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2018.10.10 Interview, La Vanguardia

La Vanguardia, Barcelona

“No soporto la idiotez de las banderas”

10 October 2018

Interview by Maricel Chavarría

Link to original article in Spanish


 “I can’t stand the idiocy of flags”


Telephone interview with Simon Keenlyside on the occasion of his debut at the Palau de la Música, Barcelona, with a lieder recital accompanied by Malcolm Martineau:


This year you have been knighted by Her Majesty’s Government

 SK: The less we talk about it the better. It is a gift from the government, something precious that you put into your pocket and forget about. Because just imagine: what am I doing there, alongside people like the couple who deciphered codes during World War II and saved thousands of lives? I would feel very stupid.

If I ask about “Brexit”, what would your answer be?

SK: Ugh, how embarrassing. I’m fundamentally European, I can’t stand the idiocy of flags. And I have become Irish, so I have dual nationality. I’m very proud to remain European.

How important is the “Barcelona factor” in deciding to sing there, in one of the main halls of the world?

SK: The fact is that I love the city so I’ll always come and sing here. Spain is part of my life – yes, I know it is Catalonia – I married a Spanish woman and have family here. Even before I got married I came here a lot.

This autumn he has sung La Traviata in Vienna and Rigoletto in concert. Then there is his desire to sing lieder: today he will sing Brahms, Schubert, Ravel and Poulenc.

SK: Geographically it’s an interesting programme. Although it’s true that the cycle “Le travail du peintre” relates more to the poems of Éluard than to the painters or their work, it is about artists – Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Miró – who lived and worked near where he lived.

You are an Englishman with a flair for languages. Is there a deeper understanding of the text singing in another language?

 You have to know the language to enjoy the music of a country. We are talking about an international art and I have always sung for audiences from different countries, but I do not only sing English songs. In fact, my career started with Schubert, Poulenc, Ravel. I was in the centre of Europe and that was the best local music.

Why are songs so important to your career, even though you are a “stage animal”?

 SK: Because they are great music. There are three dimensions to the career of a singer: opera, concert and lieder. I have chosen songs and opera which are very different. Opera is a vocal challenge. It is very exhausting to sing Rigoletto or Macbeth, but I love to use my entire being in a holistic way – that’s what opera demands: the expression of the body, the blending of text and music. And opera touches on important issues – social injustice, politics. Songs are just the opposite: tiny details of what it means to live, to love, to lose, to be happy, to have children, not to have them …all on an individual scale. This little gem has been composed and you have to bring it into the light. Opposing challenges – but of which I will never tire.

As a child he sang in a leading boys’ choir at St John’s College, Cambridge. How can someone who has grown up being part of a group think of himself as a young soloist?

SK: Good question. But do not forget that when I was a child I had a string quartet in my house rehearsing, playing and recording Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn….My father was a violinist with the Philarmonic and played in the Aeolian Quartet.

But to answer the question, when I returned to Cambridge to study zoology I learned music in quite a different way compared to the choir. As a soloist you have to learn to be transparent. It is a different way of thinking and not everyone adapts, because it requires a very different temperament. You have to develop skills to become a soloist.

And also be ambitious?

SK: I was passionate, not ambitious. It is passion that drives you, maybe even obsession. In my view, passion implies joy, the pleasure of doing something, which the definition of ambition does not imply.

Can acting in opera be an enemy of the voice?

 SK: On the contrary, the notion “Prima la musica e poi le parole” (the theme of Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio) does not mean “sing first and act later” but “act with the music”. When I was young I had an Italian professor who used to say that. Everything on stage is a colour: the voice, the position, the scenery, the volume, the costumes… ”Stammering” acting is terrible but getting involved too much in the role can hamper the voice. You have to find the balance.

You say one has to find the right colours for an opera character. Does it work the same way for lieder?

SK: Colour is one of the most interesting aspects of singing, especially in songs, because the palette is broader, you do not need to fight against the acoustics, there is an intimate atmosphere and the colours are intimate, too. I’m very interested in how the audience is affected by the sound itself. The same happens when we speak. It seems obvious, but in real life we choose a colour to transmit information.



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