2017.18.11 Interview with Tom Service BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’

Simon Keenlyside  and Zenaida Yanowsky

in Conversation with Tom Service

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 ‘Music Matters’, Saturday 18 November 2017



Tom Service: ….But first, the baritone Simon Keenlyside and the ex Principal Ballerina of the Royal Ballet, Zenaida Yanowsky. Si and Zen, as they call each other – they’re allowed to, they’re married – aren’t performing together, they haven’t got a book out, and they’re not embarking on a cross arts fusion project. Instead they share honestly, hilariously and revealingly, their lives as two of the most familiar and famous figures on the ballet and opera stages, with each other and with us.

Their lives are obviously deeply intertwined, but that’s not just true at home in London or Wales, but when they’re on stage as well. Who they are as performers is something they share in profound ways, as you’ll hear. Now, Simon’s life in music sees him all over the globe in roles from Thomas Adès to Benjamin Britten, from Tchaikovsky and Verdi to Mozart’s Magic Flute.

While Zenaida made roles from Swan Lake to Sylphide to Sylvia her own.

They started out with very different backgrounds. Zenaida in Spain in a family that was full of dancers, Simon as a boy chorister in St John’s College, Cambridge. They were both musical or dancing families respectively, so I asked them both if they felt they were pre-destined for their lives on the stage.

Zenaida Yanowsky: I personally had a big choice and I was digging my heels in and really didn’t want to be a dancer, but I fell into it – of course it’s the only thing I knew. But it’s very funny because, many, many times we talk about our childhood and we both fell asleep to the sound of music – which is cheesy, but it is true. I very often used to fall asleep with whatever my Dad was working on choreographically and Si always says that he used to fall asleep with the sound of his Dad playing with the quartet behind the door.

Simon Keenlyside: Yeah, well, where everybody else had nursery rhymes I had Beethoven, late Haydn, and they are the music dearest to me now. Still, no, nothing pre-ordained at all – my father, my parents, didn’t want me to be anything to do with music and I feel exactly the same with my children.

TS: Well, Zen, your journey to the physicality and the technique of what you needed to do as a young dancer, because it was something you were fighting against, what then happened for that to be your life?

ZY: I started having singing lessons – something – it sounds ridiculous, but yeah…

SK: Your mother keeps telling me what a marvellous singer you would have been…

ZY: (laughing) I know, it’s so embarrassing, I know…

SK: (with accent) “She’s a fantastic singer, fantastic – look at that body – but she’s a fantastic singer” (he laughs)

ZY: (laughing) I know – anyway, so I started around 15, 16, because I loved singing and I always sang, always singing. My Mum got this friend who knew Montserrat Caballe’s brother and got an audition to hear my voice. I was there in front of him and I could not open my mouth. And for about half an hour he was trying to get me to sing a note – nothing. And I thought to myself, I remember thinking, ‘If he said dance something, I would just leap’. So from that day onwards I thought, yeah, I think that’s my future….

TS: For anyone who’s seen either of you on stage – Simon, I remember seeing you as Papageno in the early 90s in Glasgow and one of the amazing things about that performance was, of course vocally what you were doing, but it was the physicality, the completeness of the performance you were giving and, Zen, the same with you. It’s the feeling of not just dancing the moves but rather that sense of being part of a bigger theatrical dramatic totality. On the surface what you do is very different but there is a deep connection, it seems to me, between what you’re both doing. Do you feel that?

SK: Yeah, yeah, we talk about that. Our lives are exactly the same – it’s just a different accent. To shank someone in the audience is an artist – whether you’re a puppeteer or a dancer or a singer – and I have a great affinity with my wife. A huge respect for her, unfortunately, to have to say it in front of her. (Zen laughs) No, I do, I love her, because she’s an actor and she crosses the pit.

TS: Zen

ZY: I always felt I was very lucky, because my job has the help of music. Straight theatre is very, very difficult in the sense that you only have the word – just the word and your timing and that’s it. While we have, I feel I have, you know, the timing of the music and all this orchestra just right behind me to help me out.

SK: I feel quite the opposite about that you know

ZY: I know, you always say it….it’s a constant…

SK: It annoys me – the next, the latest halfwit actor that tells me that the only acting that is worth watching is theatre and film and I just think ‘have you watched the television recently?’ I know that we’re singing or dancing and there’s rather a large suspension of belief there….

ZY: No, but…

SK: But we accept the parameters very quickly and if a combination lock with four numbers in it has got an infinite…you know…imagine what, say, for example a Verdi or a Mozart score or your Swan Lake – you’ve got a billion inflections

ZY: I agree..

SK: You’ve got endless possibility and the difference between a great singer and a great actor and a great dancer is exactly that – the inflection.

ZY: Yeah, yeah, I’m with you…I totally….it’s all about detail and inflection and colours and timing. The only thing I always feel like I am supported by the music. When I feel I’m dancing with music it doesn’t mean that music’s in the background, like lift music, for me they are the wheels of that roller skate, to even go further…

SK: Yes…

TS: You’ve used that phrase ‘shanking into the audience’ and again you both have that power, where what you’re doing on stage just sort of – gets to the guts of who we are in the audience. But I just wonder if you felt ever with opera, you know, love the characters, the drama, the physicality of all the stuff you can do, absolutely, but  the other stuff around it – I wonder if you feel it sometimes gets in the way?

