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2005.02.01 The Performing Voice: Simon Keenlyside

The Performing Voice: Simon Keenlyside

Opera Now, January/February 2005

In the first of a new series in which leading opera singers discuss personal approaches to their vocal art, Simon Keenlyside explores the relationship between technique and emotion. Interview by Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville: Do you think that your singing became more or less direct and passionate as you acquired a technique. To quote a friend of Bjorling’s describing the great tenor’s early career: ‘Oh, how he sang even then perhaps more beautifully, more lyrically than he did later when he acquired a technique with all its pluses and minuses.’

Simon Keenlyside: I think, self-evidently, the better your technique, the more options you’ve got. I really don’t understand the Bjorling thing. Some of my colleagues are self-appointed doyens of technique. We’re all interested in singing better, but in my view you leave your technique in the wings when you come onto the stage. All that you should be concerned with is the portrayal of your character. I don’t see why any preoccupation with technique should come into the equation once you’re on stage. On the other hand, when you’re practising, you leave the performing animal behind and technique predominates. You’re coming in quietly, coldly, assessing the passaggio, turning your yoice over, the top and chest and head voices. You leave your passionate self outside the practice room.

When you’re on stage, power without control is nothing. I’ve fallen foul of my own sense of delight in being in the middle of this maelstrom of singing and orchestra many times, especially at the beginning of my career. I remember singing in Iphigénie en Tauride at Welsh National Opera – the producers were marvellous, Mackerras was brilliant, the orchestra were thrilling; but I didn’t keep that professional half step back, between total involvement – the passion we’ve been talking about – and good singing. It’s not just a question of considering technique. It’s about being in control of your art. If you’re not in control, you’re not choosing aspects of focus – dramatic focus, vocal focus. You have to have half an ear and half an eye to what it is you want to portray, where it is you want people to look and listen.

MG: There’s a theory which suggests that song derives from our earliest vocal communications, triggered by emotions. Singing, therefore, seems to have a key role in the development of language as a vehicle for expressing ourselves. If song is one of the basic building blocks of emotion, to what extent do you feel that when you’re singing, you’re in touch with the core of you, exploring what it is to be you?

2000PelleasGeneva5Simon as Pelleas with Alexia Cousin as Mélisande in the 2005 Geneva production

SK: If I’m singing in Pelléas et Mélisande, there are aspects of sonority and resonance that the language itself will dictate, significantly different from the way one would sing in Italian, which is very open-throated. The nature of the character also makes a difference to the tone I use when I sing. Billy Budd, for instance, is a young man – so you use a more palatal sound rather than a big, open-throat and deep chest resonance, because you’re talking about a teenager, probably. You have to chose tonal worlds that are specific to the requirements of the piece and the characters you are inhabiting.

As for the business of connecting to emotional truth – well, that’s wonderfully satisfying. I can barely cope with the beauty and truth of Maeterlinck’s libretto for Pelléas. I could say the same for Billy Budd. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the utter crystalline honesty of it. As in any great poem, the meaning is not specific: each line of text and music cross-references with another. By the end, you’ve got this web, which, as a whole, is the most perfect collection of fundamental truths. To be a part of that web, the one spinning those lines out, to be the conduit for the composer, for the librettist, is indescribably satisfying and wonderful Then there’s the visceral pleasure of singing in the midst of a storm of music, this organised chaos. Even after you’ve learned the piece, aspects and nuances of the text continue to unravel as you actually perform. The surprises are wonderful. I went to see Simon Russell-Beal – a fabulous actor – doing Hamlet, and listening to him use words and phrases that are in our blood, that we know backwards, and turning them on their heads by the use of an unexpected pause or an inflection. So when people say, as they often do, ‘Well, what are you singers? You’re just peddling second-hand stuff, old dead music … ‘, it’s utter nonsense! With the use of inflection, with the use of a tone, you can turn something on its head just as much in an opera or a song as in a poem or a play. There’s no point in interpreting something perversely, contrary to what’s on the page, but there’s an infinite variety of meanings in a three-and-a-half hour opera. There’s never one way of doing it.

2008_recital_11_30_Zurich_0121Simon with Malcolm Martineau on stage in Zurich after their recital in 2008

MG: How would you compare the different experiences of singing a recital and an operatic role?

