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2008.06.01 Amici Di Verdi interview ROH


Interview for Amici di Verdi

Chorus Rehearsal Room, Royal Opera House, London

1  June  2008

The interviewer is Rodney Milnes

SK in Red

RM in black

Audience in Blue

After a general welcome Rodney started by asking about Simon’s current Verdi roles

RM: What parts can you already sing?

SK: Well, Ford, but you know our master has given us just this dumb mark on the wall of a furious cuckold, so I don’t feel that’s really, I don’t feel that it’s in keeping, in line with many of the other great Italian journeys.

RM: Where?

SK: Where did I do Ford? Munich, here, Cleveland a few places, Vienna I think if I remember.


Simon as Ford, Royal Opera House, 2001

RM: Are you slightly doubtful about it?

SK: No, I’m, in love with it, I just don’t …  it’s not the same sort of journey as a Rigoletto or a Macbeth or Roderigo in Don Carlo. It doesn’t have the same chiascuro It hasn’t got the same… you know it’s just got the red mark on the wall.

RM: A plimsoll mark?

SK: Yes.

RM: And what about Germont?

SK: Well. It’s funny, the king is dead, long live the king! I had a lot of work at the Met, and I knew very well that it wouldn’t last. Because, I think as a singer you have to take risks, but take risks with an option, and if you keep on as a singer not taking a chance or not being given a chance, your stock will, sooner or later, go down. My work at the Met was not interesting, vocally so it was bound to run out.

But then the old boss left and the new boss, Peter Gelb of course, is my best friend, it seems! He’s gone all round the world asking a lot of us to come and join him. I had a rather bizarre conversation with Peter where he said “What do you want to do? You want to do a new Rigoletto?” I said “You’re crazy Peter, you’ll be laughed out of the Met. I haven’t done it at all yet!” He said “You let me do my job”. So I actually asked if I would do Traviata there first. Traviata and Don Carlos at the same time, because that would mean I wouldn’t have to be away so long.

But I wanted to do Traviata for an interesting reason. The old Toscanini recording with Albanesi, with a young Robert Merrill, was one of the very first operatic things that I ever heard. Even then we were still living in an age when what passes often, not always but often, as great singing is just loud singing, and I liked the elegant singers such as Merrill and I bumped into that recording. So when, when they asked me what I wanted to do he said “Well Traviata’s rather boring, a secondary role”. I’m not interested in primary or secondary, but I think it will be a wonderful opportunity for me, and for people like you who are interested: whether we succeed or not is another matter, in singing Verdi. In singing Traviata specifically, as elegantly and fully, but within our… not stretching ourselves beyond the frame too roughly, as I possibly can.

Robert Merrill as Germont Pere

RM: Callas wanted to cut the Di Provenza aria

SK: Good lord!

RM: Yes she did, it’s on record, in public, she said so! And, if it’s not interestingly sung, you could sort of see what she means…

SK: Yeah!

RM: Because one of the attributes is that its very, very, very difficult to sing.

SK: Well, what isn’t? [laughter] It’s like when people give me too much credit and say “your job must be so tiring and so difficult to get done”. Tell me a job that isn’t!
I do really take issue with the casting these days, all round the world, that one is often cast on, purely on looks. I mean women, of course, get a far worse deal than men, but how many times have I heard Pere Germont sung by an old baritone that’s on his way out. And that’s totally at odds with how I think. In my head anyway.

RM: But it was written for an elderly baritone, wasn’t it?

SK: Don’t know.

RM: It’s one of the reasons why, I believe, the first performance was a fiasco, in fact the first Germont Pere had tremendous difficulty with the aria. It was one of the reasons, frankly, for the failure of the first night. That and the very healthy looking soprano! So it is difficult. Why do you want to play it?

SK: [Gesturing to a pile of CDs] All these things that I’m hiding behind here are a fraction of what I have at home and I just adore them. One talks about Italian singing, well you play the difference between, even between just baritones, Zenelli [Renato Zenelli], De Luca [Giuseppe De Luca], Gino Bechi, they’re as different as Pinsa [Ensio Pinsa] is to Gigli [Benjamino Gigli]. They’re all different. There is such a thing as Italianate singing it’s true. And in the whole tradition of the Germans with their… many of these… the Germans from the first half of the century – they’re fabulous voices but not in an Italianate way. But I just like good singing.


Simon as Posa, Madrid 2005

They then moved on to discussing Don Carlos and Hamlet.

RM: Do you see a connection between Posa and Hamlet?

SK: You are going to tell me one! [laughter] no I think my life is very much like a cork on a current, just whatever comes past me that I’m able to do or interests me at the moment. I think I’m very visceral in these matters, but I stand on the shoulders of people like you who have done this before me. And that’s the truth of the matter. Whether it be lieder, French song or opera. It’s the scholarship that I will investigate and then these records. But when it comes to my own work I did my best. For example with Hamlet, I thought I ought to study this play.
Did it really inform the opera for a live performance for a vocal performance? It’s a little provocative to say “no” but, put it this way, it didn’t as much as I thought it would and it’s certainly true of the Schiller play that it doesn’t so much. It’s very useful, it’s very interesting but one can live without the two.

RM: I’m just thinking that if two such rather good composers as Verdi and Thomas, and I think Hamlet’s a wonderful piece, there are obvious problems with what he had to put in for example the mad scene. But the meaty scenes, the closet scene, the scene with the father at prayer, they are first rate stuff, they really are.


Hamlet, Covent Garden 2003

SK: I can I must admit that every baritone loves singing it, it doesn’t touch me much, not compared to these Verdi pieces. It doesn’t move me, but I know that with absolute commitment and colleagues of a like mind that I think it’s a marvellous piece.

RM: Was it bigger than you expected?

SK: No, it wasn’t. Funnily enough it’s almost the reverse, I’d spent so many years singing Mozart, and as a young singer you are advised to sick with Mozart, well singing Giovanni is twice as hard. Twice as tiring as singing Posa for example, you’re torn into this maelstrom of violence, aggression and cynicism and you have the recitative. You don’t have the time to steer your voice around. It’s almost as if in the Verdi Don Carlos, in this role time is almost half slowed down. You have the time to think how one note will go to another and therefore how to stay vocally healthy.
So no it was the other way around for me. Things like Giovanni are utterly exhausting and Don Carlos is, by the end of it, obviously leaving the rehearsal periods aside because they’re always tiring, once you get into the run you could sing the thing again if you wanted to, I find. Maybe it’s just that I’m older.

