2001-02, Klassik Heute, “With open eyes”

Klassik Heute Interview 2/2001 (Rainhard Wiesinger)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

With open eyes

Over the last decade English baritone Simon Keenlyside has made a good name for himself in the operatic and concert business with his lyric baritone capable of expansion at the top.

The first musical impressions Simon Keenlyside received in his home were not at all of a vocal nature: His father and grandfather were violinists therefore the boy got to know Haydn’s String Quartets at first – but he sang with enthusiasm. In addition to his love for music he developed a great interest in fauna and decided in favour of zoology studies with the main focus on evolutionary biology before the professional vocal training. All the same, after he had finally studied singing at the Royal Northern College in Manchester he began his career with a two years’ membership at the ensemble of the Hamburg State Opera. The stay in Germany did have a positive effect indeed on the London-born’s knowledge of German but artistically the profit he had hoped for was missing because of the mainly small parts. Therefore Keenlyside went to the Scottish National Opera in Glasgow in 1989 where the possibility to acquire leading parts presented itself. During this time a cautious increase of his repertory gave the voice time to develop organically: “Thank God I did not succumb to the temptation to sing too heavy roles like Eugen Onegin or Posa too quickly at the beginning of my career. During my training, value was always placed on a vocal balance and not on oversized volume. For five or six years I devoted myself above all to songs because they help you find the balance I’ve mentioned. Today I still work regularly on this repertoire having to say that I don’t see anything aloof and elitist in recitals because the songs’ texts are about common things that concern all of us.”

After a start with Guglielmo, Don Giovanni and Papageno, roles from all epochs were to be found little by little on the singer’s repertoire list: “Personally I do not attach much value to the German “Fachdenken” because every artist is an individual personality with individual abilities. I’ve always kept my eyes open for new tasks. Thus I am singing Pelléas for example, but I also contributed to a Wernicke-production of “La Calisto” in Brussels years ago. I never thought particularly of “Iphigènie [sic] en Tauride” and Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” but when the offer came I gladly accepted. Nowadays there is another tendency to cast these operas with so-called “modern” voices. The title part in “Hamlet” is another wonderful part that does not present itself frequently. For the next years I have an idea that may seem bizarre, to sing Siegmund in a series of performances in Geneva in 2004 because this part ought to be practicable for me – with subtle conducting. Wagner should be interpreted in a lyrical way with many colour shades after all. Sadly the stentorian orchestras often do not allow this. Think of Ben Heppner: When his powerful tenor gets overlaid the musicians simply are playing too loudly.”

Open to new things

For Simon Keenlyside it has always been important to be open to new food for thought: “In the course of a career you can learn many things by watching colleagues on stage, for example. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti explained essential things regarding the Italian opera to me. This was very important for me because Italian is not my mother-tongue. I also try to profit from the directors, a production does not have to be to my personal taste to convey new impulses. My motto has always been to develop new ideas and attitudes of my own but always to keep impressible for new food for thought.”

As to working with directors, Simon Keenlyside attaches importance to a text-oriented interpretation of the piece, he cannot reconcile with the pseudo-intellectuality that is to be found again and again. It was Ruth Berghaus in her production of the Barbiere di Siviglia rooted in the Commedia dell’arte at the State Opera Unter den Linden that left a special impression. The Englishman cannot muster any sympathy at all for PR-work that has become so important nowadays: “I know times have changed, I know that it is probably childish and unrealistic of me but that whole publicity-game gets incredibly on my nerves. But as long as the opera houses’ directors use their knowledge and engage singers proceeding from it, artists with my views are “safe”. There are many colleagues who like me like to perform because of the music, they want to exchange ideas with other musicians but they do not want to be presented like a flower in an expensive vase. In former times it was customary that CD-companies engaged artists at the zenith of their careers for recordings, nowadays sadly, marketing-strategy considerations are frequently crucial. This results in the fact that young singers are offered too heavy roles too early. Generally there is nothing to be said against a popularisation of classical music because thus numerous people’s attention may be called to our metier.”

Apart from his numerous operatic and concert engagements the singer often does not have enough time left to pursue his personal interests: “Today maybe my greatest problem is to find recreation. Leisure activities like fishing, meeting friends or getting to know music unknown to me are very important to me. For example I should love to work at the Russian repertoire more intensely – I’ve sung Jeletzky in “Pique Dame” in Paris for instance. Borodin and Tchaikovsky wrote wonderful works but I’d have to deal with the Russian language, culture and literature in Russia to be able to interpret this music well enough but as I said the day is composed only of 24 hours, that’s the way it is. Therefore I’ll be able to devote myself to this repertoire only very selectively.” The artist with many interests finds the travelling his profession entails a tolerable burden because on the occasion he is frequently offered the possibility to watch the vegetation and fauna of the respective countries.

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