2010.11.08 Bloody, bold and resolute: About the House

About the House, the magazine of the Royal Opera House, November 2010

Bloody, bold and resolute

Baritone Simon Keenlyside takes on the role of Macbeth for the first time at Covent Garden. It’s just one of a series of darker roles he’s been singing recently, as he tells Amanda Holloway

2010 November About the House 01

When did you start thinking you’d like to sing Macbeth?

About five years ago. I missed a plane back to Vienna where I was due to sing my first Rodrigo in Don Carlo. All the London airports were shut because of fog and I didn’t want to let the company down, so I got a private jet, which cost me an arm and a leg. But it was the least I could do when someone had put that much faith in me. After the show, the Intendant, loan Hollender thanked me for making such an effort and said, ‘Now, what would you like to sing next?’ So I said, ‘Macbeth!’

Would you say it’s a darker role than you’ve done up till now?

Not really: I’ve been singing Wozzeck, which is as dark as you get, around the place for a long time. And of course I’ve already sung Macbeth for the Vienna State Opera. And I sang Rigoletto for Welsh National Opera earlier this year.

How long did you spend preparing the role of Macbeth?

No longer than any other role. Moving from one of the glorious Mozarts, like Don Giovanni, or any of the Da Ponte operas, to Verdi, is the natural progression for any singer in the middle of their life. I hoped, and I was taught, that if your voice is balanced, time will give you the weight. And once that came, I was keen to play with it. But I didn’t start working on it any earlier than three or four months, which is normal for me.

Are you looking forward to doing Macbeth at Covent Garden with Antonio Pappano?

Yes. I remember seeing Tony conducting Wozzeck a few years ago and sitting up and thinking: that’s different! He did not ask the singer to try to vie with a mountain of sound. By careful control of the orchestra he allowed the singer not only to be heard but also to colour the character of Wozzeck. Self-evidently, a variety of vocal colour indicates differing emotional states of a character. That was what was so different. It’s one of my bugbears – conductors have forgotten how to keep the orchestra down. If you’ve got ppp written on the score, you need the help of the conductor – it’s a two-way street. I know Tony well enough to know that it will happen in Macbeth. He will want to show that the Italian repertory, which is so dear to his heart, isn’t just tuneful, rumty-tum music, as it’s sometimes looked upon, rather snobbily. It is as great and as profound as any of the northern European composers.

How do you imagine the character of Macbeth?

Many of the greatest geniuses, including Verdi, have this incredible way of putting this arc lamp, a huge great beam of magnesium light, of truth on a character and saying, ‘This is what you are’. But he is not being judgmental. The way I see it, Macbeth is not redeemable. He has set his compass to his star, like Iago does, but not quite as overtly. He knows once he’s agreed to the dirty deed, he’s committed to it for life. So it’s out and out wickedness.

Do you enjoy playing someone thoroughly wicked?

I think Don Giovanni is thoroughly wicked, but you can play him with charm and that’s very interesting. Macbeth, welL .. as with something like Wozzeck, you have to take the little you have – the momentary Rashes of sympathy or light – and play them up without spoiling the arc of the character. For me, just as with life, the beauty is in the detail. So yes, he’s a wicked character, but that doesn’t mean to say he’s this great black-wigged, black-cloaked villain.

When reading Verdi’s letters, it’s clear that he was a stickler for detail and colour and nuance. I’m led to believe that he would rehearse the singers for weeks on only one duet. It was common for him to continue that process into the performances themselves – demanding to hear the details he had written into the score. In some ways it is very Mozartian. The moods are like clouds on a windy day – the Italians have the perfect word for it, ‘chiaroscuro’. Within two bars there are enormous changes, from piano to forte, and it really pays to observe these changes in detail. The last thing Verdi wanted from singers was for them to sing out at full blast from start to finish.

Are there any particularly tricky bits?

One should be wary of confusing the gravitas of Shakespeare’s gigantic play, and its place in English literature and culture, with Verdi’s role. The latter is hard and long and has many pitfalls, but it’s not inhuman to sing. It goes without saying that to sing anything well is hard. It’s impossible to compare the vocal demands of Macbeth with The Tempest, for example. The latter is short and painfully difficult to sing. And even something like Don Giovanni can be ruinous to a voice if you allow the aggressivity of the character to get into the voice. The same is true of the awkwardness of Wozzeck. The jagged and dysfunctional qualities of the man can so easily touch one’s singing, such that it requires only a few serious errors of judgment to reduce a voice to rubble. Multiply that many times, during a rehearsal period, and you could well imagine how singers can hurt themselves and even destroy their voices.

How can you avoid that?

Marshalling one’s resources is the name of the game in any role, but particularly in anything strenuous. It behoves a singer not only to sing well in the stage and orchestral rehearsals, and naturally the performance, but also to rehearse cleverly and not wear themselves out in six hours of expansive and exciting music each and every day. In Macbeth, at least one can always

be assured of the most sublime vocal line. Verdi’s writing for the voice is always very particular and usually wonderfully lyrical. You could say he invented the modern baritone. We are given this wonderful, thick, rich music which on paper looks quite high, in terms of tessitura.

I was talking to Placido Domingo alter the dress rehearsal for Simon Boccanegra, and guess what’s next in his score? Rigoletto. It’s very high on paper, and you can see why he would want to do it. If you’re talking about a piece such as Macbeth or Rigoletto, it’s less a question of getting through it, but what is hard is getting the right colour. Otherwise you end up trying to act wicked and that’s no good. It’s like trying to act innocent. You’ve got to be wicked through your voice, and that means finding a colour.

Can you describe it?


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Chastelaine November 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

I love reading Simon’s interviews – his observations about all manner of things fascinate me. Anyway I shall do my utmost to get to this production of Macbeth next summer. Already booked for Pelleas et Melisande (sorry about lack of acute accents) next April – can’t wait!

asperia November 9, 2010 at 8:06 pm

i hope it will get on dvd:-)))) who knows?

Ann Lander November 9, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Great interview. Looking forward to seeing some wickedness next May.

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