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2008.04.26 Radiomagazin

“Stop, stop, I can do other things too!”


Radiomagazin No. 17/18 08 (Christian Berzins)

26 April – 9 May 2008


Translated by Ursula Turecek

Hotshot – A meeting with singer Simon Keenlyside

Simon Keenlyside is versatile. The bass baritone sings German, French and Italian operas and recently he even changed to operetta. Why? “Because it’s fun.”  Radiomagazin met the singer with British waggishness.

The Englishman Simon Keenlyside is a fascinating personality. In Zurich the bass baritone who once studied zoology, in the role of “Faust”. DRS 2 will broadcast his Paris “Wozzeck”.

Ich bin nur durch die Welt gerannt, Ein jed’ Gelüst ergriff ich bei den Haaren.” [“I only ran through the world and grasped every desire at the hairs.”] Thus Simon Keenlyside says, nay, sings the words from Goethe’s Faust, puts on a sly face – those who want to may also call it artful -, slaps the knee of his counterpart and has arrived at the door of his wardrobe at the Zurich Operahouse. “Sorry, I have to go!”

Shortly before he had preached that he is entirely different from the characters that he plays. Never Don Giovanni, never Faust: “During a performance I give everything that is in my body and in my head. You have to drag me from stage then. But when it’s over I am only a normal man, who has nothing at all to do with these characters.”

We were right in not believing this singer-actor although the 49 year old emphasized this point at the choice of the language for this interview: “I am not Faust but I am poor Simon and I can’t really express myself in German”, Keenlyside says – notabene in German.

Papageno in Vienna

The Englishman is overmodest. You must know that he sang the role of Papageno from Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” in Vienna already – in Papageno’s home. A role where you do not only have to sing in German but also speak a lot. “It worked, but I could not improvise. And in Vienna you should do this, particularly in operettas. But for this you have to master the language much better. Recently I saw a “Fledermaus” in Vienna – it was wonderful but mainly because of the command of the language.” He does not accept the objection that he could perform in German operettas in Paris, after all he had also sung Papageno for the first time in Milan. No, Keenlyside would want to hold his own in operetta at the Viennese stage or not sing this Fach.

But why on earth has he recorded an operetta-CD of all things? “Because it’s fun”. Keenlyside can afford to do what he likes. “A good career with good colleagues and beautiful roles.” But this does not come just so? “No. This was a long journey. You try to organize but you don’t always succeed.” He lead this unsettled life for almost twenty years, was on his way for ten months per year. “Now everything is different. I’ve married and am lucky to put my life in order.”

Husband in London

The centre of his life is London. If you ask for the centre, the quintessence of his art, the British baritone’s eyes begin to twinkle. “Of course I want to sing as well as possible, bel canto, Lieder, ‚blablablabla’. But for me the most fantastic thing is achieved when I really satisfy the composer’s and the librettist’s will. However, this is dangerous. For certain works I cannot, nay, must not give everything I could give – I have to serve the work.”

And so he explains that he must not give his whole voice for the role of Pelléas in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”: “If I did I’d be egoistic. Of course the critics would like to hear how I give everything, then they could say “What a voice!” But that’s not the point, it’s the role that is crucial.” And there is yet another level: When he becomes Pelléas on stage, people say: “Ah, this is Pelléas!” Then he has to answer back and say: “Stop, stop, I can do other things too!”

Everyone loves applause

Someone like this does not sing for the applause, does not go to the forestage to present wonderful tones. “Who sings well sings authentically. If the applause comes afterwards you have to be grateful. It is a lie to say the applause is not important. Everyone loves it and I say thank you that I get much applause.”

And then he tells of former times when this gratitude was not genuine and the audience realised it. Natives of Zurich may recall William Shimell, the best Don Giovanni of the late 80-ies: His arrogance or irony in front of the curtain was brutal. Keenlyside’s politeness also contains something fiendish. But stop, we shall not exchange role and person.

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