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2009.03.15 Freunde der Wiener Staatsoper interview

Interview for

Freunde der Wiener Staatsoper

15 March 2009

Gustav Mahler-Saal at the Vienna State Opera

With interviewer Haide Tenner and translator Herbert Kaiser


Colour key

HT: Haide Tenner


SK.info comments




Simon appeared wired with a head microphone and obviously not happy about this. There was a translator at hand but as you will read his wish was to try to speak German. This resulted in an amazing mix-up of the languages, there are moments when he changes the language two times within a sentence: At first he tries in German, but not being able to say what he wants in the way he starts the sentence, he changes the sentence, but still not succeeding he then moves into English. How often that took place I only found out when writing down the interview. So you will find several instances of help, interruption and repetition by the interviewer simply to make clear to the German-only speaking part of the audience what his intentions were.

As I’d like to give you an idea about his linguistic acrobatics the original English of Simon is marked in bold red and the translations in normal red.

The translator of course won’t be translated again, but there will be the odd comment because Simon often reacts directly to him if only to thank him.

Music: “Deh vieni alla finestra” from Act 2 scene 1 of Don Giovanni


HT: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our Opera workshop [Opernwerkstatt] with a singer whom I esteem not only for his voice but because of his musical intelligence, his creative power and his versatility. To Vienna opera visitors the English man Simon Keenlyside is quite familiarin his many Mozart parts but also in parts like Billy Budd. Concert visitors like me are also happy about his recitals here [in Vienna], that is, we are not only happy about his debut at the Vienna Staatsoper as Eugene Onegin but we are also happy about Simon Keenlyside’s debut here in the Opernwerkstatt of the friends of the Vienna Staatsoper. Welcome!

SK: thank you, thank you

HT: Mr. Keenlyside, there are different interpretations of Eugene Onegin. Partly it is up to the fact that Pushkin explains how the change in Onegin takes place when he is gone, in the opera this is not shown, that means there are interpretations from Dandy and egoist to self destructor. What is he for you?

Have to say at the beginning, I will try to speak in German [applause] no, no, wait [to the applauding audience] only a colleague, a friend of mine, Rainer Trost, said very early at the beginning of my career “Simon, don’t be too lazy, only speaking English”. I tried 20 years ago to ruin German, but last year with SONY BMG , when I was in former times with SONY… it was too heavy because you have the saying in German “God is in the details”, God is not for me but nevertheless the sentence means very much and music and art live too and then I can’t …myself …. express myself  …then for this reason I crave your indulgence that when it’s hard for me I  speak in English otherwise it will be only about the weather, the mountains and walking [laughter] you’re welcome…

HT: If I only would ask how you feel or such like, that would be easy. But we won’t do that.


SK: Now Onegin.

I cannot say, this is my first appearance on stage with this piece, it … eh… wanted to say that… like e.g.  Cosi … I am not talking about the similarities of the piece, not that… only it is like a Punch and Judy show, you represent something here, there and over there and it is for me also in Onegin like that, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the arc, you enter the stage as  – maybe – arrogant or likeable person, at the beginning, but very confident and then there exists different points… and it is difficult , you need a good director otherwise it won’t be.

HT: But he is definitely not the Dandy and the rich bon vivant who looks contemptuously and throws the girl away otherwise the change at the end would not explainable.

SK: Yeah. He can be this and can …, maybe the scales of justice can be more Dandy in one production than in another, I can’t say, it’s my first.

HT: You don’t play him as a Dandy anyway.

SK:  no, not exclusively! Yes, oh sorry, no

HT: I can understand the young girl very well!

SK: ah! Well! [grinning][laughter]


HT: This change during his absence, he comes back and is another man. (Hm) Did you consider how to make that believable?

SK: Yes, is it the truth at the end or is it just a new challenge, this is the decision of the director I think.

HT: You had wanted to play Onegin already 5 years ago (hm) you had a stage accident in Covent Garden (yeah!) you broke arms and legs (yeah!, yeah!). What did happen that day?

SK: Magic flute was… Schikaneder… he wanted to show the new machinery even two hundred years ago. We still need, we have a penchant for showing new machinery and magic flute is always dangerous on stage, really always… there are trapdoors… and you have to take care and I did not see that the trapdoor was open and fell down three and a half meters. Yes.

HT:  fell through the trapdoor and broke arms and legs.

SK: Hand, leg, foot, everything


HT: OK, then it was over with Onegin (laughs) we are happy that the opening night, your debut in that role could take place here in Vienna (thank you!) and we will hear now a part out of the opening night (oh!) here in Vienna. We hear the scene in which Onegin finds out that he did fall in love.

Music: Onegin’s Arioso in Act 3, scene 1, of Eugene Onegin



SK: Yes it is cruel to hear your own voice. Sorry, it is embarrassing for me!

HT:…but I fear we are not able to spare you several things (Oh dear) but the Russian sounded very convincing!

SK: I swear I’ve made so many errors!

HT: this is for someone who is hardly able to speak Russian  comprehensibly, anyway it sounds very convincing.

SK: Vienna is full of Russian singer and people, I have noticed!

HT: yes?

SK: yes!

HT: Now I have the impression that you have got over your inhibitions not to sing the Russian repertory. In your recitals you occasionally have Russian Lieder but otherwise there is nothing Russian in your repertory.

SK: Pique Dame! But this is just one aria!

HT: is it because you cannot speak the language?

SK: -Yes, I don’t want to any longer.

HT: do you learn phonetically?

SK: yes, I don’t want to any longer, it is too…. can you [say] uncomfortable? hm yes … I don’t have a window, I feel, no hint of the Russian culture and language and all that, you feel …in the side of the stage and what the choir and all  … it is too difficult!


