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2007.07.30 “A bit on the side”: With Angelika Kirchschlager

A bit on the Side

An interview with Angelika Kirchschlager & Simon Keenlyside in

Opernglas July/August 2007

Translated by Ursula Turecek

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K&K – Operetta’s alive! Both “K’s” united in “Walzerseligkeit” [waltz bliss]? Our contributor Dr. Stefan Mauß experienced an animated slugfest in London.

Miss Kirchschlager, Mr Keenlyside, at the moment you sing Pelléas et Mélisande here in London at Covent Garden. Your next mutual project will lead you from Debussy’s mystical forests into the Wienerwald. You will record a CD with extracts from operettas together and also go on tour with this programme afterwards. How did this come about?

Keenlyside: Actually it was our record company that gave us the idea. Since my last CD contained opera arias I wanted to do something completely different for the next project. First I thought of Weill’s “American Songbook” or something like that. But when Sony told me that Angelika Kirchschlager had already confronted them with the idea of an operetta album we really could not help it but record this CD together, especially as among the most famous pieces from operettas are many duets of course.

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Click photo for details of the CD

Kirchschlager: Well, of course you cannot do an operetta album alone. We could have taken individual guests for particular recordings, but it is much nicer like this. If on top of that we were soprano and tenor…

Keenlyside: … but if the album is bad because of this you are welcome to talk to us again, and I would also admit it then.

On the other hand you cannot really evade operetta. What have you been trying hitherto in this field?

Kirchschlager: To be honest, my debut in operetta took place rather quietly. In Offenbach’s “Orpheus in der Unterwelt” [Orpheus in the Underworld] I had to cross the stage in Hades silently – but in a fantastic red dress. At university the “Lustige Witwe” [Merry Widow] was added. But I could already get involved in the play as one of the ambassadors’ wives with the phrase “Wie meinen Sie denn das?” [“What do you mean?”] This was a certain improvement already. But afterwards I was really off with operetta with “Fledermaus” [The Bat], and Offenbach’s “Perichole” and Heuberger’s “Opernball” [The Opera Ball] followed soon. [She sings “Chambre séparée” from “Opernball”.]

Keenlyside [enthusiastically]: Oh, I know this one too! By the way, I also had my debut in a red dress! During my time in Hamburg I took part in an evening with operettas and hits. I hardly understood any German at that time and as English-speaking I had a Broadway-number of course. And in the end I had to sing two songs in this red dress with two oranges underneath. On of them was: “Wenn ich die blonde Inge abends nach Hause bringe!” [“When I take blond Inge home in the evening!”] I’ll remember this for ever.

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Kirchschlager: That’s new to me, Simon ! He never told me anything about this before! In return I’m surrounded by 38 red dresses in one scene of this staging of “Pelléas”!

Keenlyside: Did you count them? Why, you ought to concentrate on me on stage!

Kirchschlager: No, but I read it in a review.

Keenlyside: I always thought critics had better things to do in a performance than count dresses but I also know this: Once I was sitting in a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini, waiting for the “Diabelli-Variations” that yet were scheduled after the interval only. Until this part began I had counted exactly all the organ pipes and segments of the ceiling panelling.

Hopefully nothing like this will happen to the listeners of your new CD as the mixture from “silver” and “golden” operetta is far from boring. In addition to “Csardasfürstin”, “Giuditta”, “Bocaccio” or “Gasparone” extracts from the classics “Fledermaus”, “Lustige Witwe” and “Nacht in Venedig” [A Night in Venice] are planned, but also Kálman’s “Veilchen von Montmartre” [Violet from Montmartre] or Lehár’s “Zigeunerliebe” [Gipsy Love] are represented which are not performed so often. Did you choose the repertoire together?

Kirchschlager: No, not really.

Keenlyside: I am a novice in this field after all. But I did ask myself if we and our listeners really need another CD with highlights from “Fledermaus” and “Lustige Witwe”? This alone would have been too boring for me, just like an opera recital that would consist only of the usual suspects like “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Il barbiere di Siviglia”. For me it is the mixture that does it. This certainly comes from the fact that my mother is from Latvia and my father from England. I love this cultural mix in every respect, this means that also in the field of operetta there are many interesting things that originated outside of Vienna.

Kirchschlager: As for me, I had already sung some of the pieces and therefore knew what suits my voice very well. Giuditta’s “Meine Lippen, die küssen” [My lips are kissing so ardently] is among them for example or “Draußen in Sievering” [Out there in Sievering]. For me Vienna is the most beautiful and liveable city in the world anyway and this is expressed in many of these pieces of music very directly and also wholeheartedly. Who once took a walk through Vienna in springtime will be able to feel exactly what resonates in these songs. Of course we also sing “Lippen schweigen” [Lips are silent] and so I couldn’t help but try my hand at the “Vilja-Lied” too – in a transposed version of course.

Keenlyside: [sings in lowest bass: „Vilja, oh, Vilja, was tust du mir an !…. (Vilja, o Vilja, what are you doing to me !)] But for me Vienna is an incomparable and extremely important city too. Not least because you also find a mélange of the most different cultures here. Furthermore all the lieder composers that are so important for me, lived in Vienna. To stroll through the city and pass the houses where Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart lived, is a very special feeling that you can have nowhere in the world but in Vienna. My wife and I bought even our wedding rings quite deliberately in Vienna.

