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2009.11.01 BBC Music Magazine interview

Wild at Heart

Cover story for the November 2009 edition of BBC Music Magazine

Simon Keenlyside, one of the world’s finest baritones, tells us why his love for wildlife is as strong as his passion for the operatic stage.


When he’s not thrilling packed houses in Verdi, Berg and Britten, baritone Simon Keenlyside is likely to be found tending hedgerows on remote and windswept moorland. Hilary Finch tramps across the Welsh hills to find out more…

Our man is out on his tractor. His wife gives directions: it’s the unmarked mud track just past the cattle-grid. It’s where the treeline stops, and the bare moor begins. Not even Bryn with his sheep, or Hélène Grimaud with her wolves, can beat this. Right on the edge of that treeline, tiny twiggy trees are beginning to appear. Thousands of them: Young, knobbly oak, wind-quivering birch, golden laburnum sprouting from old fence-posts, and dark, plush damson. And it’s all the work of Sirnon Keenlyside – a singer whose passion for music is equalled only by a desire to leave a small corner of the world better than he found it.

At the appointed hour, sure enough, he’s on his tractor. He has been carving out soft green pathways which wind in and out of the 17 acres of the Keenlyside Carmarthenshire farmland, giving access to meadows of wild flowers, hay-fields for neighbouring sheep, and to a creaky, tumbledown house which belonged to Simon’s father, Raymond, erstwhile of the Aeolian String Quartet. The Keenlyside living quarters themselves are new-built of old wood and stone, and so well insulated that every corner can be made cosy with just two logs in a wood-burning stove. Next door, there’s a barn fragrant with freshly picked fruit. The dark worlds of Don Carlo, of Wozzeck, of Macbeth, seem very far away.


Yet, inside Simon Keen!yside these worlds co-exist. The land is his passion, ever since his childhood holidays in Wales; the natural world is one he cohabits with the animal and bird life he studied as a zoologist. He spends as much time as he possibly can at his Carmarthenshire farm, with his wife, the Royal Ballet prima ballerina, Zenaida Yanowsky, and his nine-month-old son, Owen. Yet he can’t imagine a single day without music and singing, either. ‘It’s inside me all the time. This is not being obsessive. It’s not even ambition. It’s love. It’s passion!’

But, only a few weeks before we meet in Wales, Keenlyside had to suffer an enforced separation from singing. A pulled muscle perilously near his vocal cords compelled him to withdraw from Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House. It was a bitter disappointment: ‘I know Barber well; it was at home; it was a fabulous cast. But I’ve seen too many of my colleagues – sublimely gifted – refuse to listen to their bodies. I know I have to pay attention to mine. I was being sensible.’

Keenlyside’s return to vocal life has been a Prom; then, in September, a return to Covent Garden as Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Keenlyside is a singer who not only listens to his body, but perceives and expresses music through it too. Anyone who saw his Debussy Pelleas, his Monteverdi Orfeo – danced as much as sung in the choreography of Trisha Brown – will know that singing moves through his entire body. In the recital room, one senses a body that longs to be let loose.

When it was, in Brown’s choreographed re-invention of Schubert’s Winterreise, you new that Keenlyside had, as TS Eliot mIght say, found the place and known it for the first time. He remembers it as ‘the most satisfying art I’ve ever been involved with…’

But Keenlyside is well aware, too, of the importance of stillness. And the release of his Wigmore Hall Live disc, recorded in October last year, documents a recital of extraordinary concentration and focus. Amazingly, just three weeks earlier, his first child had been born, and the tiny Owen was present, in his mother’s arms, at the dress rehearsal. Zenaida wants Owen to experience his father’s singing as often as possible. When Keenlyside is away, the toddler hears His Father’s Voice through the speakers. That way, he’s omnipresent, even in the long and unavoidable absences.


What Owen heard that night was a recital dominated by Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, settings of Jules Renard’s satirical prose vignettes of four birds and one insect. This was framed by Fauré songs, including ‘L’oiseau dans Ie buisson’, and by a set of Wolf and Schubert songs expressing a longing for spiritual sublimation – that, for the Romantics, was very much achieved in union with Nature. When critics threaten to become tedious in their references to his encyclopaedic knowledge of birds and birdsong, Keenlyside bristles a little, sighs, and cries to put the record straight for the umpteenth time.

’Nineteenth-century writers and musicians – especially in Germany- approached the human psyche through the pastoral mode. These poems, these songs are not about birds – it’s all used as metaphor. Of course I respond to the poetry as it resonates with my own experience. But I also do my homework, and read about the literary sensibility and modes of the day.’

The music of Keenlyside’s new Sony disc of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Brahms’s songs dominates his current recital work: ‘I wanted to find some new Brahms songs I didn’t already know off by heart, and stitch them in with those I did know, to form a sort of loose conversation, in and around the subject of Dichterliebe: that of love and loss. Brahms used to be a bit of a blind spot for me. When you look at the palette of colours in, say, Schubert or Wolf, it’s enormous. But the number of Brahms songs which don’t deal with the subject of loss you could count on one hand! I didn’t want endless melancholy, endless “brown” songs.’ Keenlyside always sees what he sings in distinct colours. ‘So I’ve included songs which have other resonances for me – like “An eine Aolsharfe” (To an Aeolian Harp), which is a little private joke referring to my father’s string quartet.’ Are there nightingales on the disc, dare I ask? ‘Yes, and larks too – but I can’t programme too many nature songs, otherwise it all gets too cute. Difficult, isn’t it?’