RM: That’s true as well, you learn a lot. I just felt good to say that two good composers writing for the same singer whether there was any facet of the vocal writing that you found comparable?

SK: I don’t know, thinking on my feet I don’t know.

RM: The only word I would throw out as comparable is elegance. There’s a great deal of elegance in Hamlet.

Simon as Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet, Barcelona 2003

SK: Is that the nobility of the character, or is that the piece?

RM: The vocal writing. Posa, surely is one of the most elegant roles Verdi ever composed. The courtier who has to behave well.

SK: Which is why I find it difficult [laughter] I mean not in a facetious way, because having encountered the play you come across this ecstatic idealist. I’ve never really had a particularly good director at all in these five different productions of Don Carlos. Nick Hytner, who is fantastic, IS. I find it very difficult to marry up what I feel in the vocal writing Verdi gave me; as set against the ecstasy and the extremism of the play. I find that difficult because he’s a very noble vocal line but the character is not a noble person.

RM: When Nick directed the play in Manchester, about 20 years ago, very soon after I was lucky enough to do a radio interview of 25 minutes. He spent almost the whole talk talking about Posa as if he were the most important character in the opera. Is he doing the same thing now?

SK: Well, within reason. He’s a very inscrutable man, but interpolating I think he thinks the same. Yeah.

RM: On the surface from the vocal writing and, in a way, from the libretto Posa is the, the “goodie”. He’s the good man with all the right liberal sentiments and gets rubbed out for his pains. But that’s a terrible over-simplification certainly as far as the play is concerned. The danger of that sort of fervour.

SK: Yes, and how power corrupts, but you don’t get that so much in the opera. I don’t think.

RM: So is it always a shock for audiences when he very nearly kills Eboli, that’s not how the character is being presented.

SK: No, quite and it’s true.

RM: And he’d do it wouldn’t he – if he hadn’t been stopped by the tenor?

SK: Maybe! [laughter] I spoke with Nick about it. The genius of Verdi as I mentioned with Ford is that he will give you a colour, that’s your colour, do not stray beyond these boundaries. So a good director will do something of the same. They have an overview and they are clear about what they want to show to the audience. That may well be not, or at odds rather, with what me as one character is able to show or is expected to show. I may be showing some sort of idealism, but the audience perceives something entirely different, that is looked at in a more oblique viewpoint.

RM: He is a Machiavellian intriguer in many ways, he manipulates everyone for his own ends.

SK: That’s my point that I made so badly! Perhaps he doesn’t get as far as thinking about himself, but he will take any opportunity to try and manipulate the situation. Whether or not the audience is being shown overall that Philip had him on a string and the Catholic church had him on a string, all of them embraced him, knowing that they could use his kudos. All knew all along about his plots and intrigues. I don’t know that you can see that it shows.

RM: Well that will depend somewhat on how the scene between you and the King is directed. Part of the things that Nick said is that it shows how Machiavellian he is. That he actually instigates the meeting between Carlos and the Queen which starts off the complete disaster. And that he really has no intention of serving the King after their big scene. He was going to use that trust again for his own revolutionary fervour. And again Nick says that he has tried in rehearsal the idea that Carlos and the King hate each other. That Carlos is looking for another father and finds him in Posa and the King is looking for a real son and again finds him in Posa. And that Posa uses both people’s attachments again to further his own ends. I suppose, we won’t get into editions, but the bit cut after the death of Posa…


Death of Posa, Royal Opera House 2008

SK: Which I know nothing about really!

RM: Stay that way or you will go mad! [laughter] there is an ensemble but for the first time Carlos tells the King how close he has been to Posa and the king then knows he has been betrayed by Posa and it’s the only sort of slight punishment that he gets. But again it’s this thing of the murder, it happens so quickly but I suppose it’s something you’ve always got to remember about the man, that he’s so fervent that even killing an unarmed woman would be acceptable

SK: In the play certainly.

RM: What a very interesting piece. Obviously I can’t ask you anything about the production.

SK: I think there’s nothing I could say that would enlighten any of you! [laughter] It’ll stand or fall on whether we do our job I suppose.

RM: But you’ve plainly had a good time.

SK: Yes, fascinating. It’s a privilege. I think it’s true to say, anyway for me, that it’s a privilege to do the roles at the right time of your life. But it’s even more of a privilege to encounter a wonderful director, and I’m very sad to say that it’s happened to me very rarely. It’s perhaps just luck.

The audience asks about Simon’s feelings about Modern opera.

Audience: Is there anything modern coming up?

SK: No, I think I’ve done enough modern opera. I’m glad I have but I can’t pretend I did it because I wanted to commit to modern composers. I did it because I wanted to be home. I was extremely lucky to come across a masterpiece in the Tempest. Where possible I would like to be associated with it regularly. So no, I think I have things I want to do. Old fashioned singing roles I want to do. But If the Tempest comes up I’ll do that, well I am doing it at the Met in 2012.

Simon as Prospero with Cyndia Sneiden as Arial in

The Tempest, Royal Opera House 2004

Audience: Do you feel the same about 1984?

SK: No. I don’t read reviews. I didn’t start off having a principle it’s just that I was in a different country when they came out when I was younger, or when I was in my late 20’s early 30’s I couldn’t read them anyway because they were in a language that I didn’t speak. So I got into a habit of not reading them. But I’m not such a fool as to not know what the general feeling is. I know what you are referring to with 1984, it wasn’t particularly well received. I think that I am really not the doyen of taste, that I’m not a judge of taste, I know when something is fantastic. I know 1984 is a piece for all time, I think it has its place in the pantheon of great operas. I can’t say for 1984. But I think it was an interesting evening in the theatre. I enjoyed it.

Audience: I hated it. I saw the dress rehearsal and I hated it! And I couldn’t get it out of my head. I came back and saw it 3 times, I found it really interesting

Audience: I was really impressed with it!

SK: Mmm. It’s come up many times, Maestro Maazel has asked if I will take part in it, and I think he’s getting a little grumpy with me, understandably because it’s his baby, his work. But I have other priorities in my life. I want to be at home with my family and I want to sing roles that I am burning to sing Wozzecks, Rigolettos, my Marriage of Figaros, all these things we were talking about. The truth is 1984 doesn’t feature in that.


