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2017.07 Salzburger Nachrichten: Ein Sänger liebt schwierige Charaktere

Salzburger Nachrichten, 14 June 2017

Ein Sänger liebt schwierige Charaktere

A Singer Loves Difficult Characters

by Ernst P. Strobl

Translated by Gudrun

Link to original article in German (fee payable)


British Baritone Simon Keenlyside, who is making a role debut at Wiener Staatsoper, talks about his  “Rigoletto” accident and his first singing lessons in Salzburg. He confesses: “I miss Salzburg.”

Whichever opera house he performs in, he is among the audience‘s favourites. Simon Keenlyside, born in London in 1959, ranks among the world’s top classical singers because of his immensely richly coloured baritone voice and his stage presence. At the Wiener Staatsoper the rehearsals for Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” are now drawing to a close. On Sunday the première of the new production by Marco Arturo Marelli takes place.

And for the first time – after having sung Pelléas in many productions worldwide – Keenlyside is singing the role of Golaud. Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is also currently on at the Wiener Staatsoper. For Keenlyside this opera signifies a dark moment in his career. At the première in December 2014 he had to withdraw after the second act because of health problems. “It was my fault”, Simon Keenlyside says. “Here in Vienna rehearsals are at 10 am and I can’t sing in the morning. But I couldn’t mark for five weeks.” So he over-exerted himself in such a way that he had to leave the première with bleeding vocal cords. It had been obvious before that the singer of Rigoletto was not well. Nevertheless there were some boos. Keenlyside doesn’t hold that against anyone. “They were right, they had paid a lot of money. They didn’t know that it was an accident, maybe for them the singer was just bad. I have seen a lot of bad shows myself and was grateful there were boos”, Simon Keenlyside says. But he himself was shocked by the “accident”, as he puts it, which together with further “accidents” (among them a wrong diagnosis concerning his thyroid) forced him to take a break from singing for two years.

Jonas Kaufmann was “out of action” because of a cyst on his vocal cords and recently said in an interview, that the worst thing had been that for a long time he had believed he could continue singing after a few days and then the enforced break had lasted for several months.

Simon Keenlyside even found something positive in the doctors’ ban on performing. “After 25 years suffering from sleeplessness I could finally sleep again. Now I have a campervan, complete with a canoe on the roof, motorbike, books, music and binoculars. And I was able to spend a lot of time with my small children.” The campervan is his home in Vienna, too. He loves life in the countryside.

He would have liked to have had that  (the campervan) already in Salzburg, where he sang the Count in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Salzburg Festival in 2011. “Then I rented a cottage on the “Untersberg” mountain and went down to town every day like a Papageno.” Everybody had been telling him to bring the children but that “was terrible, with one and three year old toddlers. Every day I would cry in my dressing room.” The recent dad felt completely out of his depth. His wife, a principal ballet dancer, could not come to Salzburg with them.

“I miss Salzburg,” Keenlyside openly says. “This has always been my dream.” And somehow also the career of the singer, who had graduated in zoology before, started from there. “I have never told this story before because I’m becoming totally sentimental when I remember it. I won a small prize in London which offered me two options. One of them was a class with Sena Jurinac at the Salzburg Summer Academy and I was so stupid to reject this. I rather wanted to go to Salzburg because of the German language. So there I was in a youth hostel in Franz-Joseph-Straße, in a six bedded room and with nowhere to sing.  “At night I would go to the woods and sing.” And then he found his way into the Mozarteum in Schwarzstraße. “The doorman scared me away immediately. When he had a break I scurried into the house like a rat. At that time I was very shy ,” says Keenlyside. He waited in front of a door behind which he heard singing. This was the class of Rudolf Knoll. This man listened to the slight Englishman and said he should come again but without telling anybody about it. “He gave me lessons for free and invited me to come back the following year”, Keenlyside says. “When I said I didn’t have money he didn’t charge me anything in the second year either, and together with the Hilbert agency arranged that I could go to Graz. From there I was sent to Hamburg and so it all started.” Later he wanted to return the favour. But Rudolf Knoll died in 2007.

Back to Wiener Staatsoper and his debut as Golaud. Keenlyside is also appreciated for his acting abilities, as an expert in “neurotic” characters such as Wozzeck, Macbeth, Billy Budd or Rigoletto. Does Golaud, who kills his younger brother Pelléas, also fit into this pattern? “Yes, compared with him Pelléas, who I sang for thirty years, is a simple role”, Keenlyside says. “But it is normal for a singer to sing the more straightforward characters first. The darker colours develop later – that is vocally, physically and intellectually. They are very interesting but you have to be careful not to do too much, not to exaggerate, that doesn’t add anything at all. You have to take responsibility, whether it is good or bad. Unfortunately, today people have their CD recordings and these people want a more loud and powerful voice. For example, there are hundreds of recordings of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. You hear Eberhard Waechter and on the other hand Nikolai Ghiaurov – wonderful. But how much scope there is in between! And this is also the case with Golaud. I hope there is enough room for different voices.”





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