Interruption from the audience: “he should speak louder, not always to one side, use more support”

Simon fumbles for the microphone as if it is too far away

SK: [whispering to HT] What? More? [loudly, with an operatic voice] Do I? I feel like a Pilot with this [microphone]… a piz… Yeah, like a pizza delivery boy


HT: Most singers say that Russian is good to sing (yes!) a language which is good to sing although you don’t have in Onegin long melodic phrases to sing (yes that is true) is it true that is an easy language to sing?

SK: Very good, yes. At the beginning before the wall, Berlin wall came down immediately suddenly all the wonderful Russian Eastern block singers were coming and I have sworn that I won’t sing in Russian because it is too dangerous and then little by little, a Rachmaninov, this is such a jewel, a perfect jewel, and one after the other after 20 years I have about 30, Glazunov, Rachmaninov, Tschaikovski, Rimsky ….but this was one after the other… and…

HT: But these are Lieder, are short Lieder.

SK: Lieder, what does Lieder mean,  just a… yes, I know… but the melody is for singing vocally, they are beautiful, yes Onegin is difficult because – like Pelleas, it is so … not hysterically , but …but – at the end maybe – but so many words, so cut, it is difficult to find a line [of singing]

HT: no real arcs. I am rightly informed that you have got Russian ancestors?

SK: yes, my father…. my grandfather, yes they are from Riga, but birth certificate says Russian[it was later confirmed with SK that it was his maternal grandfather who was from Riga]

HT: But you did not feel that in your genes? (no) [laughter]

now that you have sung Eugene Onegin (yes) no relationship to your own past?

SK: no, absolutely nothing, sadly. (laughs)


Vienna 1999 & 2000

Vienna debuts

HT: The reference to Vienna for Simon Keenlyside, as I already said, are the Mozart-parts but also Rodrigo in Don Carlo, or Figaro, or Billy Budd. Your debut was Marcello in la Boheme …

SK: that was Barbiere! Was it Barbiere? I think

HT: No, it was Marcello! (sorry!) The debut 1999 was Marcello, not a big part but an dangerous one because the opera starts with the young man and if he is bad the audience is negatively attuned from the beginning i.e. it was very important that this Marcello was good… was that  exiting? Vienna the first time?

SK:  oh, I remember Barbiere, that Boheme not so much…[laughter]

HT: totally eliminated? It wasn’t that bad! [laughter]


Vienna, 1999

SK: You have to take care, if on stage it is only ok it is not enough, the calling-card has to be better than ok otherwise you get no more future work.

HT: But this is always like that in art, good is not good enough, or not?

SK: Yes, earlier with the old Festsystem [confirmed system] it was much easier because a good director would understand the nature of a voice and what a voice was capable of doing, maybe Pelleas on one hand or Tannhäuser or Rodrigo, but they would understand. But nowadays without the old confirmed system it is difficult, you go for instance to Berlin and sing Pelleas and everybody says “ah, you are baryton-martin, you are Pelleas”, they only hear Pelleas and they have no idea what else you sing, that can be dangerous, you can’t sing everything in the same moment, you have only to sing the colour of each piece, like for instance Pelleas as a young man has to sound light like Billy Budd, but without a good director, opera house director, it is dangerous that you only show this colour here and another there…

HT: You might get stuck in a drawer  [i.e. become pigeonholed]

SK: Yes very true

HT: if you were good in a certain part (true, yeah) than all will say I will engage him too (Yes) but what would be possible for one, what he is also able to… in ensemble theatre like it still exists here in Vienna it is much easier to find out, (yes, quite true) because you have to sing smaller parts, are allowed to sing bigger parts (yes, that’s a good… it’s the best way in my opinion) everything is possible…. I propose we should hear Marcello because this was your beginning here in Vienna. The beginning of the opera La Boheme, in the recording under the conducting of Riccardo Chailly and the orchestra of the Milan Scala. Rudolfo is Roberto Alagna.

SK:  is it ok? is it ok?

HT: I thought quite ok (oh good, I have never heard it) otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen it. [laughter]

SK. oh dear….

Music: Excerpt from Act 1, La boheme


New roles

HT: Accepted?

SK. I am sweating that much when I …

HT: maybe the reason is the charming audience here?

SK: Oh, it is so difficult to make a recording. You have three days and either you’ll make it or not. It is much easier for me on stage, in a performance and to find my own arc like a race from beginning till the end. A recording I think is not so interesting… and is difficult.

HT: we will surely talk about that theme on the occasion of the Don Giovanni production (oh, that was perfect). I wanted maybe to remain on the future here at the Vienna Staatsoper, your next opening night will be Macbeth (Oh, wonderful, yes!) and then a role debut in Rigoletto (YEEAASS!) this will be another step in your vocal development. Now I can imagine that you will make the Rigoletto fit to your voice character, you have to sing Rigoletto with a lot of delicacy and not with the wooden hammer…

SK:  …let’s see

HT: …on the other hand there exist the habits of the audience, habits of hearing, is it sometimes difficult to sing against these habits?

SK: against?

HT: the habits of hearing, the audience is used to hearing something in a particular way (yes) and because you have a different character of voice…

SK: yeah, a very good question

HT: …do you then get reactions?

SK: yes, you have to  … you have to  “attack!” [laughter] and like Faust, and by the hair, and you take what you want and you let go what you don’t want… I want Rigoletto because I believe that is a role for me and I don’t care what the anybody else thinks. My job is to persuade them but they will tell me if I don’t succeed. [laughter] and that’s the risk I like, I like that, you know, you ask for a platform, and then if have the blessing, the good fortune of a platform such as this great, great house, that’s what you ask for. Otherwise I am singing in the garden, you know ….and then if you succeed then… then it’s very satisfying, very satisfying.



The dramatic line

HT: John Cameron, your teacher attached importance that your voice would not get too early into the dramatic line (yes!) now your voice is slowly changing, parts like Wozzeck are being added, some other parts fall away. Are there constant parts in your life, (yes!) which you say you want to keep?

