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2006.11.01 Welt am Sonntag: Interview with Matrina Kausch

Welt am Sonntag, 26 November 2006 (Martina Kausch)

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Slow Learner

Late but impressive: How the British baritone Simon Keenlyside conquered the great operatic stages

He looks like a model and is as attentive as a deer. Simon Keenlyside speaks in a friendly fashion and with concentration – and he surveys everything. With alert eyes he gives an account of the pleasure in singing and of studying zoology. For Keenlyside is a scientist who tackles things meticulously no matter if it is a question of a Brahms-song or of Mozart’s “Figaro”. He tackles everything seriously, with verve and self-criticism.

2001_WolframSimon as Wolfram von Eschenbach in Tannhäuser

Keenlyside’s recent operatic performances received rave reviews, on his currently published CD he introduces together with showpiece-arias  from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Verdi’s “Don Carlo” Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”. A proof of his versatility. Yet he says: “I was a slow learner. Only at the age of 35 was my voice in a condition that I was able to sing Count Almaviva”.

Today Keenlyside is 47 – and on his way to Verdi’s Posa (“Don Carlo”). Just as steadily as he got a grip on his celebrated roles he is planning his next tasks with a mixture of enthusiasm and tranquility. He did not mean to become an opera singer in his early 20ies after all.

The native of London enjoyed an excellent musical education as a pupil at St. John’s College in Cambridge. With the school choir he went on tour and recorded records – without thinking of a great career. Keenlyside grew into the art of madrigals and of church music, stood on the school’s stage and suddenly studied science.

Even though he afterwards finished his training to become a professional artist at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, he was interested in the scientific, logical way of thinking. Any romantic artist’s affectation is foreign to his nature for this very reason.

2006_Don_Giovanni_Zurich11Simon as Don Giovanni in the Zurich production

It’s not only his wonderfully soft and also striking baritone that convinces. It is above all his unique stage presence. So a review for the current Zurich Don Giovanni production’s first night read: “Keenlyside sings and plays the Don like the role of his life”. Keenlyside likes acting a lot and he says: “Acting does not mean to run around the stage incessantly. You have to act with your body and with your voice.” Keenlyside draws sharp lines for himself. He does not want to sing Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”, one of his star parts, any more, and Pelléas in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” either, in which he took a huge career step under Simon Rattle’s conducting at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

2007_Pelleas_salzburg1Simon as Pelléas with Angelika Kirchschlager as Mélisande”

“I’m getting too old for these roles. I don’t want to hear others say: Vocally he still may be good but on stage he moves too slowly.” So Keenlyside is leaving some characters behind, others are coming along. The next big task is Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in Vienna. “For Golaud in Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ I take my time, Rigoletto would be another summit but only in some year’s time. The time comes when you get interested in roles with more profundity.”

Apropos of profundity: Beside the operatic stage his heart belongs to song. Nevertheless he has made a virtue of necessity: “In the past I was not able to sing my wish roles so I sang pieces I never had heard of before, Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ for example – and above all songs. From Schubert and Schumann to Rachmaninov”. Nowadays Keenlyside sings his dream roles but the love for song has remained. “Today I would not have so much time to learn new songs. I still profit from the time 15 years ago.”

Previous interview 2006.12.01 Gramophone diary: The rural reality of life on a Welsh farm >>>
Next interview 2006.10.26 In tune interview: Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau talk to Sean Rafferty >>>

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