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2009.10.05 BBC Radio 3 “In tune” interview about Wozzeck

BBC Radio 3 “In Tune”, Monday 5 October 2009

Presented by Sean Rafferty

Guests: Katarina Dalayman and Simon Keenlyside


SR: Well Solomon had an altogether better time and was wiser than the unfortunate and abused Wozzeck of Berg’s eponymous opera. Simon Keenlyside, used to the towering and dramatic of course, takes on the role for a special performance in London on Thursday. His mistress Marie, who has had his child and who causes him so much heartbreak, is played by Katarina Dalayman. When she sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera New York the Financial Times said “She sang, really sang, Marie’s music with lyrical ardour that underscored the hopeless passion.” Well, hereafter falling for the charms of the Sergeant Major, with his bull-like chest, she sings to her child and admires her sparkling and illicit stones….

Music: Katarina Dalayman singing Act Two, Scene 1: Was die Steine glänzen?

Marie in her room with her child, from Act I [actually Act II] of Wozzeck by Berg, and Marie sung by Katarina Dalayman in that recording of the Royal Opera, Stockholm under Leif Segerstam.

Well it’s a special performance, one performance only as they say, semi-staged in London this week and we will meet Wozzeck himself, the poor downtrodden man, in a moment. But Katarina – very good to have you with us – you’ve sung it of course on stage before, memorably at Covent Garden and at the Met, where they were ecstatic about your passion for this role. It’s very demanding isn’t it? I was going to say that’s quite a lyrical part of it, but it is comparatively…


[Click photo for details of Wozzeck, Royal Festival Hall on 8 October 2009]

KD: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s very demanding but it’s very good for the voice, because it’s, it… you need a very long voice and you don’t have any, there aren’t any possibilities to make your voice really… fat and wide, it needs a long slim voice, so that’s very good – I find it to be very healthy for the voice.

SR: Of course you’ve been singing a lot of Wagner so you’ve got the stamina for it, but certainly it’s not Wagnerian, you’re not given any long sort of lines, are you?

KD: No, exactly and it’s so much shorter which is nice. Every scene is so much shorter than everything else I’m doing right now at the moment, but it’s very demanding because you need to be there, well, I mean you don’t… you have to have your voice prepared for every moment.

SR: Well you are Marie who is open to the blandishments of other gentlemen, poor Wozzeck is not enough for you. And singing Wozzeck – I’m sure he’ll give it his usual passion – is Simon Keenlyside, who is just about finished – have you finished singing Don Carlo by Verdi yet?

SK: Yeah, it’s finished…

SR: Absolutely finished. So do you need a personality switch to go from Verdi to Berg?

SK: Well… it helps being dysfunctional in the first place! [laughter]. No, I mean that’s my job as an actor, isn’t it, I love it, I relish the differences, yeah…

SR: And it is, when you say acting, this is intense acting, isn’t it?

SK: I’ve never quite understood what – this accusation that’s levelled at opera – that it’s not really quite acting. I think all of it is, very much so.

SR: It is – and the colour you get? You can get extra colour, of course, vocally?

SK: Well it’s so different to something… since you mention Don Carlo, for example. You don’t really have to do a lot of singing between shows – one every three days – you just keep things ticking over and do a tiny bit of practice. But something like Wozzeck, uses the voice very hard but doesn’t work it in a particularly… doesn’t… I’d have to keep it healthy between times and sing long lines and keep it elastic and keep the voice long, otherwise I’d come a cropper, unless it was a one off concert.

SR: It’s a very intense experience I think for the audience as well, quite disturbing. Based on the Buchner unfinished play, but Wozzeck is this extraordinary figure who doesn’t fit in to society. Everywhere he’s kicked, he’s abused, he’s downgraded, he’s despised, he’s… you know, Marie goes off with more attractive men… So, do you see him as a sort of sad everyman figure? How do you look on him as a character?

SK: In ten seconds, Sean?