SK: I do recitals because the music is so wonderful. You have a fabulous poem and a genius like Schubert setting it – I couldn’t ignore it. From a more practical point of view, singing Lieder puts your voice under the most amazing scrutiny – you find every little hole, tear, scar-tissue, everything in your technique when you’re dealing with songs. It’s fatuous to say that songs are small things, but a lot of big operatic singers do. The biggest songs, say Wolf’s Prometheus, are as challenging as any Wagnerian opera; or there are the tiniest miniatures like Schubert’s Nachtviolen.

But I have trouble in recitals – it really is one hundred per cent me on the stage. I’m not pretending to be somebody else, I haven’t got costume and make-up and a lot of distance. You are, as it were, totally naked on the stage. It’s very difficult. I have immense admiration for many singers who are actually far better than me at performing the songs. I fuss and fiddle quite a lot. I’m uncomfortable being me on a recital stage. I struggle a bit with physical control – what to do with my hands and body. The best you can do is give a hundred per cent to the text and the music, and whatever happens in terms of the way you move on stage, you have to just deal with it. So long as it doesn’t impinge on the evening to the extent that it disturbs the listener’s concentration. I’d like to perform in a much calmer, cooler way than I’m sometimes able.

MG: I’ve seen you do recitals from when you were just leaving college. What struck me early on was the phenomenal quality of the voice and technique even then, but I often found it quite cold and removed. Nowadays, I think you’ve developed into an extraordinary recitalist. You’re very open.

SK: You have to be open in everything, otherwise you’re wasting your time and everybody else’s. You have to take the risk of getting down and dirty. You have to expose yourself. And if the worst thing to come out of this is for people to say ‘He’s an odd person’, so be it. If the best thing is, ‘He’s trying to get to the bottom of this marvellous bit of text’, then that’s worth taking the risk for. I thought the answer was to keep myself still, so that my voice would be the instrument of expression, which is naive. It’s not a recording. You have to act a bit, albeit understated; please God never let it be sentimental, physically overstated or mugged. I can’t bear that. Ben Luxon wrote me a letter, which I’ve still got, which said: ‘Simon, the old days of standing and fixing your stare at the clock at the back of the hall are long gone. What I’m going to tell you here seems so complicated that when you get older, you’ll see it’s all very much simpler than you think: you just involve yourself in the song, and leave the rest to chance: It’s true.

For me, every time you approach a piece, it should seem like the first time you’re doing it. You have to show that you’re living it, in the here and now. The progression of an opera or a song is simply a sequence of now, plus now, plus now … Obviously you have to know where you’re going in the phrase, just as we do when we’re talking. I don’t know what I’m going to say, but obviously there’s an arc of meaning – a beginning, a middle, and an end. Spontaneity is wonderful. It keeps you interested too.

I hope that I’ll always have the nerve to take risks. In the early days, I didn’t because I was singing in languages I didn’t speak. I was learning huge amounts of repertoire and there was the whole fear of just falling off completely, and drying up in front of people. I also made the mistake of not grasping that beauty for its own sake can be a little bit dull. I remember distinctly the first time I became aware of this. I was listening to Solti’s Rheingold, when Gustav Neidlinger, this great Alberich, said ‘So I curse love!’ He used a foul sound, and it curdled my blood, and I remember thinking, good God! I remember my father’s quartet starting the Rasumovsky with wood on string, because of the guttural sound. In opera, you’re dealing with issues that are not just about beautiful sounds. When the Count in Figaro says ‘Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me’, three times, you’ve got to get some sense of the ludicrous, some sense of the absurd. If you just did it beautifully every time, it would be boring. I think ugliness has its place.

At college, when all we were doing most of the time was striving to make big, beautiful sounds, we still listened to the records of Hugues Cuenod, who by his own admission didn’t have any voice at all. Why did it mean so much to us? Because it served the text.

I still practice my vocalising every day, though. I remember going to the opera house one day while I was in Paris recently between Pelléas performances, and who should I see there doing the old standard exercises but Jose van Dam, in the room next to me. It pleased me very much: huge name; fabulous artist. The thrill of his Golaud is nothing to do with the notes he’s singing or the volume he’s singing at. It’s all in the quality of the sound: how directly that steel hawser to his heart connects him with the audience; how much he’s showing of his feelings without any sentimentality. He still practices every day, because this is what gives a singer the confidence, I think, to take risks on a stage or in a recital. You need a back-up, so that if the risk seems to be going wrong, you can revert to something that will work. Never fault technique. However naturally adept you are at performing or however passionately you are able to communicate with an audience, technique is the answer to all of that too. One doesn’t come without the other.

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