SK: Yeah, it’s not…of course, it’s got to be –  in my world, what’s called a good production is often a good décor and good décor that has legs in it, so it can encompass the next raft of singers coming through for 20 years in this set. You only need, fortunately, in the opera, a good cast, good colleagues up for it. Luckily, perhaps unlike the ballet, you don’t need  a long tradition to have a good show. You can have a good show and then next week you can have a dreadful show. I think with the ballet you have a – you tell me, Zen – you have a company and it takes time to build it and…

ZY: Yeah, that’s right – and because we have different casts, casts change, it means you are constantly in competition, with a small ‘c’ of course. But the principals just you know do x amount of shows but the rest of the cast and chorus they are there every single night. You have to get them on your side – that’s something that I’m very stubborn about – when I go on stage I want my team with me. This is teamwork – this is not just me….

SK: The thing with teamwork – you have, you are like a football team – you know Manchester United or whoever it is – it takes years to get a team to that level.

ZY: Absolutely…

SK: And unlike my world of freelancers – who just show up and it could be good or bad – in your world the Royal Ballet builds itself to a pinnacle of achievement and that is the company’s quality right now, for good or ill.

ZY: Absolutely

SK: And that takes time.

TS: Do you have similar kind of journeys towards the characters you’re playing? Because, of course, you’ve both done and are doing a huge range of different roles. But nonetheless there are things that you both come back to throughout your careers. What’s the journey like through Papageno in your life, Simon, and through Swan Lake in your life Zen, in terms of the way you relate to the people you’re playing – who the flesh and blood characters are?

SK: Zen and I often talk about this because she said – correct me if I’m wrong – you don’t like doing tons of shows of a role.

ZY: Mmmmm

SK: And that’s so different to our lives. I may have done 250 or something of Giovannis or something, but that’s nothing compared to some of the old boys. From studying Onegin I remember seeing a Russian who had done the role 600 times. I was saying to the students at the Royal Academy only yesterday – what you’re presented with is the music, is a template, and in the ballet – it’s a template – not something to be frightened of. Rub out those vertical bar lines, scruff it up, don’t be afraid – and for me, that means doing it again and again and again and again and I will never, never tire of it.

TS: Zen

ZY: Because we prepare, I think, a little bit different to singers and we have – we are quite pampered in some ways, we are really well looked after. It makes that the shows that we do are very complete – emotionally complete and physically complete. And, of course, you’ve got the physicality of things and it’s a bit like running the Olympics every time – it gets to a point where if you don’t win that race you feel like a failure and so there is a little bit of that battle of trying to embody the character and yet be physically equipped still to deliver. But as you age in my job physicality starts leaking away (she laughs) and then you just can’t sustain the physical ability.


TS: That’s a kind of tyranny of classical ballet, isn’t it? Simon, what do you feel about that? Are you glad you’re an opera singer when just because of the, as you said Zen, the shorter life on stage in a certain sense of being a prima ballerina?

SK: Yeah, but you might as well say it’s a tyranny of Usain Bolt’s career that he’s had to finish at 30…

TS: True

SK: I have no sympathy, in a way, with the likes of Zen…

TS laughs..

ZY: Thanks!

SK: For a start, well, it’s because I have no sympathy for my own misery when I’m on tour – I chose it and I’m doing something that I wanted to do and burn to do and still am passionate about doing. And these creatures – ballet dancers – they achieve this sort of demi-god status physically, but they know from the beginning that it’s going to stop, like a footballer at 40. And it must be very, very, very hard – my heart goes out to them – but at the same time how lucky they were to do the thing they wanted to do and to be able to fly, you know …I used to call her ‘jumbo jet’ – and if you see some of these pictures of Zen, when the lowest part of her is her pelvis and that’s at shoulder height crossing the stage – you think, Christ, marvellous…yeah…

TS: Your children’s relationship to what you do – the thing you must have given them, just as you give us in the audience, the feeling that, you know, anything we feel, anything they want is possible.

SK: They don’t give a damn! They tell me to stop singing – ‘Please, please, Papa, stop!’ and they say to her ‘You’re retiring, Mama, thank God! (Zen laughs) – you can come to the school’. That’s children, isn’t it – it’s lovely….

ZY: (laughing) ‘Will that mean you pick us up at school every day?’

SK: ‘Great, Mama’s retiring’ – and she’s in floods of tears on the day she stops….

ZY: No, but, it’s very funny how they react to what we do – because they obviously don’t – they accept it and they’re OK with that – but they’re not – they don’t love it..

SK: We know very well, because we know from our own childhood, that the fact that I come back to late Haydn, late Beethoven, as the dearest thing to me – and you know they’ll disappear and go off clubbing and do everything else as they should do, but they’ll be back for serious art when they’re older, because they’ve been exposed to it. Just as we take them to Wales and they’re knee deep in mud – it’s a conscious decision – you know very well if you immerse them in it for long enough, they’ll leave, but they’ll be back.

Photo copyright Stephen Costello (2014)

SK: (to ZY) Would you want them to be dancers and musicians?

ZY: No

SK: Me neither – I really, really would not want it.

ZY: No – if possible no – unless they really want it themselves.

TS: You’re obviously giving them the freedom to be zoologists, to be painters, to be whatever they want to be…

SK: They’re not showing a lot of promise at the moment…no.. (he is joking, Zen laughs)…

TS: No zoology… it’s a shame…but they should take that up you know….(laughter from all)  Thank you, both of you, very, very, very much indeed.

ZY: Thank you.


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