SR: I’ll give you longer…

SK: OK, no, what do I think? I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art that I have ever encountered and I think it’s got so much beauty in it – it’s like a cathedral light, you know – it’s a dark place with these great shafts coming through them and those shafts of beauty are that much more wonderful for being rare… and they’re pointed up that much more by the darkness. The only thing getting in the way of that, of course there’s that beautiful harmony and dissonance reflected in the score, is the language and there’s the rub of course with opera – you have to do so much work to get that far. But there is profound beauty in this piece. Apart from the little crystalline nuggets of absolute beauty in some of the language there is this, sort of, just as existed in Mozart operas, that the preconceptions of all morally accepted positions that are held at the time are turned on the head and, for example, in this piece Alban Berg says “OK, which of you out there that is either cracked in the first place, and was pushed and pushed and bullied would crack? Who wouldn’t crack? And if you cracked, which way would you crack – inwards or outwards? And if you cracked outwards, would you hurt the person that hurt you or would you hurt the person who you love most of all?” which is of course what happens in this piece.

And then he gives you two people who are of a very high standing in society, such as a doctor, unimpeachable really, mad as a hatter, and the Captain, a very highly respected man, doubly mad, cruel too. Wozzeck has a great beauty in him as a man and he’s pushed and pushed and pushed. And Marie too – she has that one gorgeous line when she does give in to the advances, violent advances, of the pretty, twinkly soldier “if it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else”. It’s just trying to survive – at least he provides her with earrings and something to eat – and she has a child… which person really can be judged?

SR: Well indeed because there is a line, isn’t there, “the poor have no morals” and it’s almost a luxury… What do you think about Marie, then? Is she as much a victim as Wozzeck in all this?

KD: Oh yes definitely, I think so… I think she’s a young woman who is being held prisoner at home and I think, or at least I want to think, that they at least once loved each other… Of course Wozzeck loves Marie, but I think that she’s at home with this little child and she’s bored and she wants to live – she’s really longing for a nice life and then this man comes along… and she gets… to become a woman for a short moment.

SR: Well you can see there’s this terrible humdrum, ghastly, hardly bearable existence and suddenly there’s light, there’s colour, there’s bugles… there’s someone who takes an interest, who wants to lift you out of all this. We’ll come back to it in a moment after we hear something, I suppose in a way it’s sort of the same feelings from your latest recording with Malcolm Martineau, Simon – which is Schumann and Brahms – and we hear Brahms, it’s Brahms’s At Twilight (Abenddämmerung)

SK: A deft segue…

SR: A deft segue indeed – meets its images of childhood looking back towards innocence. Is this a sort of reflective adult tristesse as well?

SK: Why did I choose it, you mean?

SR: No, well……….

SK: Yes, I suppose it is – it’s difficult to find Brahms songs that aren’t about yearning and loss and so I was trying to find something that was a slightly different angle – at least looking back to one’s childhood is a variation upon that sort of longing.

Music: Simon and Malcolm Martineau, Abenddämmerung from new Schumann & Brahms CD

Dichterliebe cover

[Click CD cover for details]

SR: Abenddämmerung (Twilight) by Brahms sung by Simon Keenlyside with Malcolm Martineau at the piano – very latest release on the Sony label. Well, Simon’s here trying not to listen to that. Do you really not like listening to your voice or listening to recordings?

SK: No, no – most singers I think are the same. No, I can hear all the faults and I can’t fix them [laughs]

SR: [laughs] Well, we can’t hear them – it’s very pleasurable for the audience I have to say. Brahms and Schumann are they a perfect pairing? Well, they were very together, they adored each other.

SK: I liked it. I don’t like academic pairings or chronological programmes or Opus number programmes particularly, but in this case I think the marriage of Brahms and Schumann is lovely because of their personal links with Clara and also I was trying to find some Brahms songs that, as we alluded to before, that weren’t all brown, dreary ones. [background laughter] Well I know that last one sounded brown and dreary too…

SR: It didn’t sound brown and dreary…

SK: But I like to think of it as rather…

SR: It sounded purple… [SK: eh?] It sounded sort of deep purple, coming into the evening.

SK: I think it’s sort of sublime rather than brown…

SR: Well, both people had sublime moments. You’d prefer to do recital music would you? Would you prefer to sing with a piano – the intimacy of recital?

SK: Yeah, well that’s half my life, Sean, as you well know. I started 25 years ago doing it and I haven’t fallen out of love with it yet. Well, you know, it’s a perfect combination of a genius composer with similarly wonderful words.

SR: Absolutely. I remember hearing you first, probably when you started, in Dublin, many years ago.

SK: That’s not fair – I took my shoes off!

SR: You were a mere stripling… but you did wear white tie and tails – it was very, very impressive.