Simon in Room 101, Royal Opera House 2005

The conversation moves towards a general discussion of Simon’s views on singing, singers and conductors.

RM: Looking towards the future, you mentioned the dread word “Rigoletto”

SK: That’s not a dread word at all. I think, as you were alluding to earlier about the likenesses or otherwise between different roles and different composers, and I’ve often been asked, “Why is your repertoire so broad?”. I would say two answers. One that I wasn’t good enough at an early age to do what I wanted to do, which is a good thing! But secondly, if I look at all the other singers in the 20th century, any of them anyway, it’s a normal progression to embrace new roles. You know very well, it’s not a question of changing repertoire. A tree is bendy when it’s young and if it’s well rooted it becomes stronger. I think that’s true.

I was advised by my old teacher John Cameron, who said to me: “DO NOT make the mistake of trying to sing beyond your years. Try and sing with a balanced voice and get the springboard of the middle sorted out. And if you are lucky nature will give to you the sort of Louis XIV iron hand in the velvet glove around after 40”. It’s true.

RM: I think you are incredibly lucky to have started with John Cameron, who was a singer I admired enormously.

SK: Yes, I was.

RM: Did he see what you were going to do?

SK: No. He died before, I wish he’d lasted a bit longer. But he conked out before I was doing the repertoire that I am doing now. He told me always to do my solemn stuff, because he would say “A long voice is a healthy voice”. And also you find all the holes in your voice when you sing songs. And any opera singer that says “Oh my voice is too big to sing songs” needs to do a bit more homework. Because Wolf’s Prometheus or many other things, let alone the orchestral music, are as big as any Wagner stuff. It’s healthy and it’s interesting.

RM: Really?

SK: So I think I’ve been very typically British, actually. British singers are very reluctant to go into the repertoire where Europeans charge straight in. the way I’ve gone into the Italian repertoire, I think, has been very natural. Don Carlos, Traviata, Rigoletto, Macbeth, and let’s see about the one that I love most of all Otello. Which I’ve never mentioned ever! But, it wouldn’t matter to me if I didn’t.

RM: But you will.

SK: I will!

RM: I swear I will be there! I mean not even mentioning any other lyric baritone or heroic baritone, there’s room. But there does seem to be now a tall American who is singing roles like Macbeth, Boccanegra, is this a new trend and direction?

SK: [in an American accent] “I will counsel you to my previous answer”. These guys, if you are able to do it you’ll try. I don’t know who you mean, there are a number of tall Americans around but it’s a dangerous thing. I was thinking that the other day when I was talking to a journalist about Don Carlos and mentioned Sonia Ganassi, who I encountered a couple of years ago in Cenerentola and she is just such a wonderful singer. A wonderful elegant stylist, and what a big risk that is for any singer to step from one lead to another. Moving into a different repertoire, where you are utterly exposed and at risk of being shot down in flames.

I think the more baritones the better. They are not all, we don’t all make the right decisions. I may blow up on something, but in your life there’s only one turn.

Sonia Ganassi as La Cenerentola

RM: That’s an interesting point. Ganassi, because I remember in earlier performances of Don Carlos here, I mean Josephine Veasey didn’t have a sort of huge, traditional Italian screamer mezzo, and she was marvellous. There’s actually no reason why a singer like Ganassi shouldn’t be as marvellous.

SK: Going back to baritones look at Gino Bechi, mention De Luca, they were not big heavy, particularly Bechi. Many of them, and you mentioned Vanni Marcoux earlier on are different. One gets used to whatever the sound world is shortly after the beginning of the evening. It doesn’t have to be a great big dark brown sound at all. I’m open to be persuaded myself.

RM: I was just wondering if you went through a period, in my opera going lifetime it was sort of 50’s 60’s 70’s, when it was expected that everyone singing Verdi would have a huge voice.

SK: Yes! Postwar Bassinis, unbelievable aren’t they? But it’s boring! It’s boring that one should try to… it’s not surprising that as all the next generation of young singers, such as myself, grew up with records, that you can’t really tell where a singer comes from because they are all brought up with an Italian technique. Whereas when you were going there was a German school, and Italian school, a Russian school even an English school. I don’t think that’s so evident now. But on the down side the young singers copying the sound is a little bit less interesting.

RM: I’m not surprised. A baritone I admired enormously, Cappuccilli was so good for the sound and the taste and I think him singing something would be in my Desert Island discs. Absolutely beautiful to hear him singing with such insight.


Piero Cappuccilli singingRenato’s aria “Alzati… Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima” from Un ballo en Maschera

SK: But oddly enough I didn’t like him at first.

RM: Why was that?

SK: Because of the recording. I think he came along before the time when recording technology was getting better and better, he came along earlier than that. And the microphones, whether you can say “Please put it further away from me”. The sound was very close. I don’t think Cappuccilli benefited from a close microphone. It was quite a grating sound close up, wasn’t it really? But within five metres he was demi-god like.

I had the privilege of doing Sylvio here, rather poorly, but he took a shine to me in this room. And asked me to stay back and told me to do my Italian repertoire and I remember saying, “But, Maestro, if I do that my voice will blow up, probably. And I’ll want to be able to sing Schubert too”. And he didn’t speak English at all well but we got by. He said “But your name’s not an Italian name. By the time you wait until you can sing Italian you may be in danger of not getting the work, because it takes time just to establish yourself singing the Italian music. Unless you are an Italian”. It’s true. And he also banged on about, something which I find fundamental, almost… perhaps it’s the most fundamental to what I think about opera in general. Which was, he was always going “prima la voce, prima la voce”.

As a student I knew the term, and took it in my total ignorance to mean that the Italians were just standing on the stage and singing. Now of course I realise “Yes, standing on the stage and singing. And they’re inflecting and they are talking to us. Because guess what, the Italian audience can understand them! And they’re inflecting and firing at us with all colours in their body and in their voice, and there’s no need for somersaulting and juggling around the stage.”

And that’s something that, whenever I’m in England or not, till I’m finished, that I will hold that as close to me as my spine is. That acting with your voice is what it’s about. And of course it’s about that. What Simon Russell Beale in Hamlet does – he doesn’t run around the stage in English either. He stands there and talks to you. So why on earth would you expect an opera singer to do any different? Whether the critics say it was boring or not. More than likely that means that they don’t understand Italian, and they don’t know what’s happening. And what passes for good acting is simply distracting for the eye, that’s all. So I think Cappuccilli’s lesson to me was just wonderful, fundamental.

