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2014.04 Royal Opera House, London: Magazine April 2014

This interview was published in the April 2014 issue of the Royal Opera House magazine

Many thanks for the permission to reproduce this article.

‘Rigoletto is as cruel as the day is long’

As Simon Keenlyside prepares to perform Verdi’s tragic, tortured jester for the first time for The Royal Opera, he talks to George Hall about the vocal, visceral and physical challenges of singing the great Italian roles. Article first published in the Royal Opera House magazine, April 2014.

Many years ago, when he was starting out on his career as an international opera singer, Simon Keenlyside was given a piece of good advice. ‘I was singing Silvio in Pagliacci at Covent Garden and the great Italian baritone Piero Cappuccilli was singing Tonio. He took a really big shine to me – I didn’t know why. Then I went to sing in Hamburg and he was also there. He sat me down and said, “You should be singing Italian roles.” I told him that if I did, I was worried I might blow up, or not be able to sing my beloved Schubert. But he explained. “First of all, I didn’t say shout them, I said sing them. But be careful not to leave your Verdi too late!”

‘What he meant was that without the advantage of an Italian background, it would take me longer to prove myself in these roles – and in doing so, I might be too tired to address them in the great houses and at the highest level. It was a very interesting point, one that I didn’t quite understand when I was a youngster, but I do now.’

And indeed, when Keenlyside began to add the major Verdi roles to his repertory, the odd eyebrow was raised, as if they were not really meant for singers like him. ‘It’s a source of mystery to me that people showed any surprise that I should be encompassing these things. It’s the most natural progression in the world! I’m not changing repertoire, I’m embracing other roles.’

Of course, choices always have to be made with regard to any new projects. ‘You would have to have two lives to sing everything. I don’t have the time to do that. What really excites me is wonderful theatre; to a large extent that informs my choices. By reinventing the baritone voice, Verdi gives me scope not only for theatre, which Mozart does, but also for vocal, physical and visceral challenges.’

Keenlyside now regularly appears in the world’s leading houses as Macbeth, Rodrigo in Don Carlos, Giorgio Germont in La traviata and Ford in Falstaff – and Rigoletto. But his appearances in September in the latest revival of David McVicar’s production mark his London debut in that role.

Assuming these substantial challenges exactly when his voice was mature enough to take them on, Keenlyside has chosen his moment well. ‘When you’re a young singer, the hard thing is just to get through the role. Later on, when the voice is more mature, you probably will be able to sing most things. That’s not the issue. The issue is, can you find the colours suitable for what you’re singing? That is definitely true of Verdi.’

Knowledgeable about his illustrious predecessors, Keenlyside is aware that as well as gigantic voices such as those of Leonard Warren or Ettore Bastianini, the Verdi roles have been sung with success in major houses by lyric baritones like Carlo Tagliabue or Giuseppe De Luca. ‘You cross-reference that information with what you know is in the score. Neither Verdi, nor Wagner for that matter, wanted noise for noise’s sake. They both wanted bel canto. I’ve seen the most magnificent performances of Macbeth when it’s just as beautiful and as shot through with light and colour as Mozart.’

The conflicted individual that is Rigoletto is also a special challenge dramatically – a blend of love and hate. ‘Hiding behind the cloak of the Duke, Rigoletto is as cruel as the day is long. Yet in spite of his nastiness we still feel sympathy for his situation, even if not the man; that’s the beautiful subtlety that Verdi adds into the mix.’ Keenlyside thinks that Rigoletto’s overly protective relationship with his daughter is not so unusual. ‘Everyone I know who has kids will have complex relationships with them. The father-daughter thing runs like a cantus firmus in Verdi’s art.’

Keenlyside’s performances are widely admired for their extraordinary level of insight. How does he achieve this? ‘As an artist you have to beg, borrow or steal – you magnify something in yourself, you invent, you cobble together. Sooner or later, you’ll find a way that you like. But it is more than observation; it is a way of thinking of the world around you, all the time, and with everything. An artist must have their radar on permanently. These are pieces of great drama and I want to be able to reflect that.’

Is pacing such a huge and demanding role as Rigoletto difficult? ‘It’s not that it is so huge, actually. If you’re doing six weeks of Die Zauberflöte, yelling that dialogue in a 3,000-seater house, that’s exhausting. In my experience the hard thing about Rigoletto is that you’re like a greyhound in the slips. Once the trap is up, you need to be ready for all eventualities; you can’t warm up into that role, like in Mozart. The extremes of broad and tender will be at your feet almost immediately. Some of your most difficult things are in the very first scene; then you have those fabulous duets with Gilda – extremely high, extremely lyrical, extremely difficult. It is similar with Germont; you come in with this very difficult duet. Macbeth, too. You must be ready from the off.’

With his equivalent and ongoing success in the recital room and concert hall as well, Keenlyside wants to maintain the widest possible range as an artist. ‘I don’t want to be labelled by anything. There will be more Verdi in the future, but I want to do the roles I’ve already embraced many more times before doing Simon Boccanegra, which I’ve already turned down many times.’

Indeed, the English baritone is absolutely in his prime. ‘I begin to think that I’ve got something to say now. I know where to rein in. I know where and how I want to focus. 
In order to do that, I think it would behove me not to splurge on every role that was possible for me, given that I want to maintain some sort of balance in my life. I will do Simon Boccanegra, and maybe others. We’ll see. I have many Rigolettos in the foreseeable future, and I’m very happy about that.’

Rigoletto is performed at the Royal Opera House from 12 September 2014.

Click here to see the performance page

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