2009-2010 Opera live magazine, WNO

On The Move

From Opera Live, the magazine of Welsh National Opera


Simon Keenlyside returns to Welsh National Opera to make his debut in the title role of Rigoletto. Nick Kimberley meets a singer whose heart is in Wales, but whose career spans the globe.

I met Simon Keenlyside at London’s Royal Festival Hall on a bright spring morning in April. He had just returned to London from Vienna, where he had been singing in a run of performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Immediately after our conversation he was off to Suffolk for a few days, not for a break but to make a new recording of songs by Brahms and Schumann. In the following weeks his itinerary would take him to Denmark, Madrid and Amsterdam, before a return to Vienna for more performances of Onegin.

Such is the workload of the international star, but Keenlyside embraces it with enthusiasm: “It’s better than working” he says with a self-deprecating grin, Keenlyside’s warm baritone voice, dramatic intelligence and broodingly intense stage presence have emphatically placed him on the A-list of the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. Offstage, the intelligence and intensity remain intact, yet it is his matter-of-fact modesty that shines through.

Our interview is occasioned by a somewhat distant engagement but one with particular resonance: his return to Welsh National Opera in 2010 after an absence of over a decade. The performances will also mark his debut in the title-role of Verdi’s Rigoletto, one of the most challenging of the composer’s great baritone roles. He recalls his early WNO experiences with fondness:

“WNO was very good to me, I did many wonderful roles there, even if much of what I did in those days was worthy and perhaps not much more. I was a late developer, physically and vocally, and I was also reticent as a man: I wouldn’t let my voice go, in my head I’d be saying ‘Don’t mind me’, Nevertheless WNO gave me a platform, the chance to learn my trade in front of people, I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m thrilled that it’ll be in the new house.”


Simon as Oreste and Diana Montague as the eponymous Iphigénie en Tauride, WNO, 1992

Keenlyside is also looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with John Fisher, WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director since May 2006, For Keenlyside, “John is one of the world’s great voice coaches, and even now he is still in great demand as a coach, In fact he helped me get the role of Eugene Onegin in my head before last Christmas. Sometimes when you go for coaching, all you want is a pianist to play the notes for you, but when you’re learning a new role you absolutely need a coach, John and I only did a few sessions on Onegin, but they were really useful.”


Simon as Eugene Onegin , Vienna 2009

It isn’t only his voice that Keenlyside likes to keep in good shape. He has always been something of an athlete; indeed, while he was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music, he joined Sale Harriers, one of the country’s leading athletics clubs. He no longer has the time for that kind of dedication, but he says, “Most of the places I’ve lived for most of my adult life – Salzburg and Vienna, for example – have been on the edge of mountains, and I like to be strong and in good shape because I want to be able take a walk over the mountains and the next day do a show, without having a heart attack.”

The fitness regime has given Keenlyside, 50 this year, a physique to match his voice, and many publicity photos show him baring his torso in a way that would horrify the majority of opera singers. That, though, has been a double-edged sword: “Exercise has been useful in the past for certain roles, but I was getting weary of having to take my shirt off for every opera that I was in. That got boring.

I did a production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace at English National Opera in 2001, and I loved it, except for the fact that I was asked to take my shirt off. I said. ‘It’s minus 50 degrees in the opera, and you want me to take my shirt off? NO!’ Fortunately I’ve outgrown that now. Those roles are not for me anymore.


Simon as Prince Andrei in War & Peace , ENO, 2001

When the interview returns to Rigoletto I suggest that Keenlyside has not sung a great deal of Verdi’s music. He gently puts me right: “I’ve done a fair amount, and unless you’re freakish, you’d be unwise to sing a lot of Verdi before your late 30s anyway. I think I’ve gone about it in a natural way I embraced Germont in La traviata, Posa in Don Carlo and Ford in Falstaff. Then you take stock and see whether, realistically, you’re capable of doing anything else. Time will tell, but I feel it’s a natural progression to Rigoletto now.”

In all of Verdi’s output, there are few more complex figures than Rigoletto, the hunchbacked court jester. In trying to protect his daughter from the corruption in which he himself is immersed, he destroys her. Verdi himself said of the title character, “That is exactly what seemed so wonderful to me, to portray this ridiculous, terribly deformed creature, who is inwardly filled with passion and love.” A modern audience is liable to find that the “passion and love” are themselves deformed: when I suggest to Keenlyside that he has taken on a rather twisted role, he says with some glee, “That’s theatre for you. Name a character who isn’t twisted: and especially, name a baritone character who isn’t.”

greylag_20goose_300_tcm9-139893Offstage, Keenlyside seems the last person to tackle such a character He seems eminently sane, rooted in the real world. The spot where he and I chatted had a fine view over the Thames. At one point a bird flew along the river; without missing a beat in the conversation, Keenlyside said, “Look: a greylag. That’s nice.” I took his word on the matter of identification: after all, for some time in his youth Keenlyside was a warden with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This is a singer whose interests are not circumscribed by operatic perspectives.

Picture of greylag courtesy of http://www.rspb.org.uk/

In 2006 he married Zenaida Yanowsky, a prima ballerina with the Royal Ballet: their first child was born in October 2008. Force of circumstance dictates that London is their physical home, but his heart is elsewhere: “My father was a fiddle player [Raymond Keenlyside played second violin with the celebrated Aeolian Quartet] and he had a tiny cottage in West Wales As a boy I was a chorister at St John’s College in Cambridge, a boarding school, and the only place that was home to me was Wales. That was always where I returned to. When I got older I bought a farm down there:’

Keenlyside’s work-schedule prevents him from farming animals, but he is passionate about the trees that he has introduced: “Half of the trees are sessile oak because that’s what belongs there, although it’s very exposed. I’m at the very edge of the tree-line, so after ten years they’re only a metre high. I’ve also planted some beautiful hawthorns, laburnum, beech, mountain ash. as well as a great deal of birch: they’re quick-growing and I want to see a forest before I’m 80. Even in London, there are wonderful wildernesses just down the river. I live on the south bank of the Thames, and Rainham Marshes are on the north bank, and I’m working out how I can get there. Maybe a small rubber boat, although I’m not sure what the Port of London authorities would have to say about that:’

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