RM: Fascinating, he didn’t benefit from the close microphone, which of course Vanni Marcoux did. So to sing, Macbeth and Boccanegro with such lyricism is something to which you might possibly look forward?


Vanni Marcoux

SK: Yes I think I’m taking it on, I can’t remember.

RM: Which role? Macbeth?

SK: Well both. I don’t want to do too much too soon because of the anxiety. My biggest enemy, to me, has not been my voice but the fact – I’m not alone loads of singers and actors like me – who are uncomfortable being themselves on stage. It’s ridiculous. Shy, whatever you want to call it and with me it took a long time to overcome and for my voice to come out. It was there but I wouldn’t let it out. But I would still be anxious if I had two new roles in one year. Just because of the learning. It would make me very, very tense and then that would reflect in my voice. Nothing to do with my own production just my personality would get a little wound up. So it’s about five years down the line, Boccanegra. The Rigolettos are all over the place. In Verdi’s birthday year in Vienna, which I’m pleased about.

Because, there’s another thing about conductors, it’s a thorny subject, I think that the balance is wrong nowadays. I think it was wrong, perhaps, forty years ago when the singers held sway, but I think it’s very wrong the other way now. And the singer is often supposed to be a blank piece of paper to receive whatever they are told. But the best answer to that, the best way round that is to have a conductor who speaks the language, or at least understands the language. Then they are more likely to breathe with you and go with you. It’s very hard if they don’t, one has to be so familiar with the piece. So I’m thrilled for my part to be with an Italian for my first Rigoletto and for my first Macbeth and for the Vienna Rigolettos too. I forget who the conductor is for the Boccanegra, but it’s Munich, which is a house I love and a hall which I love. It’s a beautiful hall to sing in so that’s nice too.

RM: I am surprised because there are other roles that I would have immediately thought of, like Macbeth or Boccanegra, the lyricism of it, but then again to hear Rigoletto sung lyrically does not happen every day. Is that your way in? To think it’s lyrical phrases?

Jacques_Imbrailo_2SK: Well I was with a young singer from here, very talented yesterday, Jacques from the Vilar program [Jacques Imbrailo, left], and it’s funny, it was the same with me I shouldn’t be surprised. The simplest thing for us after twenty years or whatever it is singing, is the revelation to them. And singing with line, it’s so obvious for any singer really, as if you were a washing line with pegs clipped on it is the way to sing anything. So yes, that’s the way in. I would always sing it but that’s called practice isn’t it? You sit down and work out how one note links to another note, and you do that day after day, week after week, month after month until it’s second nature. And then you climb into your car and drive like hell.

RM: And then I suppose in 20 or 30 years time you’ll be old enough to sing all those marvellous…

SK: No, I’ll be finished then! I’m 48 now so not even 20 years.

RM: Coming into your prime!

SK: Well [in an old voice] I’ll be creaking across the stage with a wooden leg and a glass eye mumbling…too much.

RM: I was thinking more of those marvellous heavy fathers

SK: Please god I don’t have to put on tights when I don’t want to. [laughter]

RM: Well you wouldn’t have to wear tights in Louisa Miller for instance.

SK: I hope you’re around Rodney, because it’s the thing I love most of all, and it’s wonderful frustration for any singer. I bet it would be for any dancer either, when you sing Schubert’s Nachtviolen this tiny little, perfect miniature. And then people come up to you afterwards and say “Oh that’s marvellous, you should stick with Schubert”. And you’re smiling listening, but actually inside your head you’re going “No, but I can do other things! I’m not going to stick to that!” And that’s what happens time and time again. When I do Rigoletto it will be, unless I don’t do it properly, dramatic, full of more angular singing than any Posa would be. I mean any Posa should be sung.

RM: Why have you stopped doing Rossini?

SK: If I’ve stopped Rossini. Well I’m doing it here, I’m doing the Barber of Seville, well it’s because this is where me and Zen have made our home. How long we’ll be in Britain, God knows, but for now we are definitely in Britain and this is a great House for any singer. For any singer you need a home House. The old “fest” system is finished, where you had a home House say in Europe. There were a few of them. When you had thirty performances and did the rest elsewhere. But in Britain it’s stopped. But I love this House and I want to make it my home, so you’ve got to keep things ticking over. So that’s the only reason I’m doing it though.


Simon as Figaro, Scottish Opera 1991

And if I’ve stopped doing it, why? Because by default, and possibly as a result of Mozart, I found that the ideally, even if it didn’t work, the marriage between music and theatre was so possible, so perfect, and I loved the drama. And most of the pieces I ever was involved with were real time and really meant something. And that’s what I wanted to get across to an audience too, for them to feel what I felt. It wasn’t the tune. And whilst I do love Rossini’s Barber of Seville and the one I remember doing in Berlin just with Berghaus was utterly enchanting, and meaningful and really “Comedia del Arte” beautiful. I think, by and large I’d rather, fry other fish.

RM: One thing I really regret missing was your Dandini. It’s very, very, very difficult and I thought that Keenlyside would be able to do it.

SK: Yes, it is. But again I love seeing the likes of Sonia and Juan Diego doing those pieces, because they really send the hair on my arm up. But it’s not for me. I don’t enjoy the music. It doesn’t touch me, doesn’t move me. I find it, to be brutal and rude, it’s just me though, “canary-fancying” music. It doesn’t interest me. But done with style it’s fabulous!

RM: I have just moved house and thrown away dozens and dozens of records. One composer whose things have been chucked out, and that’s Rossini! And the other one is Offenbach, so I’m quite peculiar.

SK: You know we said in the canteen, I was joking but it’s not so far off, that I wouldn’t… that one can say to a baritone don’t sing your Verdi until you get your first pair of glasses. Well I would also think that with the Rossini or Verdi and Mozart. If I were in the middle of a show – of course you are always in control, your weapon is there for a start. But if the building was falling down and on fire and I was singing Barber by Rossini, well I’d quietly take my coat off and walk off. Perhaps like cows and horses in the stables, horses panic and the cows kick the door down. I think I would pack up my stuff and walk off. But if I was in the middle of a Verdi or a Mozart or a piece like that I wouldn’t care, I’d carry on. It means something, it means so much to me, it’s more important in that moment than anything else in the world. Except my wife.