SK: yes I think it is very important for me that I do for instance Onegin or Traviata or Magic Flute or Nozze di Figaro or Giovanni… it is always difficult… to make plans. Then I hope my voice stays healthy. I did not only want to do Wozzeck and Rigoletto, Macbeth, Don Carlo, this is too exhausting. And I want at the [age of] 65, just for myself, healthy, my voice staying healthy.

HT: and Mozart is helping with this?

SK: Not Giovanni but… yes, because, yes…

HT: why not Giovanni?

SK : Because he is so furious and that touches your voice.

HT: i.e. you give more pressure in the voice to show aggressiveness….

SK: yeah, well , you have a balance, when you mustn’t go to far but it does touch, yeah, I am very tired after Giovanni.

HT: the Wozzeck was a new experience (yeah) it was a production at Paris, Cambreling, Materlinck… (Marthaler!) eh, Marthaler, how did I say Maeterlinck? Excuse me. Cambreling, Marthaler. Now this music is different to the music of the 19th century. Outwardly not much happens, everything that happens in this opera happens inwardly (hm!) and what happens is expressed in the orchestra, in the orchestration. The feelings are in the orchestra and less in the voice than in the operas of the 19th century. Was that an adjustment for you?

SK. Well, I am not…. I understand what you are saying and… but I am not fully in agreement. I mean composers before Berg – even in the 18th century – were having conversations with the singers on the stage. There are all conversations and discussions and contradictions in Nozze, it’s just that Berg did it more. I think it’s progression, and in many operas in my life I like to, eh, counteract in some way what’s being said in the orchestra. In Berg because it’s all the time… then it’s true… it backs up more in the moment what is happening, it’s true, yeah!



Wozzeck, Paris 2008

HT: I guess more that Alban Berg has “copied” from Mozart because also in Mozart’s [operas] there is this subtext in the music: sometimes someone sings something and the music says something totally different and you hear that the singer is lying, not the singer, the part (yeah, well) this juxtaposition of different bits of information which are between the voice and the orchestra.

SK: Maybe it would be better to read a book about this topic, it is so complicated. What is important for me as a little artist and singer on the stage is that I do not have something to say myself, only that I’ll be a conduit, like a bottle over which the wind of this piece blows and that I am clear in what I am saying when I try to show five different things then I am sure that I will show nothing that is too much… that we choose our focus, the director, the composer of course, the librettist, the singer, that we choose which focus we want and that we are clear with this… I like that. I want… I want you in the audience to have the hair on your arm  [standing up] as much as I have the hair on my arm…. I believe in this art form, I think it’s completely relevant to my life and I suspect to your life too, not all the time but sometimes. And sometimes the relevance is… is so light that as if you…  instead of being  hit on the head with hammer of truth… you… somebody comes, a  genius, any of these composers come with a feather… and you are laughing but you’ve been infected… these profound truths about our lives are in all these pieces and I want that to show. I don’t want you to go away and say ah, this staging was so beautiful, only vocally… oh… it means something to me.


SK: Thank you! And when …when I was a child my grandfather  thought I would become a violinist as my father and grandfather…. he said, look, Simon, when for instance you play at the Wigmore Hall and there is one person who understands what you intended. It is very important that you will play for this one person. And  that I think is very true, I hope even in any situation that this… that I’ll… every part of me…  that I’m… that I’ll do my very absolute best to try and contact even one person. And if one person comes afterwards and says I like this opera and I like dadada… then I… I am very happy.
HT: To reach a person completely (yes) is really a lot. (Yes, yes it is) Is that the reason why you have put some parts aside? So for instance, Billy Budd? Billy Budd is a young man. Did you abandon the part because of your age? Because of credibility or out of vocal reasons?

2005BillyBuddENO10SK: No, it is only, it hurts that I don’t want to sing Billy Budd or Pelleas any longer. But it is not a question of the voice but the perspective of a life of a young man is one dimensional. And what Debussy wanted of young Pelleas and what really in principle Britten wanted too is that they are so full of light and life, it is not so …. they are not so profound …profound, yeah, and that is… well… not boring but it is simply that there are so many different parts which interest me more, Wozzeck for instance. It is more interesting for me to grasp Wozzeck and the wonderful array of colour cards than Pelleas. I think  that’s the truth. Otherwise I would have to sing the whole year, every week of the year and without holidays…

HT: Yes, that’s impossible, even you won’t be able to do that. For understanding what you mean we will play exactly what you have spoken of: Billy Budd who at the beginning of the opera says “I am the king of the birds“ (oh, dear, yes!) full of energy and juvenile zest for action… a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox.


Music: “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” from Act 1 of Billy Budd



SK: John Tom[linson]

HT: The words of Claggart which always make a cold shiver run down your back.

SK: I have to say that I did not succeed to show a young man in that moment because it is ….the orchestra is that thick, so broad and at the end you have the possibility in the 12 minute monologue to be young and vulnerable.

HT: vulnerable. But at the beginning he is simply young, he dares everything and wants to reach everything.

SK: Yes, and on the stage you are normally 15m high and the orchestra is like a storm and you have to… [makes a movement of giving power]

HT: Flat out! … you have mentioned a short while ago that your grandfather and father were professional violinists. (Yes) You yourself started at eight years [old] to sing in a choir, that is you were clear in your mind from the beginning that art is hard work. You did not approach art with these romantic imaginings of a lot of others, you always knew that it is hard work. Was that an advantage for your career to know that already?

SK: It definitely was hard work, hard, hard work in the choir! It was like my life today. Always on tour the whole time and not many holidays, Everywhere, Australia, Canada, Japan, America, Europe. But it was different, because in religious music there is no marketing. There is only music. There is no compromise. I loved that, I loved that.

HT: and when an eight year old is sent away from home in the choir…

SK: Yeah, it’s hard!

HT: …is the music then something of a hideaway?

