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2007.07.01 Der Zürcher Oberländer (Werner Pfister) interview

From Der Zürcher Oberländer (Werner Pfister) June 2007

Translated by Ursula Turecek

Operahouse: Simon Keenlyside is the protagonist in Schumann’s “Faust-Szenen”

“It depends on legato…”

As Don Giovanni he seduced women’s hearts. Now Simon Keenlyside faces up to a particular task: For the first time Schumann’s “Faust-Szenen” are put onto the Opera House’s stage.

We already know how Robert Schumann’s “Faust-scenes” with Simon Keenlyside in the name part, conducted by the Opera House’s musical director Franz Welser-Möst, sounds – because we have already heard them in a concert performance at Tonhalle in April. “No superlative would be put too high to appreciate Simon Keenlyside as Faust and Dr. Marianus”, I wrote then. Now the work that is written for the concert hall comes onto the operatic stage. What extra understanding can this bring? “If you put this music on stage”, says Simon Keenlyside, “you should try to avoid one thing: to illustrate scenically what Goethe’s text expresses. This would be tautologous and is superfluous”. This makes sense. But, what exactly does Goethe’s text say? Mainly with the second part of “Faust” even specialists in German studies quarrel about that. “The concept of “Faust” is actually simple. If you wanted to you could explain it to every child. But here it is a matter of something else, namely of what Goethe made of this concept. This is indeed incomparable.”

Lieder singing

Accordingly this text makes very particular demands on a singer, says Keenlyside, “because Goethe is working with such a poetic language here that you can barely combine a concrete association with the words at first go. This aggravates the singer’s interpretation. Furthermore it is an awful amount of text you have to sing”. For the singer this means that he puts everything he has in vocal colours, in subtle nuances of timbres into his singing. This is about the message that shall be conveyed, about the full concentration on the sung word. That’s exactly what is among Simon Keenlyside’s “trade marks” at all times: his remarkably subtle handling of the word, in particular with the German language. “For me this is so important because I adore the German lieder repertoire.” The lieder singer is at home with Schubert and Schumann, with Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss as much as with great opera – with Verdi, Mozart, Rossini, Leoncavallo, Massenet or Tchaikovsky. “Lieder singing means infinitely much to me and that’s why I almost have something like a love affair with the German language.”

Generally he does not want to have language and music, word and sound separated at all: “It is not about the primacy of one before the other. Both are one, it is like a child that has a father and a mother. You cannot separate language and music from each other, not in lied nor in opera. Singing means always both; vocal music cannot live without language. On the other hand the legato is just as important in singing. The language – or the singer’s declamation – should never interrupt this vocal line.” As a singer you hang your words and sentences more or less on a clothesline, says Keenlyside. You can’t do without this vocal line.

“Lippen schweigen…” [“Lips are silent” – quotation from Lehar’s “Die lustige Witwe”]

He can say so from a comprehensive wealth of experience, because this year he can celebrate a round jubilee: Simon Keenlyside has been singing for 40 years. How’s that when he is not even 50? He began as a boy soprano at the renowned choir school of St. John’s College in Cambridge. “An incomparable start into my musical life”, says Keenlyside retrospectively, “but I also had to pay my price for it. We boys had to work as hard as a professional, and that not only with our voices but also in the academic education. In addition we gave numerous concerts, made guest performance journeys to Japan, Australia and the USA. We hardly had holidays because then disc recordings were impending”.

Following the “Faust-scenes” in Zurich a completely new task waits for Simon Keenlyside. At the side of mezzo soprano Angelika Kirchschlager he will sing popular operetta melodies in the recording studio – “Lippen schweigen, ’s flüstern Geigen” [“Lips are silent, violins whisper”] and similar treats from them. “Great music and at the same time a demanding challenge for us singers.” Keenlyside reminds that the great opera singers of yore, Heinrich Schlusnus, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender or Richard Tauber, also sang operettas with the greatest pleasure. So why shouldn’t he also do it this way – particularly as he had won the Richard Tauber Singing Contest once…

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