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2008.06.06 Up steps the reluctant hero, Interview about Don Carlo

Simon Keenlyside in Don Carlo, up steps the reluctant hero

Neil Fisher, The Times, 6 June 2008


For Simon Keenlyside the spotlight is an unsettling place to be

Simon Keenlyside prefers life on the farm to the straitjacket of his recording contract – ’I said thank you and good afternoon’

At Covent Garden it’s the year of Simon Keenlyside. In the autumn the London-born baritone was a memorably shell-shocked Orestes in a stripped-down production of Gluck’s Iphegénie en Tauride, singing with world-class style even as a chorus of furies literally drove him up the wall.


A reprise of his near-unsurpassable portrayal of Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute followed in January.


And now he dons doublet and hose for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Verdi’s Hapsburg epic, Don Carlo – a murkily political tragedy in which Keenlyside’s role, the doomed idealist the Marquis of Posa, is the only character who could conceivably be called a hero.


But hero is not a word that Keenlyside likes very much. “It’s not so much that I try to avoid them,” he sighs. “I’m just not an extrovert man at all, I don’t particularly like being the centre of attention. It’s so much nicer to be part of a story, not to have to carry all of it.” Self-effacing barely begins to describe the gap between Keenlyside’s supreme authority as a singer-actor and the soft-spoken, constantly self-questioning man in front of me. Mostly, it’s endearing (there’s no way that Keenlyside looks his 48 years, but he can sound remarkably like a kindly Oxbridge don), but my hour of Simon Says can feel as grindingly intense as one of his performances.

In part, this is because the interview game is one that he has played relatively few times. “But what the hell is the point of talking to a journalist when you’re 27 and have done bugger all? I think the work should should stand by itself for a while and then, when you’ve done it a few times, well, maybe there’s something to talk about.”

And so, tentatively, to Posa, though when we meet it still seems early days in Hytner’s staging. It is, he says, “the full Hapsburg” – period costume, period sets. But Keenlyside is still wary of confiding too much, either about his own input into the role or Hytner’s ideas. In fact, he’s still wondering how to marry the two together. “I personally am not confident at all,” he says of the rehearsal process. “I’m extremely conscious, and it frustrates me that in a rehearsal period I don’t want to show anything too soon. Dealing with someone like Nick Hytner, you start putting party tricks on the stage and you’ll get smacked down straight away.”

The Keenlyside CV might look seamless. His father and grandfather were both distinguished violinists. He went from Cambridge chorister to Cambridge undergraduate – he studied zoology, though, not music – followed by a scholarship at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (“All these people coming to give it a go – me wondering how the hell they did it”) and traineeships at the Hamburg Opera and, later, Scottish Opera.

But it’s been a long, hard, and, clearly, self-punishing slog that has given Keenlyside few illusions. “Because I’ve come a long way, the old-fashioned way, just working in the theatre, and because I got married late, and did everything else late . . . I know what I want.” Mostly that’s staying in the UK as much as possible. His marriage, to the Royal Ballet principal Zenaida Yanowsky, is half the reason why the Royal Opera has been able to host him three times this season.

They met after an eventful performance of The Magic Flute. “I fell through the floor,” he explains happily, “smashed myself to pieces, but I had to wait for the doctor, and then I went upstairs and met her in reception.” After “a few years of merry-go-rounds and false starts” they tied the knot two years ago. Their first child, a boy, is due in October. “It’s wonderful to see her nesting,” he says, a delightfully zoological turn of phrase.

Home life for the two now means, mostly, living on Keenlyside’s 17-acre farm in Wales; it’s where he is obviously most comfortable. “It’s always been home for me, and now it’s a lifelong work of making something even more beautiful. When my knees are falling off after a week of planting, I think to myself that in 100 years, when somebody comes across from five miles away they will see a huge great area of bluebells. It makes me giggle to think that I will have done that.”

Those hoping Keenlyside might just leave the horticulture and court the limelight he’s surely owed are going to be frustrated. In the wonderful 2006 album Tales of Opera he made a rare and long-overdue excursion into the studio.

tales of opera

But since then, he says, he has “chucked in” the recording contract with Sony that delivered it. “They want a Christmas record with a recipe in the back,” he snorts. “They’re trying to find an angle that isn’t what I do for a living, so I said thank you and good afternoon.” Future plans, then, are all live: plenty of Verdi, including his first stab at Rigoletto, and next year at Covent Garden brings Don Giovanni and The Barber of Seville.

So, no Bryn-style festival in Wales? That Christmas album? A real hero role? “It’s my turn now,” he smiles, “but I wasn’t born with it. It was a long time coming. I want to go and teach my son six butterflies and half a dozen birds. That’s way more important to me than having a festival with my name on it.”

Don Carlo opens tonight at the Royal Opera House (020-7304 4000). The performance on July 3 will be relayed in Trafalgar Square and Canada Square in London and Clayton Square in Liverpool


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