SK: A very good question… Yeah! Yeah! Exactly! and for many, many years even when I was an adult, singing was consolation. It’s not now, thank god, but it was consolation, yeah.

HT: Yes, I think that. You studied in Manchester but I think more because of the sports club?

SK: Yes! Yes!  I loved it!

HT: Did you train with them?

SK: Yes, yes, Sale Harriers 400 meters… I loved it!

HT: Running?

SK: Yes. 400m

HT: still today?

SK: Och…. 50 years [old]! It is too late!!!! (Laughs)[Laughter] That’s far away,  that was once!

HT: But you have trained in time… but also your singing lessons were provided with a sporting touch because they started at 10am I have read.

SK Yeah, well, it is different because in the …You could do both. My lesson were at 10am, I had lessons four times a week… that’s a lot, a privilege… and then in the day I would study, study, study, study, sucking up voices, all the male voices from the 20th century, all these voices I love, Tagliabue, and de Luca and even then going  to America, listen to Warren, and Bastianini and Merrill and then going to listen to Stracciari and all these incredible ones of the 30s and  40s, Amato from the 30s, all day listening and sucking all this up. And then in the evening, well in the afternoon I’d do something in the gym, and then every evening to the track ….so it was a good balance.


Warren, Bastianini and Merrill

HT: a lot of listening. When you now go about a new part…

Turmoil in the audience: “he is always speaking in the other direction (Oh! Sorry!) he should speak more loudly”

SK: OK sorry. Louder, louder [in bass-voice]


SK: Sorry! It was work, really hard work!

HT: When you study a new part do you listen to other recordings (No!) as you have done as young man?

SK: No, I promised at the beginning of my time that I would work with a small tape recorder, a dictaphone, and a piano and I would have only the music, I swore. Then, when I have learned it , then …when I know it by heart, then I want to hear many different recordings otherwise it is dangerous.

HT: Not before?

SK: Yes, and sometimes when I would hear my colleagues singing something and I thought oh, I know that and it’s copied… I don’t think that’s a good idea.


HT: We have… you have spoken about sacred music, wanting something of that to be be part of the programme. Pergolesi (really?! Good Lord!). Yes, Stabat mater dolorosa (Never heard…) in an interpretation with Bryn Terfel…

SK. Oh! No!


HT: …maybe for the apostles of the original sound not really the right thing but a wonderful harmony of two wonderful male voices.

SK: It was a joke! Bryn called me and said “what are you doing tomorrow Simon, because we don’t have a tenor for this piece. Could you do it? It is quite high but could you?” I said,Yeah, ok! I swear it! (Laughs)[Laughter]

HT: so you see what can come out of a joke

Music: Pergolesi “Stabat mater dolorosa” from Simple Gifts


HT: Simon Keenlyside as Tenor ….

SK: Yes! No, operetta, that really was a tenor, uff!

HT: Yes, but the most wonderful parts in the operetta are for tenors. (Yes! Yes!) We got to know that much of you already… at the beginning of your career you said several times in interviews that you wouldn’t be good enough for what you really wanted to sing and therefore had to accept other parts (yeah, true) but maybe that was lucky for your voice (Yes!) because you did not sing the complicated things too early!

SK: Yes, probably. My first part at Covent Garden was Silvio and Piero Cappuccilli. was Tonio – he was fantastic – and he said to me, he was very nice to me and said, you have to sing Italian repertory and I have said “that is too early Maestro, then my voice will vanish away and I also want to sing Schubert till the end” and he said “yes, it is true but listen, with your name which isn’t Italian, too bad, it will take some time, and he was right. But I… I am… it’s a bit of a compromise, I am glad I started later with some of the roles that I wanted to do like Wozzeck… particularly because it is so dangerous.

HT: Yes, it would have been dangerous for the voice if it had been too early, (yes) yeah, yeah.

Now, your professional debut was Hamburg, Count Almaviva (yes!) I have read that you didn’t even get to see the conductor beforehand?

SK: Yes! Nobody!

HT: You have to imagine that. There were 12 performances with different countesses (laughter) so if you are able to survive this as a young singer nothing is able to shock you any longer.

SK: Yes, true, my Barbiere here was the same (laughter) I was with Alexander Edtbauer and you look through that round window and he says you go through the orchestra pit then  above and start “Largo el factotum”… and oh… heart attack. (laughs)

HT: But as a young singer I image is it especially difficult if you are able to speak with the conductor (yes) to agree over the tempo or whatever. So you were thrown directly in at the deep end? Figaro… I wanted to stay a little about Figaro… You have made a recording with René Jacobs of the opera “nozze di Figaro” and were rewarded by a Grammy. Was that your first experience with the baroque tradition and baroque tuning, instrumental tuning? (hm) What was different?

SK: No, I had before with Orfeo, and also with Jacobs, and a few concerts. Phhhhh, I would say that I have learned the most about Nozze di Figaro from Muti, apart from what I did myself. Whether it’s early music middle or late I don’t care. It’s life and what I loved about Jacobs was the orchestra – I mean no disrespect – but they were fabulous players.


The pitch was lower, that was hard, that was very hard, but there is no “echt [authentic]”  anything, there is no… if you do early music with modern instruments that’s not right. We don’t know what the pitch was, was it higher or was lower, we don’t know how the tempo was… so it’s not “echt”, it is never “echt”. Was it interesting? Yeah, it was very interesting!

Translator: where do I start?

SK: Sorry! the most I have learned of Muti…[laughter all round]

Translator: you change the language that often that it is very difficult…

SK: I am so sorry, I am so sorry. That was mean!

Translator: …the essential was the following…

SK: Yes, thank you! Thank you! And sorry again!

And also with Charles Mackerras: normally when a conductor  is ehm… old… very old they become slower and slower. Normally! But not Charles Mackerras. He is so full of passion of what he has learned about Mozart and his Mozart is fantastic, really fantastic.

