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2007.03.01 Opera: Wings of song

An extract from Wings of Song. Opera vs Lieder? Yehuda Shapiro hears from artists who sing both.

Opera, March 2007


… The champion among operatic athletes, however, has to be the baritone Simon Keenlyside, who, among other feats, swung from girders as Billy Budd at the Coliseum. Hilary Finch observes that ‘Simon Keenlyside, who is highly accomplished in song, sometimes seemed physically ill at ease in recital. I couldn’t work this out until I saw his performance of Winterreise, choreographed by Trisha Brown at the Barbican in September 2003, in which his vocal expression and body language seemed in perfect balance.’

This staged song cycle, in which Keenlyside performed with three dancers, was not exactly opera, but it represented a unique musico-dramatic experience for both singer and audience. ‘It was never my intention to suggest for a moment that there is any better way of singing a song recital than on a stage and with a piano, but I don’t think there is any harm in stepping away from the centre line from time to time,’ says the baritone. ‘Schubert’s greatest vocal work is big enough to survive all our fiddlings. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it allowed me to reassess my view of the cycle, because that might presuppose that I had an overview of the work in the first place, which I didn’t, but the experience informed my feelings on Winterreise, sometimes in unexpected ways. It was also a complete joy to undertake.

‘Sometimes I would find myself upside down at moments where, on the recital platform, I would have had only an awkward vocal leap to contend with. Over the months of rehearsal, my mind was occupied so much with maintaining a balance or position, that I just didn’t have time to worry about the extreme difficulty of a vocal passage. The result was that the dance work cleared a lot of the brushwood that used to get in my way and prevented me from thinking the text aloud.

‘The intertwining of words and music and gestures was endlessly fascinating as we twisted from abstract movement to literal description. The physical commentary reflected a very important aspect of the poems, namely that they are themselves full of digressions and qualifications, physical and psychological. One of the very greatest aspects of Winterreise lies in the fact that its poetry is not great. It’s not profoundly constructed, it’s not particularly esoteric-it’s not great literature. That’s its beauty and its strength. Mozart does the same thing as Schubert-and using far simpler texts too – with The Magic Flute. I don’t think that the movement per se illuminated the text for me, or at least not directly. Where the whole project did change my view of the work was more as a result of living with it to the exclusion of all else, week in month out. I had so much time to tinker with the poems and with the feelings I had first encountered on the recital platform.’

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