Giuseppe de Luca singing Ah! Per semper io ti perdei from Bellini’s I Puritani

Audience: you spoke, I was delighted to hear, about De Luca and Pinsa, people of that era. All the acting was in the voice

SK: Yes.

Audience: What do you think of something like the famous Callas Tosca, where the acting was all superimposed over the voice? Is it not meant? And would it not be better, of being appreciated more by Verdi to have it more in the voice itself. In the beauty of the tone?

SK: I would love to ask Verdi! I’d love to know the answer to that one.

Audience: what do you think?

SK: Yes, De Luca is perhaps… if I had to take one, it might be him. I think Gobbi was after him but didn’t quite have De Luca’s class vocally.

Audience: He didn’t have the beauty of tone.


Giuseppe de Luca as Figaro

SK: No he didn’t. I like De Luca for the combination between what nature gave him and the artistry and elegance that he had on top of it. That’s the endless question, whether it’s words and music, music and words, you know, I think they go together. I think that someone like Gobbi, you no doubt saw him, I didn’t, probably did have them together.

Audience: He never had a beautiful voice but he was a tremendously compelling and interesting performer.

SK: Yes, I find myself coming back to him again and again, in spite of the fact that it’s not just the sound. I think, for what it’s worth, the important thing is that you believe in the whole entity that is the theatre. And it also will have to be a voice… I don’t think you could act any more for recording. To gild the lily. I think they both go hand in glove

A discussion of the relationship between a composer, conductors and the performers.


RM: The Tempest. Are there composers who know what you do? Do you come first or does the Tempest come first?

Barbican_adesSK: The Tempest absolutely comes first, nothing to do with me. I was summoned to two meetings with Tom. I was doing War and Peace at ENO down the road and I was told I could meet him in the Lamb and Flag pub. War and Peace is so long – I had a two and a half hour break between one scene and another. So I got out of costume into my clothes, left the theatre went to the Lamb and Flag, met Tom. He told me something about the piece and then I went back and did my death scene! And the other time I was summoned, he’d done, he’d written the first scenes of the Tempest and he just asked me to come and sing it through. But absolutely second place. I remember one of my colleagues asking him if he could change something, and he very kindly said “No. NO.” He very gently said “No, because somebody else will be able to do it!” Ouch! He’s very clear what he wants.

RM: I was interested in you saying that the age of the conductor will be better than the age of the singer possibly.

SK: Oh I didn’t mean better. The balance is wrong. I’m a bit bored of, a good conductor, a good musician, a good singer everyone has respect, but often you are just treated like an idiot and it’s wearing.

RM: Would you ever sing Trovatore? Is it rewarding?

SK: That’s the point. I’ve toyed with it, I know the aria well, of course, and the various scenes. I’ve heard it many times. I remember when I was younger hearing Wolfgang Brendel, admittedly he was German, but he had a wonderful voice when he was young. And I just thought to myself after the show “Why would you want to do it?” It’s great vocal pyrotechnics. I don’t think it lights my fire right now. And at 48, again, there are a lot of things coming up. It’s not in my radar.

Wolfgang Brendel as Hans Sachs

RM: It’s a fantastic role of course

SK: Yes it is. I never thought ten years ago that I’d be doing any Verdi, except perhaps Traviata and Carlos. But I think I was overly cautious.

RM: It’s one of those, the poor devil’s got a very, very difficult short first Aria.

SK: Oh Fantastic! I mean ….

RM: Surely difficult!

SK: Yeah everything’s difficult!

RM: Change back to Aida, I remember someone saying to your friend Eve Turner really that was Verdi being absolutely beastly to tenors nowadays! Getting them to sing that you know, in the first ten minutes of the opera. And she said “well dear, it all depends what time you get to the theatre!” [laughter]

SK: Well you mentioned Rossini, I find and I think every baritone finds, coming on and blasting off with Largo il factotum, that’s hell! And that’s right at the beginning of course.

RM: Yeah but not as difficult as Morrendo, the top B flat. What am I supposed to know about singing for heavens sake!

Audience:  Whose idea is it how you play a piece, yours or the producers?

SK: Depends on the piece. I think I’ve learned a bit. I’ve got to be careful here… I’ve been as guilty as many other people of the types of singer that I have criticised. Of being physically distracting, certainly in the past anyway. I think I’d learned, just about by the end of my time with somebody like Billy Budd that it is simply unnecessary to cavort around the stage all evening. You’d learn as an actor, rather than as singer, just to punctuate a couple of times at the beginning. And by the end of the evening I can guarantee that everyone will say you were so athletic all evening. In fact you’d only done a couple of things, but you’d done them at judicious points to underline that aspect of the character.


Billy Budd, ENO 2005

Audience: but you are perfectly capable of doing the whole thing.

SK: I have failed by doing too much in the past. And I hope that physicality anyway, in any role, should be only as much or as little as will support what it is you, the director and the composer agree on doing. I don’t like seeing mugging and gunning in a foreign language for its own sake. I do get tarred with that brush a lot, but I know in my heart there’s a lot of roles I’ve done where I haven’t done a lot of monkeying around.

Papageno_GlasgowRM: I do remember in the, the second time I saw you on the Zauberflote in Glasgow that worked so wonderfully there and didn’t work when it transferred down here. It was on the wrong scale, but that was completely physical.

SK: Yes, that’s the reason I do that piece. More fun than going to the gym. It’s nothing to sing, of course it wasn’t written for a singer, so that’s my only vaudeville role.

RM: it’s not difficult for a singer, but so important

SK: Yes, although I, when I did it at the Met I made a terrible error of judgement. I was still strong as a horse. I belted on, I ran around the stage, I jumped over this dragon, I wheeled around the place. I couldn’t sing the thing that was written for Schikeneder.

RM: Was that the day they talked to you?

SK: Yes. Really inappropriate for that house. Was that production not made for Glyndebourne?

RM: Yes. It didn’t work there either. I’d have any, any Hockney picture on my wall, but not his stage designs.

SK: I remember when we did that, I thought “What do I do in the glockenspiel aria?” and they said [in an American accent] “Well you go on through the wall you do your singing, your aria, and you go over to Papagena”. “When I come on for the first verse – what do I do?”, “You sing your aria, you go over to Papagena”. “But in the second and third verses, what do I do?” “You sing your aria”! on that huge, empty stage! Very intimidating!

