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2006.09.01 Opernglas interview: I am enjoying a great priviledge

“I am enjoying a great privilege”

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Interview with Simon Keenlyside by Dr Thomas Baltensweiler

This is a translation of the Das Opernglas interview given in September 2006.

Many thanks to Ursula Turecek for her translation

He is regarded as one of the most interesting opera stars, after all his career was successful basically without exclusive CD- or PR- contracts. He gladly took the time for a conversation and for relaxed hours with our photographer.

TB: Your great career followed a long collaboration with the Scottish National Opera that began in 1989. Which experiences have been particularly important for you in this process?

SK: Journalists like to hear about these: my experiences with Abbado and Muti are wonderful and it is true, I could say so. But you also can make magnificent music at smaller theatres if you meet gifted people that give their heart and soul to it – they don’t need to be famous. I experienced this in Lausanne and Geneva. Work at these houses was very thorough. I am grateful that I was able to perform my first Hamlet in Geneva. I developed the roles that I am to be heard in around the world today at smaller houses. The Scottish National Opera for example gave me five years of wonderful work during which time I was able to try out most of my important roles on stage without being engaged permanently there. This was an excellent training. This does not mean that I’d prefer smaller houses to the bigger ones. It is not the place that counts in a production, what is, in fact, more important is the cast that is assembled.

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TB: Following this, how about the pressure you feel when you perform at the great operatic centres afterwards ?

SK: The greatest pressure comes from within. You have to be able to be relaxed to give, in a professional environment, everything you have the ability to give. If a journalist writes justly that I was not good enough, that’s completely ok for me. But hopefully I myself am my most severe critic. The audience at a great house has seen and heard the best and if it is not satisfied with you it makes you feel it. There are also houses where a certain snobbishness prevails, you have to be careful there. But no matter where I sing I want to captivate the audience. Sometimes I think, “hm, you have not won the audience over yet, but you’ve still got a chance, there’s still 2 hours to go”. Sometimes it’s your own fault if you do not go down sufficiently well: in the event you did not meet your aspirations. But sometimes the reason for a lack of enthusiasm may be sought in the production. That’s what I experienced only recently and as a result I changed something in one of the scenes. You’ve got to communicate with the audience and to correct everything that disturbs this communication.

TB: For a singer this is not so easy, I suppose – after all you are not the director.

SK: That’s true. In a new production you still may discuss things. If you discover a problem in an old staging you can at least ask. Normally you get support.

TB: Opera is business too.

SK: I never look at the cheques and contracts – I have a good agent. I’m not working because I’m interested in how much it yields, but because I want to sing a role or perform under a great conductor. You would not say to a poet or painter: You are working in the literature- or painting-business. Accordingly I don’t see myself as in a music-business, because for me this does not exist. I don’t want to sound arrogant but nobody begins as singer or writer with the motivation to earn money. When you’re young you think little about things like that, normally you don’t have any financial obligations either. At that age you leave your home or your family to live like a gypsy. Why? Because a fire is kindled within you. Of course I also have a family and a house that costs money today. But what I’m doing is mainly a privilege: half of the world is starving and my life is filled a hundred percent with masterworks and beauty. I spend every day learning great music and words by great poets. You have to be in it heart and soul with passion. If you can only exhibit a good technique as a singer it will be boring quite soon.

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TB: But, if you rely on chance you get nowhere.

SK: You think so? I can only speak for myself: A favourable fate guided me, even if fortune did not fall right into my lap. If you are born with a talent you can develop a strategy for your career. But many important artists did not have any such strategy. As for me, I was no natural but a slow learner. I took a long time – till about 35 – to get vocally where I wanted. I had neither the vocal power nor the colours for the parts I wanted to sing. At this time other things came to me, things I had not heard of and I did not know how interesting they are. In my case these were fascinating works, Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” for example, Gluck, songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Glasunov – and all of this only because I was not yet able to sing the roles that I wished to sing and that I can perform now. Today I would never have the time to learn so many songs (pulls out his wallet) – all these slips of paper covered with writing are the programmes I compiled for recitals. I think you’ve got to take care to be in the best possible condition to seize as a chance whatever comes up to you.

TB: Does this also explain why your repertory is so broad? The time-range goes from the 17th century to the present.

SK: Yes, that’s the reason for this range. I was not able to sing what I wanted to sing. I accepted what I could get and what was possible vocally.

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TB: Is there any priority in your repertory ?

SK: I think it’s in the human nature to arrange a pattern – sure enough, mostly only when you look back. No, actually there is no priority. Mozart, the lyrical Verdi, Gluck, Ambroise Thomas, songs – I sing what I’m interested in. It may perhaps seem as if I deal with Mozart particularly often because I performed Mozart so many times under great conductors at important houses. But this is not the case. The Zurich “Don Giovanni” for example is my only new staging of this opera, in addition I took over the part in three productions that already existed. Thus whoever thinks I’ve sung this part a hundred times already is wrong.

TB: An international career certainly involves disadvantages too.

SK: On the one hand it is wonderful what privileges I can enjoy – what I can experience, where I can be, whom I can. On the other hand you lead a lonely existence. This really is difficult. Sooner or later you have to decide what you want from life. If you don’t the career will capture you. I don’t want to be married to a life out of the suitcase but [I want] a balance between work and family and my other interests. But you have to fight for this – more than for any role. It is the hardest fight in this profession. The only one who can change anything if the balance is wrong– that’s you yourself. You have to get the better of yourself to say “no”, even if it’s a question of possibilities that will never come back. I can give you an example of this. I accepted a new production of “Eugene Onegin” in Vienna. This means a longer absence from home, from Wales – but that’s the way it is in our job. Then I received the fantastic offer to play Pelléas at the Theater an der Wien after Onegin. It has always been my wish to sing this role in a small theatre but it never happened. But afterwards I calculated: if I accepted I’d be away for five or six months. That’s why I refused. This was not easy, especially as it would have been my last Pelléas.

