2015.01.16 – Operaplus.cz: None of us is God


None of us is God

the original interview

About Mozart and Verdi, joys, sorrows and tractors with the British baritone

On Tuesday 27 January 2015 Smetana Hall of the Municipal House in Prague will host an important personality of the world opera stage, who is at ease both at his home stage in London Covent Garden as well as in other important opera theatres where he is regularly invited. The audience of the “live from the MET” broadcasts knows him by the roles in Thomas’s “Hamlet” or Prospero in Ades’s “The Tempest”. Before his performance in Prague Simon Keenlyside answered some questions for Opera Plus Magazine, and he will be ready to answer additional questions two days before the concert, on Sunday, 25 January, while meeting his fans in Prague´s  New Town Town Hall,  Novoměstská Radnice.

You are coming to Prague after 2 years, this time for the joint concert with Stefan Kocan   featuring two well known opera composers – Mozart and Verdi. Though Verdi operas are like a present for you, Mozart is characteristic for you since long ago. So how does your performance of these composers change and develop with years?

A part of every singer’s development is studying new roles. The body changes with years, the voice changes and, if you are lucky, you can keep accepting new challenges. Nobody can sing at the age of  27 what he comes across later in his career. If you examine the great singers of the past you will see that it is natural and healthy to perform more complicated works when you reach a certain age. You can try earlier but the result may be devastating.  It can bring young singers to the end of their career. This concerns Mozart, Verdi and music of other great composers which has been with me all my life.

I love Mozart, I will be never tired of singing the Count in Figaro, or Giovanni, or, although only occasionally, Papageno.  Mozart´s operas may not offer all the possibilities to the baritone voice, but there is  real life in them and it´s so attractive for me. Of course my Mozart roles change and develop with time. I am discovering the unknown, I tried, I borrowed, I stole from everyone and everything, from the directors down to the street life! Mozart´s operas bring me happiness. They give me the deepest joy of singing and acting. Despite it is often a technically demanding singing (similar like Verdi´s baritone parts), I think they make my life  longer – as a person and maybe as a singer too.

When one sings the most difficult roles by Verdi he is totally taken in by them, at least I am. The roles such as Rigoletto are most satisfying for a baritone. It is an ideal combination of music and drama brought to a climax in one evening. I even find some parallels between Rigoletto and King Lear.

 My friend George Petean, a great singer with a perfect “Verdi voice” maybe doesn’t feel this way, such a role maybe doesn’t suck all the energy from him… But when I sing Macbeth or Rigoletto, I have no energy left, not even enough to be able to relax at a party or during a long walk through woods and over mountains.

Anyway, the variety of roles in the operas of composers whose music I sing helps life to be happy.

At present you have a number of Verdi roles in your repertoire – Posa, Rigoletto, Macbeth, Ford, Germont. Do you plan to keep extending your Verdi repertoire?

Currently, I would prefer to sing Rigoletto and Macbeth again and again, and Germont in La Traviata also gives me joy, especially vocally. The more I sing these roles the more I find technical and dramatic depth in them and the more pleasure it brings to me. In the future I am sure to sing Simon Boccanegra and Ballo in Maschera, I am not sure about other roles. Let us see how my body and my voice will manage what I am already doing now. Some Verdi roles do not fit in my vocal range, for some I do not have the right voice colour.

I remember your concert in Prague two years ago where you showed your creative talent drawing Rigoletto on a large sheet of paper and singing several different characters present in this scene. Have you a surprise ready for the Prague audience this year as well?

It was the scene that features also the chorus and several support roles. And we didn’t have them! Therefore, in order to make that scene more realistic, Alena Nachtigallova (Czech producer and manager, who organized the concert) brought a large flipchart. How about this year? Nothing in particular, but maybe some ideas will come out in Rigoletto again. If they won’t find any volunteers for those support parts, maybe I´ll have to ask for a piece of paper again!