Not half as difficult, I’d say, as crossing Keenlyside’s stream – more of a rushing torrent after days of Welsh rain. ‘Ah! There’s just not enough time!’ And suddenly I’m wearing his wellies, and he’s halfway across in sodden socks. Forget, for the moment, about what’s going on ‘Uber der Heide’ (Over the moorlands), or in the solitary depths of ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (Field solitude): there’s a field of wildflowers to cultivate for the butterflies, and 10,000 trees to tend for insects and birds. ‘I want to leave this place as a wildlife reserve,’ Keenlyside murmurs. ‘If Owen doesn’t show interest by the time I’m finished, then I’ll give it to the Welsh Nature Conservancy.’ The land is already humming with rare and diverse species: every British hawk save one; red squirrels just over the hill; tiger-moths in their pied livery.


But, if anyone has studied time and his relationship to it, it’s Keenlyside. He knows when to speak, when to keep silence; that there’s a time to plant, and a time to pluck up. Few singers I’ve met are as acutely aware that self-limitation is the path to self-fulfilment. Keenlyside is an artist who, at several points in his life, could have been frozen into withdrawal from the musical world. ‘I’ve said no to many, many things which I know would have been an enormous injection of aircraft fuel into my career. But that’s not what I wanted. I do what I do because I adore it. I can’t work any other way. That’s how I can take on Berg’s Wozzeck in a short space of time – because for me it’s a complete joy.’

His debut in that role was at the Bastille, Paris, in April 2008. Keenlyside feels irresistibly drawn to Wozzeck’s world of estrangement, to the character’s embodiment of all the sources of social and spiritual alienation which society can create. Now, at London’s Royal Festival Hall in October, Keenlyside is involved in a semi-staged Wozzeck. ‘To be honest, my most enjoyable (Britten) Billy Budd was the so-called semi-staged one at the Barbican, with ]ohn Tomlinson and Philip Langridge. If you’re working with people at the height of their powers – and the orchestra’s got enough space – then you find yourself just becoming a conduit for the music. You don’t need sets and lighting and semaphore. You really don’t. And, of all the operas I do, Wozzeck is a true psychological drama. Like Winterreise, it’s all taking place in the mind.

‘It’s very taxing physically. With Posa, in Don Carlo, you don’t have to do a lot of practice between shows. Verdi’s music flows on in a constant line of energy-you stretch out the vocal cord, and the muscle’s there, strong, elastic and pliable throughout. In Berg, the vocal writing is percussive on the cords. They don’t get worked in an efficient way. But I don’t think I’ve come across anything more wonderful than Wozzeck. I’ll never tire of it. It leaves me feeling very small.’

The next milestone will be Verdi’s Macbeth – at the Vienna State Opera in December and the following May. This could really be the big one. After two decades’ love affair with at least three tenors, audiences now can’t get enough, it seems, of the baritone voice. And there’s no baritones like Verdi’s baritones. The composer single-handedly rehabilitated and reinvented the high, lithe baritone as a supreme expressive vehicle. What does Keenlyside feel about his glorious celebration of the baritone voice, in all its infinite variety? ‘Well, the baritone voice is very dose to speech. It’s the most natural placing of the human voice. That’s why there are so many of us! But, to be honest, I feel all of that information to be rather a millstone. I like to keep things as simple as possible. I work with a dictaphone and old-fashioned audio tapes. I record all my observations from my study of the score: I speak, sing, half-sing the role to myself And I’ll walk round the world, listening to these tapes, every single day.’

The score of Macbeth is on the piano in the light-filled upper room of the farmhouse which serves as Keenlyside’s studio. In a corner, behind a large white sheet, suspended like a screen by pegs and a long twig, is a snug and Sectet comer for a baby’s crib.

‘I’m anxious about Macbeth. Don Carlo is so through-composed and so driven, that it almost takes care of itself musically. But Macbeth! It seems so bitty at the moment yet it was one of Verdi’s own favourites. Why? What is it? I’m also trying to relate Verdi’s Macbeth to the man in the play. How weak do I make him? Do I need to make him weak at all? I’ll just have to find my own way…

Verdi’s Rigoletto, his next role after Macbeth, is a natural progression for Keenlyside, and he’s looking forward immensely to his role debut at Welsh National Opera next June and July. ‘I feel I’ve got plenty of time. There’s only a few other roles I want to encompass now. Perhaps I’m a little too cautious. I could have done many of them a lot earlier, but I didn’t want to take the risk. I’ll do (Verdi’s) Simon Boccanegra, yes – when I’m ready to. Two new roles in a year, for two to three years, is very tiring.’

We’ve now returned to the wood-fired stove in the farmhouse – and the cupboard is bare. ‘There just hasn’t been time to get any food in!’ bewails Keenlyside, rapidly spreading thick slices of homemade bread with damson jam. No shortage of that. ‘Can’t think what we’ll have for supper…’ ‘Skin a rabbit?’ I ask facetiously. ‘Well, I would, and I do – but often by 11 o’clock at night I’m just too tired to go out and find the little buggers…’


There’s one thing that Keenlyside wants make dear before I go. He needs to emphasise that this 17 acres of land is of deep and fundamental importance in his life. ‘This not a hobby. It’s not a holiday home. It’s not somewhere I come to recharge my batteries’ It’s a way of living. And it’s the way I want to live. London’s very hard for me- because I can’t get out. People are always going on about me and birdsong. But the birdsong is part of the landscape itself. I welcome the housemartins and the swallows every year as if they were friends. I know where they’ll nest. I look forward to the cuckoo arriving and note its leaving. I love it when the first fritillaries appear, when the sea-bass and the mackerel leap in the waters. And I’ll only ever share it with people who’ll understand. Not those who think it’s cute or sweet. I don’t want to have to explain it. It’s a way of life – being of nature, and in nature. That’s all I’m going to say…’


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