2014.02.28 Miami clasica interview

Simon Keenlyside, labrador del canto y de la vida

click here to read the original interview in Spanish

Translation by Gudrun

Here is my translation of the Spanish interview prior to the Miami concert. Not being a native speaker of English I didn’t want to “recreate” Simon’s own words but just reported the gist of what he said.

The article in “el Neuvo Herald” which was added yesterday is more or less the same, only a bit shorter and without the “labrador” in the headline.
In another (English) interview (in the book “Living Opera” by Joshua Jampol) I read that Simon likes to call himself a “working man”. I think this is the best tranlsation of “labrador” in the headline, though it can also mean “farmer”, which I used in the last passages.


Simon Keenlyside, a “working man” of singing and of life  ( by Sebastian Spreng, miamiclasica.com)

Between Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” and the adventurous journey of Strauss’s “Don Juan” the Miami debut of Simon Keenlyside in lieder of the Bavarian composer with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst promises to be one of the hits of the season.

The opportunities to hear a baritone of his stature, a distinguished singing actor and one of the most intelligent, versatile as well as elusive singers, are rare. At 54, Keenlyside is an accomplished artist who has deservedly received a lot of prizes, wins people through the intensity of his work on the concert stage or by playing Don Giovanni, Pelléas, Papageno, Orest, Billy Budd, Eugene Onegin, Wozzeck, Hamlet or Macbeth, characters on whom he has left a unique imprint so that one could call him “the Jeremy Irons of opera singers”. A proof of his chameleon-like versatility is the sensational Prospero, a role he created in Thomas Adés’s “The Tempest”, which has just won a Grammy for the best opera production in 2013.

Like the great Caruso he is also an exquisite cartoonist. Just one example: his vignette of Federica von Stade’s Melisande on the psychiatrist’s couch, tearing off a daisy’s petals, the caption reading: “Je suis heureuse, non, je ne suis pas heureuse….” And like his predecessor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau he is a painter who applies his colours to each character and composer. It’s talking about colours that he is starting this chat from London where he has just arrived after a series of Almavivas in Vienna. Almaviva is a character that has accompanied him for 25 years, since his debut in “Le Nozze di Figaro” in Hamburg. He says it’s very helpful to apply the colours in the way each composer defines. For example, Mozart offers a wide range/ palette of colours to play with diverse aspects, whereas Verdi demands a broader brushstroke of only one colour for each character, be it Germont, Posa, Macbeth, Rigoletto or Ford; consequently, each character’s colour forms the palette and completes the painting. If you take on these roles when you are very young you have to ask yourself if you already have the colours necessary to sing them.

During decades and with infinite patience he has built up a vast repertoire, has adapted himself to new demands, has changed and grown as a person and an artist. “Our body changes like a tree.” That’s why his Billy Budd doesn’t sound like Pelléas, nor Pelléas like Hamlet or Macbeth. He says that the great operas are radical pieces, reflections of human nature. Everything changes but that doesn’t. We continue staying the same. Of course the operatic Hamlet or Macbeth are not Shakespeare but satellites of the sun that Shakespeare was. They are excellent “by-products”. It is not that long ago that he has started singing Verdi roles and he is taking his time. He says he still has time enough for the roles he would like to sing but hasn’t sung yet. For the time being he enjoys singing Posa, Germont, Macbeth and Rigoletto very much. And if the other roles shouldn’t come, he wouldn’t mind too much at this moment of his life because his absolute priority is his family.

In 2006 this restless globetrotter finally settled. He married the French ballet dancer and star of the Royal Ballet Zenaida Yanowsky (whose parents are Russian and Spanish), with whom he has two children, Owen and Iona. They are a peaceful haven and priority for the singer who says that he has lived all his life like a gypsy, so much so that he feels more European than English. The family spends as much time as possible on a farm on the west coast of Wales where he cultivates the land, plants trees and creates habitats for birds and animals. That allows him to live his love of nature, his passion from childhood days. At the age of 14 he was a warden for bird protection, he studied anthropology and zoology, was enthusiastic about birds and knew the song of all European birds.

He thought about becoming an ornithologist, but singing was more important for the son and grandson of musicians (his father played the violin in the Aeolian Quartet) who grew up listening to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and who joined the boys’ choir of St. John’s Cambridge where he was a treble for six years and travelled the world singing music ranging from Palestrina to Messiaen.

Keenlyside completed his studies in Manchester and made his debut stepping in for a colleague without a rehearsal in Hamburg. There he suffered from the rigid German repertory system until he went to the Scottish National Opera to complete his training. The rest is history: Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Wigmore Hall, San Francisco, Paris and the Metropolitan Opera New York, not without some profitable years in Italy before, where he sang at La Scala under Muti and Abbado.

