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2006.10.01 Fono Forum interview: The slow fuse

Fono Forum October 2006 (Kai Luehrs-Kaiser)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

[Note: The interviewer paints a most uncharacteristic portrait of Simon in this article. He is sometimes quoted as being a little difficult with the press, but never before as being a difficult artist! There are also some factual errors.]

The Slow Fuse.

For a long time Simon Keenlyside was regarded as an intellectual brooder before he went for a CD-career. His first operatic recital “Tales of Opera” shows him as one of his generation’s most versatile singers – taking the bull by the horns. Kai Luehrs-Kaiser met the baritone in Berlin.

Singing is a cutthroat competition nowadays. If someone bears comparison with the “singing lion” Titta Ruffo in the drinking song from Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet”, a Papageno is required directly afterwards (which would never have been expected from Ruffo himself). If a singer discovers noble and lyric nuances in the “Pagliacci” prologue, the industry asks: “How about Wagner?” Nowadays, opera singers who want to make an international recording career can only rarely stay within their field of expertise for particular composers. They have to be able to do everything.

This has disadvantages, as is generally known. Anti-generalists of singing like to complain about stylistic indifference, and rightly so. Therefore it is amazing to meet in Simon Keenlyside a singer who behaves in both a clever and versatile way. During recent years more than almost anyone else he has given us the possibility to hear him in different styles and watch his versatility on stage – and he has done so with success.

In Salzburg and Berlin he was a dramatic and slender Pelléas –possibly the best role portrayal since Jacques Jansen. In Zurich he did Don Giovanni as a lusty and troubled seducer, in Vienna a vocally innocent Billy Budd. With the Bavarian State Opera he travelled to Japan as a bespectacled Wolfram in “Tannhäuser”. As Winston in “1984” he let himself become enthused for Lorin Maazel’s new opera although he – like many singers of the younger generation – does not really enjoy new music. All of this in less than one year.

The gangling guy who confronts us coming out of a hotel-lift at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, still damp and relaxed after a shower, is no born journalist-feeder. But he is likeable. Simon Keenlyside comes across as cautious, in fact all the more distrustful as his answers seem to be honest without reserve. At 21, he recounts, he hitch-hiked to Berlin and spent the night in the open air at the Zoo. This now seems a long time ago. Today he hates having to explain “Zauberflöte” just because he sings Papageno. No nature-boy or chatterer any more, but someone who rigorously takes his profession seriously.

On his new, belated, debut recital with Sony he sings everything you would expect from him – at the same time almost everything you would advise him against, from Rossini to Tchaikovsky, Massenet and Wagner, from Mozart’s “Zaide” to Cilea’s “L’Arlesiana”. The surprise: Keenlyside shows a courage for interpretation and a flexibility that seemed to be almost extinct in such narrow space. A triumph; even if there are doubts in some particular instances.

This late triumph – Keenlyside is 47 years old – marks the intermediate stage of a restless career that nobody sees more critically than the singer himself. He attaches no value to his earlier CDs – including the title role in Claudio Abbado’s “Don Giovanni”. He was not mature. Soon he will record this life lifelong role anew – under René Jacobs [note: SK did not record this]. He also tried his hand at the baroque repertoire for a while, but in vain.

“It was the end of an unhappy phase, my first foreign job”, he says about Cavalli’s “La Calisto”. “Dominique Visse could do the baroque tricks much better than me.” He only found his voice at all at 35. So the revue of bad luck by someone who apparently likes to be dissatisfied continued without interruption. Even his new CD is “an experiment” for him, nothing else. “Drop me if I don’t succeed”, he told the record company. Well, he seems to be spared this.

Born in London on the 3rd August 1959, he did not want to sing at first. His zoology studies at Cambridge were under way when he came to John Cameron at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. “Singing was easy for me.” In 1986 he won the Richard Tauber-competition of the Anglo-Austrian Music Society. Even now he uses the travelling needed to sing to get his money’s worth as a birdwatcher. He loves New Zealand because of the sea dragons you can watch underwater. He appreciates the Salzburg Festival because he takes the Untersberg as starting point for rambling tours. In the highlands of Wales he owns a farm. Here he has planted thousands of trees: “I want to leave this land better than when I took it over.”