HT: There are few conductors who become even faster in their old age. Solti was one of them. (Was he?) Towards the end Solti conducted everything “alle breve”, that was fantastic. I suggest we will hear a part of this Figaro with René Jacobs, Concerto Köln, the duet of the 3rd act so that you don’t have to suffer alone, so that other singers are with you.

SK. Good, thank you

Music: “Crudel! Perche finora” the duet from Le nozze di Figaro, Act 3.


2007_Count_Vienna_1SK. I had so, so much fun with this piece at Vienna, Theater an der Wien, and with Muti, does not matter if it’s with Muti this time or at la Scala, [as long as it’s] the same production. So, so much fun

HT: It was a wonderful production here at the Theater an der Wien.

SK: ah, this Strehler-production , it is wonderful.

HT: Yes

SK: Yes, so perfect because it is so architectural and then a point here like a painting, so wonderful, a real wonderful production.

HT: Yes, it was a wonderful production. You have mentioned Mackerras. With him you made Giovanni at Covent Garden…

SK: Yes, not such a good production but musically it was really interesting, yes.

HT: I have read that you have said you have two very different interpretations of Giovanni  ….

SK: What? Oh!

HT: Yes! Was that meant in a musical way or more in connection with the character of Don Giovanni?

SK: Probably there are such a lot of different ones. Great variety of different interpretations. No idea what I meant!

HT: It is a part which you sing around the world. (Hm) The productions are very different. Giovanni is sometimes the darling, sometimes a villain.

SK: He has to, he has to!

HT: Are you flexible in that you say in this production I am the villain, in this one the darling?

SK: No, you cannot be the villain all the time. [laughter] That is I have seen a production of … he is really a very good artist – Peter Sellars – but this production I do not like at all. It is always dark, always brutal and then you will find no attraction to this man and so it means nothing… Because at the end of Don Giovanni, you… the audience has to say… that is, imagine that Da Ponte and Mozart take the curtain calls and say “Ladies and Gentleman here is Don Ottavio”. Do you like him? He is a good giovanniman! Do you care about him? NO! You don’t! [laughter, comments] and here is Don Giovanni, a bastard, a rapist, a killer, really a bad man… do you like him? You do, don’t you! [laughter, agreement] You do! Now go home and think about what that means! It’s true! So… My point is that Giovanni must be seductive [applause] and he must be interesting. Interesting! And what are Da Ponte and Mozart saying about Giovanni? They are not saying, you know, a bad man is attractive, they are saying, imagine, living with no rules… You know, Nozze, Zauberflöte, eh… cosi… no… which are the ones…There are all these great revolutionary aspects where you attack droite de seigneur, you attack the class system and the aristocracy in Nozze, in Giovanni… you you you attack the freedom of a man to be what he wants. In Zauberflöte to be what you want to be without hurting anybody else. But in Giovanni – imagine living the way you want to live with no rules and then just think about – that’s what Giovanni is – you… He’s a tiger and you cannot… you, you don’t… you have to admire somebody for his nature, that’s his nature, it’s a choice to live with no rules, nothing, to do what you want and when you want. Society cannot function like that, but that’s the way… that’s one of the messages of Giovanni, that’s interesting, it’s not just because he is a rapist, it’s not really the point… sorry, it’s too long….[to the translator] and too…


SK. Thank you! You could imagine for instance Giovanni could say like Papageno “I am such a man of nature who is content with sleep, eating and women…” but it is… it’s the same point. It’s freedom! It’s a question of freedom!

HT: There is a recording of Don Giovanni with you conducted by Claudio Abbado …

SK: Oh that was wonderful …Yeah!

HT: …and the circumstances of the recording were quite exhausting…

SK: Yes the recording was for me… I have not done a good job. Because we have had 7 performances in 10 days, dress rehearsal and then 6 [performances]… and in between the performances 6 hours of recording.

I was dead tired and also a young man and, for instance, the red light went on at 11 am and my voice had not sunk from the night before, yes.., still I didn’t,  I… The shows, the performances were wonderful. And I remember the producer of Deutsche Grammophon called me and said “Simon, save your voice during the shows for the recording!”[Laughter] Idiot! The shows I enjoyed, the shows, I think, were good. The recording for my part is very poor and I am not proud of it.

HT: Save your voice during the performances, and Simon Keenlyside has said that this cannot be expected of a singer who is on stage but there are risks with recordings and there are risks on stage where there is no possibility of repetition. (I like that!) You have said that you don’t really like studio recordings but isn’t the risk on stage not equally great?

SK: AH, puh, well, what I like about the stage is, is the microphones and the recording engineers and all those people, they come and they observe, they record what you are doing. I am not changing anything! We had a decision, an agreement, the… my colleagues and the conductor and the producer and that’s what we do and the recording people come and they record it. I like that. If they can do their job well – IF [HT: Let’s hope it] – and often they can’t, eh –or they are lazy, one microphone in the middle and you know… So I like that…  For example, I remember in Giovanni I had an idea – it was a stupid idea – to have the laugh, the laughing of the man at the beginning was so… and then towards the end it was more and more manic as he was getting closer to his end. But of course the recording engineers don’t care, they just cut a laugh and put it there, here and there… and so you have the… my idea was destroyed entirely by the recording. You have to be good at recording. You have to be familiar with recording, very familiar, you have to be… you have to trust your team and you have to be a good team and these days that does not happen very much and it does not happen for me ….

So I like to remain in the theatre. (To the translator) How can you that one? (Laughter) Translation Thank you!


HT: We will hear now even though you do not appreciate this recording very much, dear Mr Keenlyside, we will hear a part of this Giovanni-production conducted by Claudio Abbado and more precisely nearly at the end, Donna Elvira visits the dinner up to the appearance of the Commendatore. Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Claudio Abbado, Donna Elvira is Soile Isokoski (oh!) and Bryn Terfel is Leporello.