Dubious opera productions call for contradictory answers. What are your feelings about such productions as last year’s “Macbeth” staged by Martin Kushei in Munich with Anna Netrebko?

I think when a singer decides to take a job, then he must do his best. If we singers rejected all productions we did not like I’m afraid we would soon stay without work… In many productions there are “icy“ spots (slippery spots) that we singers are not fond of. It happens more often with the repeated performances, when a singer takes over a role of originally someone else. But in the same time there are also brilliant and interesting spots that make us enthusiastic.

I am not a judge of the public’s taste. I think that if you really can’t stand a production then you can always leave. But once you decided to stay you should work with optimism in collaboration with others and not complain how dreadful the production is.

I know that “Macbeth” was controversial, but I had wonderful moments with Anna. Together we created, with the director´s agreement, the expression of our characters, and I was very happy about this production.

 During the opening night of “Rigoletto” in December you suddenly lost your voice.  How does it feel when after weeks of strenuous work you can’t sing before the audience on stage? Would you do something different today?

Oh… It was a frustrating disappointment for me, the strongest feeling of being thwarted I ever experienced in my career. What can I say? None of us is a God. Each one has periods of disappointment or misfortune caused by illness or exhaustion. I feel that the world of opera is changing, and in some way I cannot change with it. In the whole world, not only in Vienna, opera houses face financial pressures. One of the possible solutions is to perform several titles at the same time. Therefore they need to rebuild the stage set every afternoon, so consequently the rehearsals must always take place in the morning. It was the same in Vienna. All the rehearsals for Rigoletto took place in the morning. But it´s against all the rules of proper singing to ask the singers to perform the most difficult parts at 10 or 11 a.m.! Maybe someone can cope with it, but I can’t. I don’t blame the Vienna Opera, all the opera houses are under the same pressure. It’s up to the singer’s responsibility to come ready for the opening night. Unfortunately, I got the vocal cords inflamed and could not sing. It was an alarming, and very, very frustrating experience…   

Can one do something to avoid such a situation in the future?  Well, I can. If I don’t have a guarantee that at least a part of the rehearsals will be possible in the afternoon or evening I will not be going into new productions of difficult operas. The health of my voice is a priority for me. I see in my future mostly  revival productions, especially concerning Verdi’s operas.I just find it impossible to sing such complicated roles only in morning hours.

Have you ever sung something in Czech?

Only once, a year ago, at a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna where I sang the Forester in Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen”. The music is beautiful but I don’t plan to go back to it. Of course the issue is the language.  Even if I were able to perform my part without a single mistake, even if the lyrics sounded convincing and if I knew the meaning of every single word and the whole text, despite all that I would sing every repeated performance like a perfect copy of the previous one with no development at all. Without knowing the language, this window to your culture, I cannot make the role convincing. So I prefer to enjoy this wonderful music in the audience.

Your last album Something’s Gotta Give is a collection of songs from different musicals. Does the name have a wider meaning?

This is the name of a song by Johnny Mercer. He composed it for Fred Astaire in the 1955 movie “Daddy Long Legs“. On my album it is heard in the once destroyed original orchestration for the first time since the 1950s. Another and maybe the mainreason why this name is used is that I realized I cannot sing in my life all that I would like to – I would have needed more than one life for that. So the name of my album is based on this recognition as well.

Your private life looks very romantic and balanced. You live on a farm among Welsh mountains with a wife who is a principal dancer in Covent Garden and two small children. You are trained not only as a singer but as a zoologist. Are you sometimes a real farmer with cows and horses and a tractor?

I would really prefer to be home in Wales on my wonderful John Deere tractor or somewhere in the nature with my family. But if you deprive me of singing, you can  drown me in the ocean right away. Singing is a natural and important part of my life. But I have an equally strong desire to walk through mountains and forests and keep in mind trees and flowers, tractors and childrenAnd the balance? I am still trying to figure out how to reach it.

Thank  you for the interview.




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