His professional beginnings, a three year contract at the Hamburg State Opera in 1987/88, gave him little happiness – despite making his role debut as the Count in “Figaro”. He left after only one year. Even his most recent guest performance as Don Giovanni in Vienna was the occasion for numerous conflicts: “It does not work”, he had told director Ioan Holender until he was allowed additional rehearsals. Keenlyside remained a difficult person to deal with in the theatrical business.

It was Riccardo Muti who interested him in opera. He kept him at the Scala for six years and put him through the mill to the point of perfection. His reservation vis-à-vis the media, his nervous delight in performing on stage without pleasing everybody found their ideal forum in Milan. “You cannot please everybody”, he says today. And he is full of praise for Muti.

At the Scala he sang Tosti, found his way to Verdi and finally to Mozart. Since then he is a regular guest in San Francisco, at the New York Met, at the Bavarian State Opera and in Salzburg. As a lieder singer he has tried Schubert (in Graham Johnson’s Hyperion series), Strauss, Vaughan Williams and English folksongs. Those who hear him today recognise in his previously a little narrow, but today nobly projecting, baritone the operatic precision worker rather than a lieder-enthusiast .

The amazing thing about the new album is the landslide of nuances, the apparently irreconcilable distances between the roles. With almost every aria you think you are plunging into a new world – vocally as well as with regard to interpretation. Keenlyside finds a glowering blackness full of distinguished strength for “Eri tu” from Verdi’s “Ballo in maschera”. As Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” he activates softness and clemency (“Mon fils, que je t’embrasse”). Don Giovanni’s serenade does not belong to a neurotic philanderer, but to a tenderly troubled seducer torn within himself. It is the singers’s emphasis on character that convinces, partly overwhelms, in this recital. Keenlyside pushes some envelope with it.

He comes across like a chameleon. In Allazim’s aria from Mozart’s “Zaide” the voice sounds muted – like Matthias Goerne sometimes does. Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” sprinkles eloquent delight. So much sexuality and ambiguity in Germont-père’s aria “Di provena il mar” from “La Traviata”, unmatched anywhere else despite so much competition. On the whole: what a wealth of different attitudes and characters, a completely specific tone for almost every aria.

Thus you may easily shut your eyes to minor flaws. For example at the slightly curdled vowels in Massenet’s “Vision fugitive” (from “Hérodiade”). Also there is nobody who sings Hamlet’s drinking song “O vin, dissipe la tristesse” from Thomas’s opera in a more energetic and concentrated way; but French singers like Gérard Souzay or Michel Dens do it more subtly, with less force.

Keenlyside is another singer who says he does not see his destiny with Wagner any more. Amfortas, Gunther, Telramund or Dutchman: All these would be possible. But why? Only one role appeals to him as an “idée fixe”: Siegmund. His reverence for singers like Pasquale Amato and Giuseppe de Luca, for Tito Gobbi and Carlo Tagliabue guide him in another direction. You admire his ability not to feign or manipulate a single tone. And yet you recognise in Keenlyside’s italianità exactly the kind of vocal refuge in attack that seems to allow little return to Mozart, let alone baroque.

So his new recital defines his position in the baritone-scene at the present. He never belonged to the Fischer-Dieskau-school, but admired the singer only from afar as a “One-man-tradition” of lieder singing. He differs from Thomas Hampson, Matthias Goerne and Dietrich Henschel in his more organic, you may find subtle, integration of the text. Quasthoff’s singing is more immediate, less sceptical than his.

He is united with Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel by the radiance of the material, that however seems to be slightly disillusioned. Little question that at the moment he is a more subtle interpreter than Rodney Gilfry, Bo Skovhus or Ildebrando D’Arcangelo for example. Keenlyside’s late flowering on CD has finally brought the critical brooder and reluctant team-player into the league of the great CD-baritones. It took a while. But the waiting paid off.

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