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2012.06, Prolog, Magazine of Vienna Staatsoper, Die Kunst des Auslotens

Prolog June 2012 – Magazine of Vienna Staatsoper

Die Kunst des Auslotens

click here to read the German original

English translation by Petra Habeth

The art of trying out

Simon Keenlyside was last seen and heard at the Vienna Staatsoper –each time in the title role – in new productions of Eugene Onegin and Macbeth. At the opening night of the Italian Don Carlo he returns in a role in which has already been enthusiastically received by the audience on previous occasions:as Posa. In the course of the rehearsals for this opening night he gave Andreas Láng the following interview:

Mr Keenlyside, isn’t there a contradiction in the argument of the opera? Posa wants actively to change the world, Karl V in the form of the Monk on the other hand points out that you can do what you want – because everyone can only become happy in the afterlife. Is Posa’s missiontherefore obsolete?

SK: Idealists, and Posa without question is one, are generally people who basically do not want to make compromises, also will not accept them and usually preach happiness,  although their own existences  – in art as well as in life – very seldom end happily. Maybe their function is to help others to their happiness. Driven, obsessive human beings do not seem to pause to reflect if their own life is going happily. Maybe the biggest contentment in this world is mediocrity; looked at that way it does not seem to be such a bad thing.

How sympathetic is Posa, can he be a model?

SK: His idealism is wonderful and admirable. You only have to look at human history: You can find a number of idealists and prophets who have improved the world for some years, some for some centuries or even millennia. But history shows us on the other hand that not only black and white exists, but that we live in a world of compromise. Schiller and Verdi present us Philip as an extreme figure: nearer to Machiavelli than to an aspect of fairness or compromise. In this tension between Posa’s idealism, the cynicism of the Grand Inquisitor and Philip’s central power struggle with the church the main themes are delineated: Power, kingdom, manipulation, idealism, love, morality. Each director focuses on a different aspect because there is a lot more to this opera than  you can guess  from hearing it the first time. Do I like Posa? He is an idealist for sure but would he have remained one if he had served Philip? I can’t say – because I am shot after my aria! I do not really like him, I admit. He is in the end very selfish. The demands which he makes of Carlos, his childhood friend, have more to do with fame for Carlos and with the previous idealistic ideas of both than with real love. Even his sacrificial death is not a sign of love but purposeful: It is to rescue Carlos so that he liberates Flanders. For Posa only the cause matters. It means everything for him, everything else comes second. Is this idealism? In any case not a reasonable human being. But Schiller shows in a sublime way that Philip is always two steps ahead of the two young men – and therefore the dirty politics wins.

Why do you think that Verdi has made Posa a Baritone and not another tenor role?

SK: For God’s sake! Posa a tenor? That would be quite unusual. I am a great fan of tenor voices, the demands on tenors are huge- but how would this famous duet Carlos/Posa or the other scene with them both sound if we would have had two tenors on stage? Maybe a bit like the fight of two cats imprisoned in a bag. I do not know what Verdi wanted. But as you should measure human beings by their deeds, it becomes clear that Verdi loved baritone voices, more precisely he reinvented the modern baritone voice. The canon of Verdi’s baritone roles has changed everything, the roles speak for themselves, just think of Rigoletto, Macbeth, Boccanegra, Nabucco, Posa, Falstaff, Iago, Germont, just  to name a few. But what is the task of the baritone in most of Verdi’s operas? They are the central role, although no real heroes. In these plots they are often the trigger of and mechanism for the destruction of the status quo.  For  this reason it makes sense to use darker voices for such  multilayered characters. The higher tenor voice embodies much more youth and optimism.

Is it easier or harder to go on stage as Posa again when you have already sung Rigoletto, Macbeth and similar roles?

SK: It is certainly not more difficult. I have found more possibilities to portray the person more clearly and more differentiated and in that way to get across to the audience what kind of a man Posa really is. I can carve out the colours of the character more intensively and make the details more precise. For me the detail forms the art itself and there are unlimited details … Each entry, each phrasing and their connection with the acting, also in connection with my colleagues, interests me hugely. It would be useless, if not stupid, to progress without cease and without break from one part to the next, from one more challenging role to the next even more complex role. I would feel burned out, wouldn’t have time to think, would have no energy to hike in the mountains, to be together with the people I love. My singer’s existence would very soon come to an end. I value the variety: A Conte d’Almaviva, a Giovanni, here a Papageno, there a Wolfram, a recital. Giorgio Germont for example is fascinating. The colour of this character isn’t easy to find. Wozzeck is quite short but it needs only a wrong turn, a rough sound which you apply too often and you damage your voice. With Macbeth it is similar. Each of these roles influences the other ones and so far it is always an advantage to return to earlier, seemingly “easier” parts.

How much intellectual work do you need for the interpretation of Posa and how much do you get purely from the emotion?

SK: How much intellectual work do you usually need for a part? Well, it surely does no harm if you know something of the background, the background of the character, the development, the history etc. You can read some of this in books but this helps only up to a certain point. You will find the inherent truth, depth and artistic importance of a role by intensive examination of the part and through the interaction of the character with the others in the plot. The texts do not always reveal immediately what is hidden in them – often they are changed by the music, rearranged, ennobled. A deeper understanding of the role for me can only be achieved by constant examination and continuous appearance in this role.  I would like many more performances in these five or six parts which I have embodied over these last years, to enable me to explore them better before I turn to other roles.

As an artist you know after several years what you have to do to make the audience react positively – you know some “tricks”. Are you allowed to use these tricks or do you consider this dubious for an artist?

SK: Well … in my opinion you would not be a reputable artist if you always used these tricks which you assume achieve certain reactions from the audience. But …but, but …Before I am in danger to sound too self-righteous : Every artist has only a limited number of possibilities and colours at their disposal. And after 20 years and more in which you stand on a stage and learn and try, everyone more or less becomes aware how he wants to act a part – which itself is not bad. You would not expect of a great Shakespearean actor that he has several different interpretations of a part. And also a singer can’t invent himself anew every time – if you put costumes, set and direction aside. There is always one or another detail which is typical for the interpreter in question. The main features of a part like the Count in Figaro are deeply seated inside me. For several years I have sung the Strehler production – at la Scala with Muti , and here in Vienna in Michael Heltau’s revival: This has formed me in the role, but does not mean that there is no room for improvement in future performances.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Inci Birsel July 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Thanks for the translation,Petra. I had read this in the magazine before but somehow it makes more sense for me in English.It amazes me how deep Simon’s approach to a character is.No wonder he is so successful on stage! I would love to see him as Posa in another production as well.
All the best.

Kew July 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Thanks so much, Petra, for this translation. It is really a thoughtful conversation, and the topic is exactly what I have been wanting to ask since I first saw Simon’s Rodrigo and have never had a chance to do so. Now that I understood his interpretation and approach to the role, I look forward to seeing him as Posa again, but in a different production.

diana jones July 25, 2012 at 9:23 am

Thank you for this translation Petra. It is always a treat to read Simon’s own views on the characters he plays, and you can tell that he puts an awful lot of work into studying every aspect of the part he is singing. It is clear he doesn’t just learn the words and then goes out and sings them, but digs deep into the personality of each character, constantly updating what he finds there, and this is what makes him such an outstanding actor on the opera stages of the world. I do so wish I could have seen his Wozzeck!

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