Music: The Act 2 finale of Don Giovanni


SK: Hm, no, no! That is not, not good enough, no, really not! it is not!

HT: what would you make better?

SK: Everything![Laughter] The colour is bad, the details are not there, the articulation is bad – mine! The sound is wrong… apart from that, it’s ok! (laughs)


The art of the now

HT: But how do you cope in a singing career with cds which are always played and with which you do not agree? How big are the compromises which you have to make, you want to make and you are able to make?

warrenSK: You don’t have to be afraid because they all are… CDs are very soon gone …I have for instance spoken with a famous baritone, and a young man, and I have said “did you listen to young Leonard Warren?” and he said “what? Who? Leonard Warren? Never heard of him.“ He’d never heard of Bastianini, of Warren, of Merrill, of… and… when you imagine that most people, even professionals, have no idea who most of the great singers, even from 1960, were. It doesn’t matter, CDs don’t matter. They are soon gone. It’s embarrassing for a few minutes and then it’s gone!


SK: you know what I think? It’s not a, it’s not a …it’s a profound thing but it’s not really… it’s a small thing, it is only my little life. My little life should be, and I try to make it “now, plus now, plus now, plus now”. Not what went before and not what’s coming ahead. Just now! I think art is the same. What is important for me in a theatre? And on the stage? Is NOW! [Hitting the table with his fist!] What’s happening NOW! How can I touch you NOW! How can I make you laugh or cry NOW! I don’t care about recordings, I care about the theatre and I care about the health of art form, NOW. We have to prepare for the future in terms of finance but in terms of art which is my little part it’s now for me.  I don’t care about the CDs or the past, or I don’t want to be remembered, I don’t think human beings are meant to be remembered – we’re supposed to touch people now.[Applause]


Word clarity

HT: It is the magical moment of the theatre, the stage presence and the now, and live-experience. (Live, yes! live!) I feel this particularly strongly with you in your recitals. In November I visited the previously mentioned recital at the Konzerthaus with Lieder of Fauré, Wolf and Schumann and what is especially remarkable is the word clarity, also in languages which are not your native tongue and maybe don’t speak perfectly (laughs) so the German of Simon Keenlyside in his Lieder is clearer than of the most German singers.


HT: How do you learn this? Do you have a language coach in every language who teaches you, or how do you manage?

SK: No, not any longer… eh… I have to sing Lieder, it is simply for me… I can’t live without Lieder, really. Therefore despite all the errors I have to… it is not for me… of course it is strenuous but it is not a stress for me. For these two months I do, every day, I have… I occupy myself with, for instance, at the moment Lieder of Brahms and I like that… I get up in the morning, I think oh

HT: Yes, maybe this is connected with your growing up with chamber music? (Maybe) The Lied singing is said to be the chamber music of singing.

SK: Yes, but the poetry, the German poems of the 19th century for instance, oh, that is wonderful.

HT: I have read that you start studying the Lieder with the learning of the texts?

SK: Yes, mhm

HT: there is a running game, how does is work?

SK: Well, I remember my old friend and my teacher John during the war, he was an Australian soldier coming up through Italyhe told me, and he was reading in his tent, reading Goethe and Schiller and Heine. I must… I wonder how his colleagues must have thought of him, you know… in the middle of a war he is reading Goethe and Schiller and Heine. But even in times of peace I find myself doing that. I walk in the streets and I, I read the poetry and… I enjoy it… I love it!


HT: Is it true that you try to memorise texts during running?

SK: Eh, no! no!

HT: Is that a legend which is told of you?

SK: A very irrelevant legend, yes

HT: OK, Gustav Mahler, Knaben Wunderhorn ….

SK: Yeah! Beautiful!

HT: …pay attention to the clarity of the pronounciation. “Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht.“ City of Birmingham orchestra  conducted by  Sir Simon Rattle.

Music: Mahler “Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht“ from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


SK Hm! Yes, that was interesting because I had sung a lot of Mahler for 10 years and very often Knaben Wunderhorn but only with piano, only duos, and then suddenly there was that concert with Simon and it was totally different. I don’t want to sing Knaben Wunderhorn with orchestra any more because it is… you need a Heldenbariton, the orchestration is so fierce. I was so shocked in the middle of the recording, I didn’t hear anything, only with the Head-phones and I love those pieces as chamber music with the piano and I will continue with this way but never again with orchestra.

HT: You should not think in clichés… of course there are dramatic Lieder and lyrical operas but nevertheless it is general that the voice has got a more chamber music approach in singing Lieder as in singing great opera. (Yeah!) You have said yourself once that you need about a week to “change” your voice (YEAH!) from opera to Lied…

SK: this is true …

HT: What happens technically to the voice? Why does is take that long?

SK: Well, I remember at the beginning, my first Liederabend was with Geoffrey Parsons – and he was a friend of my old teacher, and so he kindly worked with me (laughs) and Geoffrey said when you are singing Lieder take the iron out of your voice. You want soft colours…


Translator: Take what out of your voice?

SK: Iron

HT: …the metal?

SK: Ja, he meant the metal, yah, of course there’s exceptions, you know. When my colleagues say that their voices are too big for Lieder I say to them, well, your voice is not big enough to sing Wolf’s Prometheus, for instance, with orchestra. It is a stupid thing to say but in principle of course you are right. And what I would have to do is make it softer and more plastic for those mezza di voce colours and that would take me a few days, yeah!

And for the opera you need the iron, all the iron – hm – mostly.

Translation (hm)

HT: Robert Schumann “Erstes Grün”, piano Graham Johnsson

Music: Robert Schumann “Erstes Grün” – piano Graham Johnsson


SK: That’s OK. That’s OK. I love the Kernerlieder, Schumann Kernerlieder and I really, really enjoyed working with Graham on that because he never uses the pedal. Strange way of playing, sounds a little bit like the old pianos, and when he knows the music really well and loves it… I really enjoy this recording and I am reasonably proud of it. I like it.