Simon with Dorothea Röschmann as Papageno and Pamina in the Royal Opera House production of Die Zauberflöte

Simon was then asked about how a singer develops through his career, and how he chooses roles.

RM: As you know I first heard you singing Lescaut in Massenet’s Manon and your voice has changed over the years.

SK: Yes, you’d expect it to.

RM: You recognise and are totally in control of that. Or are you sometimes surprised?

SK: Sometimes when you are practising, of course, but it’s always a question of one step forward two steps back, and there’s always a disjoint, for me anyway. There was always a disjoint between what I was able to do in the drawing room and what I was able to do on stage. Less so now. I’m happier in myself, more comfortable in my skin and that makes singing easier.

RM: So not even, I don’t quite know how to get round this

SK: No just … blunt is great. And that’s the other thing Rodney, our world is very rough on you, the rehearsal is very rough. A lot of coping language and a lot of insults flying around. Directness is better, I love that.

RM: All right. Well I was surprised at both, because I wasn’t expecting it. Talking about your Hamlet which I’ve said I do love, and I’ve seen it quite a few times. And I was surprised at how big some of it is because I really hadn’t coped with that, and then surprised at how you coped.

SK: Where was it? Here?

RM: Here, I was about a row away in the stalls.

SK: I’d already done it in a couple of places by then, I think. But actually, when I’d done it here I must have been middle 30’s, I think that’s just when my voice started to bloom. To be honest I think that’s the first role when it started to bloom, and that was a surprise, yes.

RM: So, have you ever thought of the Sicillian Vespers?

SK: Yes, it’s come my way but again, I don’t want to do too much. I want to be in my garden. I mean we are expecting our first boy in three months. I want to be there for walks and things.

And also the other thing actually, about work, some of my colleagues only like doing four shows and then moving on. You could give me twenty shows, and I’d still like to tinker with the engine more. I don’t want to be doing these roles once or twice. I want to be doing my Rigolettos many times. And for me that’s a real joy. Then things get easier and easier. You have time to smooth that bit of curve down, move that bit of brushwood out of the way and try different things. I don’t do crossword puzzles, it’s my only way of doing those sort of little mental things. I really enjoy practising.

RM: I mean if you did do Sicilian Vespers, you could sing it in French which would be nice.

SK: Is it done in French a lot?

RM: No, you have to search it out.

SK: That’s the problem with that and Don Carlos. Why would one commit months of one’s life, months and months to do it once or twice? It’s frustrating but…

RM: I should really keep off the whole subject of language. I was interested to hear you say you’ve never sung it in French. I would just love to hear you doing it!

SK: I can’t say I won’t, it’s just that it’s a lot of work.

RM: I’m trying to remember, one time they did it here in French, Bob Lloyd saying when he sang it in French it turned his voice from a trombone into a cello.

I just think that the French text is so much more interesting. The music of Don Carlos is not like any other Verdi opera, is it? It is very special in its musical outline. And I think it’s good in French and certainly the Sicillian vespers I like that as well. I think he wrote differently for the voice when he wrote for the French text.

SK: Every singer knows, when you are a student or now, nothing has changed. The Italian language is an utter joy to sing in, Russian too actually, the little I’ve done in Russian, and it isn’t just a question that one is not a German or not a Frenchman, because I’m not an Italian either! It is a gift in Italian, and it’s not a gift in French, or in German for that matter. Well all right, everything above the passaggio in German (and everything is a ridiculous generalisation!). I find so often, more often than not, for most singers, everything above the passaggio in German or in French is on a vowel that a singer would prefer not to be on. On “U” on “E” whatever. It’s interesting, but it’s not like Italian. Italian is uncomplicated physically, it’s the most natural, I find and I think most of my colleagues would agree. I’d venture to say.

RM: Absolutely, Yeah.

SK: So the French thing, I don’t know. I haven’t done the Don Carlos so it would be ridiculous to have an opinion on it, but I’m sure that the language itself would have a lot to do with it.

RM: You sing perfect French anyway.

Robert_LloydSK: Yeah, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it but it is a different shape. I remember saying to Bob actually, I did my first Pelleas with Bob Lloyd, and my last Pelleas with Bob Lloyd. When you are singing in French, often the shape of the voice, there’s no fingers on bridges or leg positions to be seen overtly, it’s all metaphor. But for me, singing in French, you have to fight very much against the tendency to have the pillar box, letter box shape in your voice. Perpetually pull it down into the chest area, pull it down, otherwise it can get very horizontal.

RM: Sorry can you say that again

SK: Well, the shape – when you are singing in Italian it naturally lies, I find, in the more vertical position. Whether it be above passaggio in your head or down in your chest lower down. Properly below say a D or a C for a baritone. But in French, for me anyway, the natural position of the operatic tessitura, Pelleas or Hamlet is different. It’s more horizontal, more like a pillar box shape. And you have to fight against the tendency to go up and up and up, more and more shallow. With something like Pelleas that’s rather useful – because you are playing a young, hysterical man so that’s good. It’s a young sound. But it’s something you have to fight against.


Simon as Pelleas and Gerald Finley as Golaud, Royal Opera House 2007

RM: and the French language, the sound of it is a very fine sound

SK: Well you could say that about Italian, in the trumpet sound that all great Italian singers have in their boitto. In the area around the upper chest, where it’s like a sympathetic vibration for about a minor third. All the great Italian singers have it. Someone like Tito Ruffo had it in most of the middle of his voice.

Simon singing in French: Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s Faust, ROH 2004

On the prospects of whether Simon will sing more Wagner.


Robert Gambill (Tannhäuser), Waltraud Meier (Venus) & Simon (Wolfram), Japan 2005

…and from backstage…

RM: The dread word Wagner has not been mentioned previously. Would you have your sights on Amfortas?

SK: It’s come my way a few times but I’ve turned it down, because you can’t do everything. Look at those wonderful Czech pieces  – I can’t speak Czech. Mind you I can’t speak Russian, but you can’t really avoid that, it’s too beautiful. But I want to understand everything that’s going on around me, so on the one hand I wouldn’t do the Czech stuff. For another reason I wouldn’t do Amfortas because life is too short. It’s glorious and I just adore Parsifal, but – I will do, on the other hand just to be provocative, probably in concert, just a couple of Siegmunds because it’s easy for me. And I love it, to be part of that great piece. But you’ve got to be careful not to confuse your bosses!RM: So you appreciate Gigli? Who sang SiegmundSK: He had an ego big enough to be part of that. Even though he was a giant he wasn’t short of confidence, was he? He played Wotan.

