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2018.05 Interview, Le Temps, Switzerland

Interview with Le Temps

May 2018

“Don Giovanni est un miroir brisé de l’humanité”


Link to original article in French


English translation by Gudrun

Simon Keenlyside: “Don Giovanni is a Broken Mirror of Humanity”

Le Temps 27 May 2018, Sylvie Bonier

The famous British baritone, who adopted Irish nationality since Brexit, is returning to Geneva to take on the fiendish role of Don Giovanni. An encounter with a man of many facets.

With him, there is no show. Simon Keenlyside doesn’t play the star. Warm, quick and determined, he arrives “the way I am” and announces that he would prefer a hidden corner of the theatre for the photo session. “I hate glamour, décor and velvet curtains. A singer is a human being like all the others, who just does a less usual job, that’s all.” And he disappears backstage with the photographer to find a suitable place. Which is sitting on the floor in the corridors of the ODN.

For the interview he turns up again some minutes later, both natural and professional. The British baritone, who adopted Irish nationality since Brexit, owns a voice that has been snapped up for over three decades. He is also an actor with the physique of the young romantic male lead, praised since his début. All the characters that he plays with total sincerity reflect the human condition. In Geneva, he has sung four recitals and he was Papageno in 1993, Hamlet in 1996 and Pelléas in 2000. Each time, it was a joy for the audience. For him as well.

Le Temps: What are your memories of these three productions?

 SK: They were very important to me. Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, with Natalie Dessay in her prime, was a very happy time for me. The trio of the two directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, together with the conductor Louis Langrée, was a magnificent encounter. The same team was at work for Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, perhaps the most important production of my life. Renée Auphan told the very young Alexia Cousin that the role had been made for her. She understood everything. Alexia was Mélisande. On stage but also in life. A being in suspension, dreamy and intense. Thirty years ago she gave up her career. As for The Magic Flute, it was a revelation for me to work on Papageno with Benno Besson.


SK: Because the old man showed what he wanted from the bird catcher, he moved with an incredible youthfulness to demonstrate that Papageno is a being without age, stubborn, who doesn’t want to change and wants to live his own way. That made a deep impression on me. Because of him, I saw the future of this role. I understood that I would still be able to sing it 30 years later, even though Papageno is a young man in the piece.

Now at almost 60 years of age – though you look much less – are you concerned about the passage of time, about the voice getting tired?

SK: Not so much, actually. It’s a question of work and energy management. Personally, I accept life as it is and don’t do anything to appear different from what I am. My experience is an asset. It’s much more difficult for women, for whom I feel a lot of compassion. The composers are men who wrote the female roles for young and beautiful singers and let them play tragic heroines who died prematurely, or maids. At 45, they are out of the race while their voice is at its peak. Both vocally, physically, mentally and emotionally, they suffer much more pressure than we do. I myself only had to give up Billy Budd and Pelléas. But now, I sing Golaud, who is much more interesting. Everything is still within my reach, and, I am sure of that, will be until the end.

You told me you have sung Don Giovanni around 260 times. How do you view the character of this ambiguous seducer after so many years of playing him?

I never get tired of him. He is a passionate personality who encompasses all the characteristics of life. Each show gives rise to something new. Like the millions of possible combinations for a lock of four numbers. Reducing Don Giovanni to a mere seducer makes him an uninteresting, boring cliché, a caricature. He represents all the facets of man. In fact, he never succeeds with women. It’s Zerlina who makes her choice. With Donna Anna: a failure. The situation with Elvira is awful.

What does this character represent for you?

SK: Rather a study of power, rights and responsibility. This discourse dominates the whole Da Ponte trilogy and also the end of the Flute. The central question is: What does individual and collective freedom and responsibility mean? Which do you choose? If you compare the rich, likeable and honourable Ottavio, who has the two most beautiful arias of the opera, and the rapist, assassin and cynic Don Giovanni, it’s obviously the latter who is winning out, even though he is a real dog. Abominable but also charming. The genius of Da Ponte and Mozart is that with Don Giovanni they hold a broken mirror up to mankind.

How do you feel in the skin of the rogue? Does he haunt you?

 SK: I’m very ill at ease with him. As with Macbeth. These are the two characters of the repertoire with whom I feel least comfortable. Fortunately, even though you give your all, you cannot sing without keeping a distance from the characters. Technically, as well as emotionally, singing imposes restraint. It allows you to take a step back to offer the best, musically and scenically. It’s such a job! Then, when I leave the stage, after an hour of recovery, everything stops. A waterproof barrier rises between the stage and my life.

Musically, the work and the role are mythical. Is it difficult to be confronted with such a monument?

SK: Actually, Mozart doesn’t offer many sublime arias for men here. For the most part we remain within the singspiel. With Mozart, you play the music more than you sing it. The scores are incredible but for the male vocal parts alone, Mozart is not enough. Italian or French composers, for example, supply other dimensions and a palette of different colours. If male singers spend their whole life with Mozart, they will miss a certain range of deployment of their voice. But those directors and conductors who shorten recitatives to compress the sung part annoy me very much. The spoken parts enrich the facets of the characters. They are indispensable for more intense acting.

Can you imagine quitting singing some day?

 SK: No. Unless there is an unforeseen difficulty. I’m made for singing, even though I have a lot of hobbies to compensate for the demands and tensions of the stage, and I need freedom to recharge my batteries.

For example?

SK: I don’t want to stay in hotels any more when I’m far away from my wife and my two young children. I take my house with me so that I can stay in my world. I ride about in an eight-metre long van with everything that makes up my existence. My books, my kitchen, my drawings, my poetry notebooks, my fishing rod, my night binoculars for watching animals, my motorbike …. Life is so rich!

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