HT: rightly! Yes!


HT: “was treibts mich von den Menschen fort” (“How it drives me away from people”) the text of a Lied is saying, I will come back to this. But before I’d like to speak about on another thing: the coughing! The coughing in recitals which is in no way different to the coughing in symphonic concerts because between the single movements or between the sinlge Lieder often a roaring noise breaks out so that you think you are in a lung hospital (audience laughs) And I really don’t know why it is like that, it  cannot be that everyone has caught a cold… so I think it has something to do with strain and relaxation, or do you think – out of your experience  – that it is simply a question of consciousness of the audience? That they don’t realise that they produce more noises than the ones on stage?

SK: Yes, yes, but in my opinion what is much worse is if the singer on the stage says “scht” scht!”(laughter of the audience) it is only a concert and that’s life! And… either you smile a little bit and go on or… Really I think it is insulting if somebody is on stage and utters “scht!”

HT: Andras Schiff went away, went off stage… came back after 5 minutes …

SK: Yes, I know, that’s terrible…

HT: …And has said “when you are finished with coughing I will come back” and went away. You have never had that temptation?

SK: No, it’s only music, and it must be messages with a feather not a hammer! That’s the point!


How it drives me away from people

HT: “Wie treibt’s mich von den Menschen fort“ so the text of a Lied is saying. Simon Keenlyside studied zoology, it is as ever his great passion, his great concern to treat the world around us well, to bequeath the world a little better than he found it. Is this connection to nature a contrast to the artificial world of the opera? Is that a deliberate contrast?

SK: I don’t think so. No, I think – eh – the relationship is closer for me of course in Lieder then in opera but not always. I think everything is interrelated… in my life everything is interrelated, you know, love and hate, and what I think, what I do, is still interrelated. So in the opera the two mix sometimes, in Lieder they mix all the time it’s part of the milk in my coffee.


HT: I have read several times that you have said you are not a social person, so you like to be alone sometimes – maybe this has changed with the with the arrival of offspring – but you like to be alone sometimes… wouldn’t that have been easier as a natural scientist than in the opera business? (laughter)

SK: Well, it is not a principle! I don’t want to spend my life… I never wanted to be on my own in principle. I just had things that I wanted to do and I didn’t find people who wanted always to do them with me so I’m off…

HT:  So you do them alone?

SK: Yeah, if I want to go to and look for whales in Australia, in the middle of the ocean, I am not gonna find a singer to come with me…(laughter)…no, that’s not true, I… just, you know, time is short and you have to make a plan and there is no time to wait…


SK: Yes, that’s it.

HT: Maybe that is the reason for your versatility in singing. You have opened, with Angelika Kirchschlager, a totally new page in your life, you became an operetta singer…

SK: Yeah (laughs)

HT: …. You have sung very often with Angelika Kirchschlager (yes!) from Pelleas and Melisande at the Easter festival in Salzburg to…

SK: recitals! ….we have made recitals together!


HT: …and you have made a lot of wonderful recitals together. And now this operetta project. You have been on tour with it, you have published a CD, now, do you never fancy doing a whole operetta [on stage]? You can waltz, we know that from Eugen Onegin… that is the first requirement which is apt for it …

SK: I was like a lion, as brutal, I was, did you see that? (laughs)

No, …eh .. the truth is, five years ago I saw a … the first – really – real Fledermaus in my whole life, [and] heard, here and it was that fabulous with all the text and so sophisticated with…John was doing… John Dickie, he was in it. And suddenly I have… I sawthis is a step too far for me, it is too difficult for me… I can…

HT: too difficult?

SK: Too difficult, yes!

HT: why?

SK: Because I can my …., because of the complexity of the language and the playing of it – impossible!

HT: also because of the dialogue, you mean?

SK: Yes, Yes, yes, yes. I would say the same is true of Zauberflöte. I am glad I have done Zauberflöte here but it’s… I would need more time. I would need a longer text… a longer text, not a shorter text, and really time to work. But I would not be able to be spontaneous, not in Wien.


SK: Yes, yes… and also, it is not magic flute, in my opinion, Singspiel means Singspiel. And you asked me at the beginning about limits, you know, Rigoletto… I know Rigoletto for me is that but I also know that I am not capable of doing a real good operetta, no, I’m not… I can’t do it.


SK: It was so much fun, yes… and the truth also is that SONY BMG said “We cannot make Lieder [CDs], Simon, people don’t like that, it doesn’t pay, we cannot get money from Lieder… and we cannot [record] concerts… that is too expensive… and opera is totally… too expensive.“ And I have said “Now what I am going to do? I am a classical singer.” “You could do a Christmas CD with recipes at the back” “Oh please not!” And then I have found a project for me: first this opera (CD), second the operetta (CD). That was fun because in the beginning when I was a child I heard Richard Tauber… and my third idea was maybe what happened to operetta, for instance, after the war. It is… it went to America, it became the American songbook and my third disc, I wanted for instance one foot in the old world and the other foot in the new world with Irving Berlin and  – eh – who’s the other guy , the other Austrian…

HT: Weil!

SK: Weil! Thank you!

HT: you’re welcome!

SK: …so I wanted to do a mixture of that but then I left SONY… so it’s finished! (laughs)

HT: …the waltzer Simon Keenlyside (Hm!) I’d like to dance

Music: Tanzen möcht’ ich


SK: Yes, this recording was also much fun, with Mr Eschwé, he is… yeah wonderful, he really knew his trade

HT: Alfred Eschwé, the Tonkünstler-Orchestra and Angelika Kirchschlager

SK: yes, that.was fun and the team, the recording team were very, very, nice and very good.-


HT: the versatility of Simon Keenlyside goes from Kalman to  exceptional projects like a danced Winterreise  ….