RM: Talking about egos I’ve one piece of advice for you on Friday Little barbed wire fences that you could put across entrances after your death scene. In early days of Visconti Don Carlos, Tito Gobbi sang the death scene extremely powerfully and the huge audience was like this waiting to applaud. Christoff shot onto the stage with one of those Christoff glares at the audience, daring them to applaud. Which they were all much to frightened to do. One of the great monsters that man, he really was.

Jon Vickers and Tito Gobbi singing the duet from Don Carlos

SK: I wish I’d seen him, I didn’t see any of the great voices I admire so much. I missed them, or I was in Manchester I didn’t hear even Vickers when he was in.

RM: Have you listened to that Don Carlos?

SK: Probably, I’ve probably got it here…. No is the answer!

RM: I thought he was a complete revelation. Vicker’s Don Carlos

SK: Oh no, I don’t know that one at all.

RM: Completely beautiful. Just so easy. Everyone says how difficult it is – well it IS difficult, even the first aria is just lovely.

SK: I’ll have to get that one.

RM: Do, do! Am I wrong, and I right? Near enough. I can’t bear just looking at this pile of CDs.

SK: Well that’s part of the situation.

A discussion of Simon’s view of the opera tradition.

RM: Are there any examples of singers, who you listened to and thought “I want to sing like that”?

SK: When I was a student it was Merrill. I think he’s got the most wonderfully easy production, there’s nothing in the way at all. But, you alluded earlier on to the fact that one often harks back to an earlier golden age. It was a golden age, full stop, but one always says that those singers were better in the old days.

Ronaldinho-Photo-15But I do think that they were for another reason, because the likes of Ronaldinho coming out of where ever it is – he’s Portuguese. These Brazilian football geniuses coming out of the Brazilian shack, do so because they know they can make a living doing that. In the days when these fellows were singing I think something of that was still true. It was music that was adored by millions and guys off the street wanted to do it. I don’t think that’s true now. All these genius voices that are walking past us every day in the streets, or could be were they trained with the right sensibilities. That’s why I think it’s interesting listening to these old fellows, and that’s why I do think that the singers were better then. In general – or more of them than say after 1960.

RM: It is the greatest danger of our culture. It was always better yesterday. It just depends when the yesterday was.

SK: Our art form is not what it was. It’s not as popular, you know people singing in the streets in Italy to thousands and thousands of people. They were pop stars in the 40’s and 50’s. And now they’d be lucky to get as big an audience as the juggler rounds the corner.

RM: Something that gets me as worked up as someone my age can get is that when I was your age, when I was a student, the top price in this theatre was 15 shillings (75p). I know that inflation and all that all this has changed. But I do miss it, I was able to come twice a week to things like Gerda Lamma’s Elektra, most people here are not old enough to remember Lamma’s Elektra, but it was a complete knockout. And I could come back and see three more performances. I was incredibly privileged and that privilege has been withdrawn from young people today.

SK: Can they not queue up and go upstairs?

RM: Well they can indeed go upstairs and I have several very old fashioned friends who make a point of going upstairs so they can’t see the stage. Yes, they could, but how lucky I was to sit in the stalls up close. It was a privilege and it has been withdrawn. And, as you say, your sort of music is not as popular as it was even ten years ago in Italy. I love going to a Sunday matinee in Italy where the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and their families are all there. Having a thoroughly good time

SK: I would say, though Rodney, that on the continent, because it’s more in the centre of things, and this is an island – a little jewel across the water, but its hardly in the centre of things. Now young people have always gone to the opera on the continent. I see the audiences there, I was in the audiences there. Kids queue up to go to the opera. It’s not dead. I remember in Zurich, it came up in conversation, and the boss said “Don’t let them tell you that Opera is dead or there’s no money for it. There’s plenty”. Which is rather provocative.

RM: There’s enough money, for ones who want to have enough money for it. Which we, unfortunately, don’t. I was saying before we started, have you seen Walkure, in Strasbourg, and almost the best thing about the performance was the audience. It was full of young people. I felt like you “Whoopee, it’s not dead”. A little resuscitation.

SK: Of course, when I started singing lieder in the Wigmore Hall I looked up and it was a sea of grey hair. And twenty years later I look up and it’s still a sea of grey hair. Its not, you wouldn’t expect kids to go to it. It’s something you grow into. I don’t want everybody to come to the opera. I want people to like it, of course I do, but I think it’s unrealistic. I think that as long as you’ve got enough of an audience you wouldn’t expect children, youngsters at 17, 18 to spend all their money on the opera. I want an audience, but I don’t want this slogan that there used to be “Opera for all” I didn’t get that.

RM: Opportunity for all

SK: Yeah. I would like it to be available, for people to grow into. To grow to be elitist with a small “e”. What does that mean? You are inquisitive, musically, and that will lead you, if you are, to different sorts of music and I hope to ours.

RM: Peter Moores says that his job is to open doors not to push people through them. Which I think is very nice, and good for him.

SK: You asked me about singers who I liked. The ones I’ve got here, I thought I’d play some of these. Of course I’m not going to play any of them. I find as much joy in all these grand forte Italian, Bechi, Amato, Battistini, Galleppi, Pinza, Zenelli, Tervea, Valdengo, Pavlova Ditsien, Metternich, Schlusnus, Merrill, Tibbet, Warren. They are all utterly different and they are all utterly, utterly wonderful to me. But I would never talk to anyone about it, even my colleagues, because they would lose the will to live, most of them! Drift away under the table. So it’s one of those private loves that probably will have to remain that way. I mentioned Merrill because he was my first operatic love.

Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjorling: The Pearl Fishers duet

Gino Bechi as Rigoletto: Pari siamo

Giuseppe Valdengo singing Questa assisa ch’io vesto from Aida

Josef Metternich singing Scintille, diamant! from Les Contes d’ Hoffmann

Renato Zanelli: Un di, all’ azzurro spazio from Andrea Chenier

Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin sing “Some Enchanted Evening”

RM: Is there ever any danger of you doing something because that’s how you’ve heard it done by someone else?