SK: I remember it was leather soled shoes for that one and they were squeaking on the floor and I was so fed up I took them off! [laughter] The mistake I made was picking them up during the applause – that was very cheap! [more laughter]

SR: Yes, but you know, dramatic – it gave people an idea of your dramatic potential.

SK: Well, there’s no hats and make up and raked stages and irritating people who are grumpy with you – it’s just music. There’s nowhere to hide, it’s true, but it’s just beauty…

SR: Just beauty indeed. Well, that’s Brahms and Schumann, Simon with Malcolm Martineau – a brand new recording on the Sony label. What have you got coming up, Katarina? Have you got a recital disc coming or something that you’d like to plan?

KD: No, no discs. No, I don’t have anything planned with recordings, no.

SR: But you have done lots……

SK: I’m glad to have the pleasure of working with you again. Fantastic – your Tannhäuser Elisabeth was fabulous

KD: Yeah, that was nice. That was many years ago

SK: You were wonderful… yeah, absolutely wonderful.

KD: Before the big Wagner, before babies and everything. So it must be seven years ago or something…

SK: No, it wasn’t that long…

SR: Does that make a difference if you have children? Does your voice change?

KD: Yes, it does, it does. I can’t say – well, hopefully, not in a bad way. No I feel it has been good for me. It becomes a little bigger and a bit more… solid.

SR: Well back to Mr Alban Berg, who you are about to appear in this week on the South Bank. I suppose a rather tortured connection with Schumann and Berg and Schoenberg and all those people were sort of in Vienna number one and two. It’s the first atonal opera they say, Simon, but it’s not totally atonal is it?

SK: Oof – you’ve got me, I’m on thin ice when I talk about this. All I know is that it’s a dialogue, but it’s just not as narrative as your Schumann and your Brahms. A lot of the dialogue as it were is with the orchestra, so tonal or not it is still a drama and it’s an emotional wandering, as it were… but in a way what’s the difference between that and the journey of Winterreise, which is in one’s head. I know people say it’s unwaveringly dark but they’re wrong, they’re wrong…

SR: As you said, it is… I love the idea of it being a cathedral, with these great shafts of light…

SK: You know you look at something like a picture by Braque, with the fragmentation of a chair, or a Guernica or Picasso, with all the features, the facets on one side – it’s the same thing, it’s a broken mirror but it’s shown in a different way. It’s the human condition shown in a slightly different way than the 19th century narrative, but no less wonderful…

SR: How difficult is it to do a semi-staged production, Katarina, because it’s so intense, the drama? But maybe – is it easier then if you’re having this reaction with the orchestra to purvey these emotions without having to move around and without a production?

KD: Well I haven’t quite decided yet whether I like it or not. It’s sort of something in between being on stage and having a concert. Maybe it’s gonna be fine, maybe it’s gonna be good. We don’t have so much space to work on and to keep in contact with the conductor, it’s a bit tricky, but I think it’s going to be fine. I think it’s going to be nice with the different lightings… I don’t know if you need it but we’ll try. We have another go in Paris without all these things – another concert.

SR: Indeed, yes…

SK: The mere fact of having that vast orchestra on the stage on the same level as you

KD: That’s difficult enough, yes

SK: …requires a very clever and a very cooperative conductor, which we have in Esa-Pekka, but you’ll need it.

SR: Well you’ve both of course been acclaimed for all the roles you’ve done and I can absolutely put a rubber stamp on that and say you’re both absolutely sensational – I thought we’d just leave the blushes ‘til the end, but you’ve got great reviews, both of you, for Wozzeck and I see Simon that there’s a wonderful remark about how much you had put into it in Paris, in the Bastille, it said – “Mr Keenlyside put so much effort in he perspired through his shirt” – just in case you were thinking of perspiring through anything else! [laughter]

SK: I did…?

SR: Well, no, it wasn’t just that…

SK: Well, I don’t read reviews, so I didn’t know.

KD: It’s hard work…

SK: Maybe something was lost in the translation there, Sean… [laughs]

SR: Thank you both very much indeed. We leave with Berg and Katarina – indeed the recording you made in Stockholm again. You and your friend Margret are at the window, the band approaches, the sergeant major with his barrel chest and his nice fine beard. So, is this the moment where temptation is swimming in?

KD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is…

SR: It is… Thank you very much

Music: Katarina Dalayman singing Act 1, Scene 2 “Tschin Bum… horst Bub?”

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