the door on houses that for 20 years have given me wonderful opportunities as most of my most interesting vocal work has been in Vienna or Paris or other great European houses. My first Don Carlos was in Madrid and Wozzeck in Paris.”

But, for now, he’s concentrating on his judging duties, alongside Grammy Award-winning soprano Rebecca Evans, for the Welsh Singers Competition.

“I have an enormous empathy for young singers because I was a beneficiary of these competitions,” he admits.

“I had no money so I had to do all the competitions but I must have had good fortune because I am not sure how the judges saw the potential in me. It must have just been potential because I didn’t have anything fascinating to light up a room then.

“Now when I am listening I think, do I select because their voice will be great for one role but not others, or they are young and can sort out problems with more training? You have to be very compassionate. But those with a bonfire that can’t be put out are still going to do it whether they get through these competitions or not. It is not always the college superstars who go on to have big careers.”

Another project Keenlyside has lined up is a major role debut with Welsh National Opera, which will be officially announced later this year.

Other past roles in Wales have been in Fledermaus, Iphigenie en Tauride and what Keenlyside describes carefully as some other “interesting things”.

“Some people hit the ground running with fab voices at 23 like Bryn (Terfel).

“Normally it takes time and, with me, a long time. I was incredibly grateful for the work given to me by WNO because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do straight away. It was not until my mid 30s that I started doing what I really wanted to do so I have had 13 great years.

“It is my turn and I am not going to waste it – it will be someone else’s turn soon enough.”

The Welsh Singers Competition takes place at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on June 16, 2008. To book tickets, call the box office on 029 2087 8444 or visit the website at www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk

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