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2018.01 Interview, Vienna Musikverein: Im Dienste des Dramatischen

Interview in the monthly magazine of the

Musikverein, Vienna

February 2018

Im Dienste des Dramatischen

In the Service of the Drama


Link to original article in German (with several new photos)

Interview by Jessica Duchen

In the Service of the Drama

In his recital at the Musikverein Simon Keenlyside presents a colourful sound palette of Lieder from Hugo Wolf, Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Fauré.

“It makes me smile when people tell me how ‘English’ I am” Simon Keenlyside remarks.  “I am a Middle European in almost everything except my name.  I started my career in Middle Europe and I never really looked back.” Consequently the singer, who was honoured with the title of “Wiener Kammersänger” only last June, brings a kind of melting pot of influences to his artistic work. He is immensely versatile, highly intelligent and internationally sought after, with a repertoire which extends over four centuries up to the present day. He is an artist who is always in the service of the drama, with a voice which is extremely flexible, always centred, dark but yet rich in contours – no matter whether he sings opera or Lieder.

Tradition compels

Simon Keenlyside comes from a highly musical family. His grandfather was the highly respected Dublin born violinist Leonard Hirsch and his father, Raymond Keenlyside, was second violinist in the Aeolian String Quartet. “They also performed in the Musikverein” explains the baritone, “and the tradition of Lieder singing and chamber music in this house was very important to my father and his generation, as it is for me today. I remember that, as a young boy, my father told me about this special place – and about the Vienna Philharmonic. He had stories at the ready – for instance, about how the orchestral musicians take their instruments from a hook. It is so interesting that this house now has such an important significance in my own artistic life too and it is a wonderful feeling to belong to the next generation of musicians who perform here.”

The Same and Yet Very Different

Simon Keenlyside has been accompanied by singing for almost his whole life. When he was about eight years old he belonged to the boys’ section of the choir of St. John’s College in Cambridge. Later as a student of zoology he returned to Cambridge and sang in the same university college choir. Then he moved to the Royal Northern College of Music “because”, as he says, “I had to learn how to sing”. Because becoming an opera singer is a completely different thing to singing choral music, he explains. “The ethos is the same – everything that I knew about making music I had learned during my years as a chorister. What happened when I left Cambridge at the age of 23 had nothing to do with the choral tradition. Solo singing is the complete opposite.  In the choir you learn how to mix your voice with the others. In opera you have to stand out from the others.”

Conditions for Making Music

In 1986 he won the Richard Tauber Prize and used the prize money to go to Salzburg, where he registered for a language course. “But then I had to decide between the course and studying with Sena Jurinac”, the baritone remembers.  “I regret that I missed the opportunity to be able to learn from this great singer” –  especially as the language course seemed not really suitable for him. “I have learned languages much better whilst living and working in the countries in which I had to speak them.”

Today he likes to sing in English, German, Italian, and French. The exception is Russian – in spite of his remarkable performance of the title role of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. “I stopped accepting Russian opera parts because I can’t express myself spontaneously in a language which is not accessible to me.  I didn’t dare to change anything in case I used the wrong word and maybe sang about sausages! There is no way for me to make music under these conditions.”

New Dimensions

Therefore he has given up Onegin and now he is 58 he has turned to the more mature characters in the repertoire. “It was difficult to give up the young Pelléas and Britten’s Billy Budd – and the certainty that I will never sing Billy again still hurts” he admits. “On the other hand, a young man’s view of the world can be quite one-dimensional  and in this respect I do not miss the portrayal of youth. When you perform older characters you find more dimensions in them, especially in roles like Macbeth, Rigoletto or Golaud. And the Count is a wonderful psychological  portrayal of a real person.”

Simon Keenlyside does not search for a key for each single character. “For me it is much easier to say what it is not, and then to work with what remains.”  Out of the framework produced by the composer, librettist and other singers arises “a ‘set’ of parameters, in which you are finally free. Because the beauty of all life and art lies in the detail and in the transformation. There are differences between single performances depending on how they develop.”

Depth Through Repetition

This is one of the reasons why Simon Keenlyside, instead of studying many new parts, prefers “to sing those roles which I already have in my repertoire and to sing them better and better.  I do not really get under the skin of a role unless I have sung it up to forty, fifty times” he explains. “It is about the details – it is like a racing driver who goes around a circuit and not only knows when to take his foot off the pedal but also by how much – and then how much he has to put his foot on again. I have sung nearly 150 performances of Don Carlo, but I am always looking forward to the next one because I think of this or that which I could do better, which will enable me to reach the end with more resources. There are some roles I would love to perform –  Simon Boccanegra possibly, or ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ – but even if that does not happen I will be content with what I have.”

Wealth of Contrasts

One of the main ideas of his recital with Malcolm Martineau at the Musikverein is the wealth of contrasts which the Lieder repertoire has to offer. “In a concert you may wish for different colours of sound, like in a conversation, in which you all talk at once about something totally different” says Keenlyside. “You can talk about Poulenc and Fauré and then about ‘Madama Butterfly’ and I see no reason why we can’t do this musically. There is  continuity, then punctuation – and then there is a new theme in which a new direction is followed. I love Poulenc. But the palette of his sound colours is not wide and I think if you add his songs to a recital it is important to add a composer alongside him whose sound world is different.”

Such a composer is Hugo Wolf, from whom Keenlyside brings some rarely heard Goethe settings into the programme.  “Quite operatic songs” as the baritone emphasizes. “I am looking forward to them but I have to be really fit for them, as they are a very expressive group.” So he will welcome the interval of the concert for a short rest, before in the second half the miniatures of Poulenc are followed by the Fauré songs “which again offer a totally different palette of sound.”

Possibilities of Physical Expression

As for most of his colleagues, it is also a huge challenge for Simon Keenlyside to find a good balance between concert and opera. “I have my wife and two little children who I miss when I am on tour” says Keenlyside, who is married to the well known ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky. “Concert and recitals obviously allow me to be away from home less often and for a shorter time. I always say I will reduce the number of opera engagements. But then I immerse myself in a new role such as Golaud and I realise how much I love it.”

On stage Simon Keenlyside knows no fear. He thinks of himself as a very physical person and as a result is constantly enlarging his repertoire of possibilities of physical expression. “Posture, mime and gestures are as important on stage as the voice. I love opera so much. I could never give it up.”

Being described as ‘English’ does not mean much to Keenlyside. “I like the word ‘British’ very much, because of the cultural diversity which is implied” he says. “But after the Brexit vote I took Irish citizenship. I am a European – and I am still proud of being part of this mixture.”


Jessica Duchen, music journalist and author based in London, writes for the newspaper ‘The independent’. She has published books about Gabriel Fauré and Wolfgang Korngold and a series of novels and plays.



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