He says Claudio Abbado always made the singer feel that he was most interested in their point of view. “For the interpreter this is heaven.” He immediately won the singers’ affection and loyalty. Simon remembers being asked in front of all the others what he thought of this or that character. Abbado’s kind way to treat the singers and musicians was wonderful and exemplary, even if he occasionally may have been only diplomatic. The singers felt taken into consideration. His way of making music was that of a “juggler who seemed to keep a plate on which a ball of crystal had settled in the air”. Simon says he has such a lot of happy memories of the time they did “Don Giovanni” together. He calls Abbado “a great politician on the rostrum, and the trust he put into the others was part of his magic”.

This gypsy, “unsocial in certain things”, who would like to be able to sing like Amalia Rodrigues and Billie Holiday, keeps to the words of his admired Louis Armstrong: “There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” And still he prefers to stay within the classic repertoire which suits him better and about which he says that one life is not long enough to learn everything that is necessary in lied, chanson, song and opera.

I (the interviewer) tell him that his Papageno – sad, lonely, timid, of Chaplinesque gentleness- has changed my idea of the character for ever and he says this is because Papageno is not a clown, he is a natural human being, he is us. And the Flute is Mozart’s most serious and transcendental opera because it aims at the realization of the individual. It is an incomparable hymn to freedom, pure freedom, not at the expense of anyone else. Papageno wants his freedom and independence at all costs, he doesn’t want anything else but to be happy.

As if he had stepped out of a lied of Schubert, Mahler or his beloved Hugo Wolf, his essentially romantic figure might also evoke Massenet’s Werther. He says that when he was in San Francisco, Lofti Mansoury (the director at that time) offered him the version for baritone which Massenet had arranged for Battistini (and which is not that different from the original), under the condition that he sings in “Dead Man Walking”. When he didn’t accept that the whole project came to nothing.

About untypical roles: He has “threatened” to sing Siegmund (Die Walküre) and Parsifal but when he was offered these roles he had just begun to sing Verdi characters and “I told myself better be careful what you do and say …. But the threat still exists because I’m planning a concert with them.”

When you ask him for his opinion about this era in which the stage director rules he answers that he prefers a cooperation between the director and the singer, something that does not happen that often. Half a century ago it was the other way round and the singers had too much power, but today they have too little. This imbalance even shows in the decorations which are often made from material which is not at all suited for making music (e.g. too sound-absorbing). The problem is not so much that the singers can’t make themselves heard but that the singing becomes colourless, lots of tones and shades are lost. He respects the directors but also wants to be respected as a singer by them. He gives the example of “Eugene
Onegin” in Munich. In this version in a kind of homage to “Brokeback Mountain” the protagonist was gay. If you know about the concept you can only cooperate and help to make it work or leave. He says he has a good relation to most of the directors, a few of them are difficult, but there are also difficult singers.

In the face of the eternal announcement of opera’s near death he remarks : The day when the rich, patrons, sponsors and companies decide that they don’t want opera any more will be a decisive and sad moment, at least in America. It is very difficult to make it clear to people who are not interested or wrongly informed that opera is such a unique and complete art form. Those who say that opera is not popular are mistaken. In New York, 40,000 people go to the Met in 10 days. That does not happen with an unpopular genre. Also in Europe the opera houses are full and Asia is a new market today. Those who say that opera is expensive are wrong. It’s much more expensive to go to a football, baseball or tennis match. It costs more to go to a show or eat out. These are stupid arguments, worthless, based on ignorance. Going to the opera is not more expensive than lots of other things to which we go without thinking about the price.

About his recordings he says that he doesn’t have any favourites, he doesn’t listen to them, he can’t because he thinks they are too defective. If he were “forced to choose” he would say that the discs he recorded with Sony are good.
About how he would like to be remembered he says without any trace of false modesty he doesn’t want to be remembered and doesn’t think that he will be remembered. Belonging to a family of generations of musicians he knows that most of them are soon forgotten. What do names like Tagliabue, Amato, de Luca or even Warren mean to the young people of today? If they are not remembered, what can he hope for?He only wants to be remembered by his family for they are what really counts.

Even though Richard Strauss has been present during the whole of his career – Olivier and Harlequin are the first roles that come to mind, also an exquisite early recital with Martineau – his visit to Miami will see him in lieder with orchestra which is quite unusual. But he says that alone the chance to do this with the Orchestra of Cleveland was “a temptation impossible to resist”.

He has chosen to live far away from the hustle and bustle, enjoying his work as a father and farmer. He is a really cultured artist (cultured = Spanish: “culto” and this is derived from “cultivar” = cultivate) and his job is it to be a gardener, childminder, preserver of the goods of nature and human culture in its finest expression. In today’s world, artists like Keenlyside can be counted on the fingers of one hand.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sue February 17, 2014 at 11:49 am

Yes, Gudrun, thank you very much for spending the time to translate this engaging interview for us all to enjoy.
Apropos of Simon not expecting to be remembered, I read in this February’s issue of Opera, conductor Graeme Jenkins’ reminiscences about his first Billy Budd at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2005 when he had just one very short stage rehearsal: –
“But being the orchestra they are, they followed brilliantly, and having Simon Keenlyside up there doing his stuff was wonderful.”
Clearly not much chance of Simon being forgotten for some time yet!

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