SK: No not at all. John Cameron taught me when I was young, and I did learn that one. He said “Do NOT copy stuff, because if you do you will be found out. And nothing will happen, it’s just that you will disappoint somebody. There’ll be only one person that you will disappoint.”

So my procedure is when I’m doing a new role, for example I’ve just started Wozzeck this year. Oddly Italian which was my best language is now by miles far and away my worst – I understand well but I haven’t made any progress to speak. But I would buy a number of recordings and listen to them once. Why? Because I got into trouble in, I forget which city, with either Cenerentola or Elisir because I didn’t know the conventions which are not in the score. I thought at least I needed to know the conventions. So I listened to it once, and then I would go to a pianist and my little dictaphone and make my own atrocious work tape and then live with that on my head. And it’s exciting then, it’s exciting for me. And I’m also proud of myself that I haven’t marked anybody.

RM: Fascinating. Conventions

SK: There’s a subject. Not worth the paper they are not written on!

RM: Exactly Mischa Hunter I think making her Met debut singing Norma and they sent the score over to her and with all the traditional Met cuts in it and she was slightly surprised because the duet with Arodisa had gone, Casta diva all cut out. They’d very cleverly sent her the cuts for Puritani by mistake so she didn’t get out of it. We are open, or Simon is open, Mr Keenlyside I beg your pardon!

SK: Please don’t!

Audience: Please can you tell us what you were listening to on your headphones when you came in the front door.

SK: I apologise for my rudeness. I thought that was the audience queuing for the ballet, and it was only when I saw you [pointing to well-known member of Team SK!] that I suddenly thought wait a minute! What I was listening to, there was a quarter of an hour of program on birdsong at 3:45 on common British warblers and I didn’t want to miss it because it was so short. So that’s why I didn’t take the headphones off. I apologise!

RM: I remember you saying that at first you only accepted foreign engagements in places where there was interesting wildlife.

SK: No that was disingenuous of me. But certainly for those twenty years some of them I was mostly up to ten months of the year touring. But if you have to be isolated to that extent, being in California or in the Alps doesn’t half help.

RM: Was Zoology actually your first interest?

SK: It was my first love and indeed my last. It’s not a hobby. It’s as important to me as anything in my life really. To see the things I’m sharing this emerald spin with is wonderful.

Audience: You said that Munich was a really special house that you thought was really special

SK: Munich is special to sing in


Nationaltheater, Munich

Audience: But are there any others that are really lovely to sing in?

SK: It’s a good question. Well I was talking to my wife about that because, as I said earlier, this I think I want this to be my home House, and if they will have me I think that’s the way it will go. But I do miss the places that have given me work that I have loyalties to. And it’s sometimes difficult to tease out why I like a House. Whether it’s the acoustics, such as Munich, or whether they’ve been very generous to me over twenty years. I love Munich to sing in, I love Vienna because I had such wonderful times there. I love Paris in spite of the fact that it’s a hellishly difficult place, the Bastille is very difficult and dangerous and flatters to deceive. You think you can be heard and you can’t.

RM: How about Barcelona?

Teatro_Real_MadridSK: Well and Madrid I want to be in as well. I’ve had great adventures in Madrid, and I love that House. My first Don Carlos on the stage was there. So Madrid I would say as well is another very, very nice acoustic.

Audience: which is the worst place?

SK: Which is the worst acoustic? I think for me – ah a two part answer. Often when a singer says “Oh this House, like La Scala,  has a punta Callas and you must stand in that,” it really does. And if you are with somebody like Mutti and he sees the singer singing badly, you will see him going [gestures off to one side] and the singer has got to stop whatever they are doing immediately and walk into the punta Callas. And many Houses have their little places, but what it usually means is the singer is not really in charge of the hall. In my case, not ready for it. When I was younger I couldn’t take the hall by the collar.

Audience: Have you ever had to sing in a hall where your voice completely drops?

SK: Yes Westminster Cathedral

Audience: Liverpool Cathedral, Westminster is bad but Liverpool is terrible.

SK: Well religious buildings are often very difficult. Where it’s not built for that. It’s built for choirs. It’s no surprise that King’s, when the kings choristers and choir sing the way they do with ex-tra con-son-ants, it’s very irritating close up but you need to otherwise the acoustic would lose it all in the general melee. The answer to your question is Bastille. Bastille is very, very difficult and you need to be really on your mettle and ready for it.

Audience: I’ve heard you on a few of the perils of Bastille Opera. I once heard Kurt Moll do a solo recital there. It was like listening to someone singing in a football field.

SK: And he’s no slouch.

Audience: However, I wanted to congratulate you on your Wozzeck. You did absolutely brilliantly


Wozzeck, Paris 2008

SK: Thank you. I think that the bottom line is that the most avant-garde thing you can do, I think as a singer and as an actor, is to do what it says on the page. Play it, do the simple thing and try to do it better. It’s not complicated productions that interest me, actually I wasn’t a great fan of that production, but I had fantastic colleagues.

Audience: A silly production

SK: Yes it was

Audience: But when you ran amok instead of putting the shoes around, WOW!

SK: It was, I mean, it was a strange production because it was almost completely counter-intuitive. Everything, every scene that said “this happens” was nothing. But I had fantastic colleagues and what I meant to say was I think it’s my turn now, it will be someone else’s turn soon and it will be my turn to help them, I had a lot of help. I hope that I’ve got fifteen years or so when it’s my turn. That’s all.

RM: Are you too young for the studio recording? You’ve got to do your thing.

SK: Oh I’ve done few recordings, and I don’t really like them

RM: Opera?

SK: Yeah. I don’t really enjoy them. The time-scale is too short, having to sing six hours a day for five days a week. It’s a question of hanging on for dear life and I don’t know how they did it in the old days. I read the sleeve notes of all my CDs, they popped in and did an aria here there and everywhere. It’s not like that now. I never responded to it much. I don’t like it.

Audience: Do you want to sing Falstaff?

SK: Very good question! I don’t think so. Of course I’d love to but I can’t hear it in my voice now. So for now, no.

RM: That’s a very, very good answer. Sometime!

SK: Well, you know, often things come one’s way, and I often think, that I wouldn’t like to hear me singing that! Or, if I did, when I compare it with other people I do hear singing it I compare rather unfavourably. When I hear my dear friend, Bryn, singing his Falstaff, that’s how I want to hear it and that’s not what I can do.


Bryn as Falstaff

Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff) with Simon as Ford, Munich 2004

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