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TB: Why the last one?

SK: Because I’m getting too old for this role. I won’t sing Billy Budd any more either. I don’t want to hear: “Vocally he is still all right but he comes across as a little too old.” I want to say “enough” myself.

TB: But opera is not a realistic art anyway – and accordingly there are older singers who impersonate young girls.

SK: Sure enough, if you believe in what you are doing on stage, there is the chance that the audience will buy the character from you. But if you are not convinced yourself things get difficult. From the purely vocal point of view Billy or Pelleas would still be possible. But both are young, passionate men and as such they come across as a little one-dimensional. The time comes when you get interested in other things, for characters with simply more profundity. As I said, I cannot accept all the offers anyway. I have to cancel some parts so that current and new roles respectively like Posa and Onegin, as well as songs, find enough space in my agenda. For the next four years there is no prospect of a Billy and then I’ll turn 50. And I don’t want to play Billy at the age of 50. But if somebody else wants to do it, it’s ok for me.

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TB: Has your decision also anything to do with the fact that it seems to get more and more important nowadays to look young?

SK: No, because in the heavy “Fach” you will hardly find young singers. The audience understands that on stage a Butterfly can’t correspond to what it is used to from feature films.

TB: Record companies are frequently said to have a decisive influence on a singer’s career. Which part do recordings play for you?

SK: In fact young singers are “featured” by record companies. The companies then hope that the development of the talent will keep pace with their marketing. This is a dangerous game because frequently the aspirations are not fulfilled. I think I may consider myself lucky that I never needed the record companies. Sony asked me to record an aria recital. I thought: we do not depend on each other, this may be a good collaboration. It is my first record with arias. The standard repertory will be represented on it as well as rarities. Sony gave me good advice with the selection. They suggested that I should concentrate on roles I have sung on stage already – otherwise the customers could think I wanted to show that I can sing everything. With rarities like “Maria de Rudenz” I don’t have any experience. A new “Don Giovanni” on CD is planned too. I’ve recorded the name part once already but now I want to do better. I’ve stipulated the right to rehearse the part intensely and the recording schedule is accordingly generous. Once I had to sing during three days six hours successively each for a Richard Strauss-record. Nobody really can do this – not even Plácido Domingo.

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TB: You are known as singer-actor. What does acting on stage mean to you?

SK: When you are singing Mozart you cannot help acting – even as Don Ottavio. Yes, I see myself as an actor too. I learned what it takes in front of the spectators’ eyes – poor audience (laughs). I did not attend a drama school and accordingly I made many mistakes first, but I also got help. By the way, on TV I see bad actors again and again. On the operatic stage there are numerous brilliant performers nowadays. To play does not mean to be in motion non-stop. Acting produces concentration but as Piero Cappuccilli said once “you have to act with your voice too”. The audience, hit by arrows of the performer’s intensity, should be unable to move.

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TB: You are certainly open-minded towards productions that offer no traditional perceptions.

SK: Life is a compromise and the same applies for art. If you change from one production to the next you can’t always invent yourself newly. But you can try not to repeat yourself as an actor all the time. Why should I do this or that on stage at all? The answer is clear. You should try something new because it may help you move forward. I try to realise what a director wants, to understand his conception. And after all I don’t have to live with what I have to do on stage – maybe I’m somewhere else next week. It is a challenge to support a director even if you are not convinced by his ideas. Why not try what he wants?

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TB: On stage you come across as extremely agile, almost sportive. Do you have a special workout for this?

SK: To move on stage like a sportsman is not always an advantage, it can be distracting too. For my first Figaro in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” I learned to juggle because I wanted to hide my singing behind it – I felt vocally insecure. Afterwards a critic wrote: “Keenlyside juggled. But people come because of the opera.” The director must help you to make decisions for the necessary courses of motions. The audience can’t perceive a hundred things at once. I would say that above all the singing should be correct first. Then you can start to juggle.

TB: You also perform contemporary operas. Which are you criteria for choosing a role here?

SK: If the music is not yet written at all there can’t be any criteria. You need confidence. When I received the offer to take part in Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest” I had heard the composer’s music only on the radio until then. But it had convinced me. An additional argument was that the world premiere was to take place at Covent Garden. But I’m not interested in contemporary music more than any other. Furthermore modern parts can be dangerous for the voice, the part in “The Tempest” for example is lying very high. Feasible but somehow you can compare it to a crossword.

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TB: Will you give away something about your plans for the future?

SK: In addition to the Onegin in Vienna I’ve already mentioned there will be Wozzeck in Paris. I’ll sing Posa at different stages in the near future. I’ve plans for other Verdi roles but there’s nothing fixed yet. There are houses that told me they would schedule the respective piece as soon as I’ve decided on a part. Rigoletto is an essential mountain to conquer but only in a few years’ time. I also want to wait with Golaud in “Pelléas”. I’ll continue to give many recitals. There is no compromise in a recital as in opera, only music and great poems. And I don’t miss acting because I can express myself in a way that is not possible otherwise.

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