SK: (laughing) That wasn’t dancing! They would not say so. Moving!

HT: …moved Winterreise, a world premiere of The Tempest of Thomas Adés.

SK: But isn’t it interesting that you were able to make, as a Briton, nine Winterreise [performances] in New York and all sold out! That is interesting!

HT: Yeah, great!

SK: I think even Schubert would have interested that. (laughing)

HT: Does that mean you have to give an additional dimension to recitals nowadays… (No!) …to get it sold out?

SK. No! Absolutely not! A good question but no! no! The only way to do Lieder is with a piano and in a hall. But: If one has an idea that you think is worth doing, try it! Winterreise is big enough to survive! (laughs)

HT: Yes, that is true.

HT: Since October Simon Keenlyside is father of a son …

SK: yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! (Laughter)

HT: did that …

SK. That’s a surprise! …and joy!

HT: …did that change your life?

SK: Ah, it is fantastic. Words were invented for shopping (laughter) and poetry of course, but poetry only tries to get to the bottom of what life really is about. And the really important things in life – all of us know this – there are no words… there are no words at all. So I can’t answer your question which is very good …it is a total joy, absolute joy!


SK: You all know that! You don’t need a stupid singer to tell anything about that!

HT: There is a lot which is impossible to be put in language, but you try [to express] it with the pencil then ….


SK: Oh, no, no, no …

HT: I see during the whole performance here when it starts to become embarrassing for him, when he is forced to listen to his own voice Simon Keenlyside starts to draw.

SK: It is true ( laughs)

HT: We will have it signed and then for a lot of money (no, no, no, no) you could it sell here

SK: But after a performance… what a… wonderful for me is to find a little café around the corner, being alone a nice, dark Weissbier and paper and pen to draw for some hours, oh, and slowly relax. I LOVE that.

HT: to come down.

SK: Yes, I love that!

HT: What are the objects of your creativity? What is drawn?

SK: Whichever cloud goes through my head!

HT: Is it connected with what you’ve experienced?

SK: Sometimes.

HT: that means You also draw caricatures… of your life?

SK: yes, sometimes.

HT: I thought that.

SK: At the beginning everything meant what was happening, really for the first 10 years and then suddenly …. I think maybe it relates to your question about music and consolation and then like a magnetic change it’s not a consolation it’s a total joy and I think my drawings were the same. For 10 years of the beginning I would draw everything that was nasty and mean on stage and now it is simply caricature, something which is funny for me. Yes!


HT: The first recital CD which Simon Keenlyside has recorded is named “Tales of opera” and there are some drawings of you in the booklet, that is, you are quite willing to show them to the public (Yes!). When will the first exhibition be?

SK: Puh! The last drawing in this booklet is amusing for me. It was my invitation card for my wedding, that was …

HT: And nonetheless somebody came?  (laughter)

SK: Yeah! Put it in the back... yes!

HT: You are left-handed, I saw that already in Onegin, you shoot the poor Lenski with [the] left [German expression i.e. quite easily]. Hm, that’s why I was not really able to observe because you always had your left hand in front. But I have asked myself if you are like a courtroom artist who [draws] the audience… because no photographer is allowed in the court room there are court artists and they capture the jury and the judges… I have tried to detect if I would recognize somebody in the audience (laughter). I’d say luckily for the audience: No!

SK: (laughing)  No!

D oodle courtesy of Freunde der Wiener Staatsoper


HT: Good. We will finish today’s matinee or today’s performance with a masked ball…

SK: Oh, no!!!!!!!!! Not this one, it’s not good!

HT: No, not this recording which you don’t like at all but from the Berlin Gala. May I play that one?

SK: That’s hu… that’s a hundred years ago! (laughter)

HT: Also not that one? Then we play something else….

SK: I have not heard, really ….

HT: Then we will hear it and speak about it …


HT: or…

SK: I want ….if it is bad than I want to say before you…

HT: …or we’ll play Pagliacci.

SK: Pagliacci is my favorite…

HT: Good!

SK. …it is like a credo, really.

HT: Good, the Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, duet Silvio-Nedda from the first act

SK: It is also not that good, nevertheless… (laughing)

Musik: erste Takte von Duett ….

SK: (protesting) The Prologue!

HT: About this recording we cannot say anything negative because you are not in it. (laughter)

SK: No, no, I mean… I thought you meant the credo of… eh… the prologue

HT: This we don’t have. (Ah, good, good!) Now we WILL play masked ball.


HT: Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado, a recording of a great Gala, so not the recording which you do not appreciate at all because you say “I was too tired, I was very bad.”

SK: I cannot say anything? OK! All right!


Music: “Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima” fromUn ballo in maschera. From the Silvesterkonzert (New Year’s Eve Concert), 31 December 1998 at the Berlin Philharmonie


SK:  Well, It’s all right, it’s live at least. Hey – but what was funny, is just before this concert I was almost arrested by the police… in Berlin

HT: Why?

SK: Yes, there was a huge celebration on the streets [New Years Eve] and four persons came to me and said… with my little bag “Open your bag“ and I said “No”, “Open your bag” I said “No, who are you?” I didn’t know they were policemen and they pulled me on one side and they questioned me… but I made the concert in the end.

HT: So you were not on your way with a bomb?

SK: No, this was before all this horror!

HT: Ok! Thank you very, very much! I am glad that …

SK. [Pulling off the mic] Gladly!

HT: No, no, please leave it on just a short while… I am glad now that we have played the masked ball because you were able to gather from the applause that your scepticism is not shared by anybody here. We thank you very, very much that you were our guest today. I am allowed to give you the “Jahrbuch of the Wiener Staatsoper” from the last year ……

SK: thank you very, very much, for your patience, both of you

HT: On your way. Thank you very, very much that you were here.


Above: photo courtesy of Freunde der Wiener Staatsoper



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