Kirchschlager: The city being relatively small the cultural concentration is as big as in no other metropolis in the world. This quite particular atmosphere has accumulated and preserved in the city for centuries and you feel it everywhere in architecture, literature, fine arts and in the music too. Here is much positive vibration, but a negative one too, there’s no getting away from that.

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Keenlyside: I once was on my way in Vienna with the pianist Graham Johnson and we got lost in a second-hand bookshop where we found an old street directory with the addresses of all great musicians. This was extremely impressive to find so many musical notables gathered in so little space. The last time I fell downright in love with the Museum of Natural History there. There this city’s incredibly long history and its surroundings become directly tangible.

Kirchschlager: Did you see me there too? Because there is a display case with skulls that the bereaved decorated with floral ornaments and the names of the deceased some centuries ago. And on one is effectively written “Kirchschlager” in black writing and decorated with two red flowers. And even in Austria the name Kirchschlager is not as frequent as Meier or Müller. The whole thing is only surpassed by the ossuary in Hallstatt, there are 13 solid Kirchschlager-skulls!

Keenlyside: … so you should pre-reserve a site now, maybe you can place a “reserved” sign in the VIP-corner.

But maybe we can get back again to operetta before this reservation. Is there something like “insiders’ tips” in the operetta repertoire for you?

Kirchschlager: I would like to record “Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol” [If you present roses in the Tyrol] so much, even if the more rewarding part in this piece is to be sung by the male voice.

Keenlyside: So just propose this to the producer, I don’t have any problem with it! Then you can gladly sing your “Vogelhändler” [Bird dealer] alone.

Since your debut as Pelléas we know that not even the tenor range can scare Simon Keenlyside.

Keenlyside: Well, right at the beginning of my career I won the “Richard Tauber competition”, this obliges me somehow [to sing the tenor range]. But you have to be careful of course if you sing Pelléas for six months and afterwards operetta that the voice does not get overstrained. You must not sing baritone parts in between either because this would overburden the voice. I once tried this but realised that it would go well for long if you commute constantly between the two pitches of the voice. I need a full week for the adjustment between tenor and baritone, especially as I would like to get older than 60 and my voice preferably with me. But there also are dangerously high passages for a baritone beyond Pelléas, mainly in the lied repertoire. I’m thinking of Schumann’s “Kerner-Lieder” for example.

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If you go back a little in musical history you absolutely find operetta-like features in “Falstaff” for example. Obviously even Verdi was longing for something light and serene at the end of his life. “Tutto nel mondo e burla” – even if there is the suspicion of adultery.

Keenlyside: Yes, exactly! But inversely operetta sometimes is also great opera. For example, I found a really brilliant piece in “Zirkusprinzessin” [Circus princess], that could be written in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” just as well. It is sort of the operetta version of “Vesti la giubba”.

Unlike in operetta, in opera there are numerous new works. Angelika Kirchschlager for example sang “Sophie’s Choice”, Simon Keenlyside “The Tempest” or “1984”. But after Berg’s “Wozzeck” no work actually suceeded in winning a regular position in the opera houses’ repertoire.

Keenlyside: But you can observe similar things in the fine arts or in jazz too. Here also were great ruptures, but in exchange the forms of expression changed afterward; in art for example photographs and installations were added.

Kirchschlager: When you sing these pieces yourself you have the luxurious possibility to study this music in a much more intense and pervading way. But nevertheless it is difficult to hear after all! In most cases I find it considerately more thrilling to sing modern music myself instead of having to hear it. And there are absolutely cases where contemporary compositions can even be quite impertinent for the listeners. At times I plainly admire the audience. I can only hope that the future’s music will develop away from the form of “scary space-music”, because much as I should like to, I can’t say that I am feeling better after I’ve heard something of this kind.

So Bach’s demand of the “recreation of the mind” is not really accomplished for you with this music?

Kirchschlager: That hits the nail exactly on the head! “Recreation of the mind”, that’s what I rarely find with contemporary music, but it happens with Bach although his music isn’t always “easy” either. Modern music frequently resonates differently from man, how else can I explain to myself that a harmonic change in chords with Mozart or Schubert drive tears into my eyes, whereas a modern composition frequently leaves me cold?

Keenlyside: You need very much time and energy to study these modern compositions and in return you have only rarely an opportunity to perform them frequently or even regularly. As a singer you very clearly have pose yourself the question if the period of your own career is sufficient that you are able to study new works regularly without the operatic and concert repertoire as well as the recitals having to suffer.

Kirchschlager: The older you get the more you ask yourself the question if it really is worthwhile to rehearse a new piece for six weeks at a place far away from your family. And if it is a work that you sing reluctantly and that won’t be performed ever again you consider twice if it really has to be. You must not forget that there is a life beyond the stage after all.

Keenlyside: But in the course of your life you also become more down-to-earth and think of the fact that you have to earn your living and that unlike a fiddler as a singer you can’t simply buy a new instrument when the old one is broken down. Thomas Ades’s “The Tempest” for example is a masterpiece but fantastically difficult to sing. With a mistake or overstraining you can ruin your voice lifelong.

Kirchschlager: I only can concur with you in this. When I realise in a performance that my voice in on the verge of overstraining I simply transpose the dangerous notes down a third, fifth or octave.

Keenlyside: During the performance? [hums in lowest bass again: “Vilja, oh, Vilja…”]

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Kirchschlager: Well, when it comes to preserving your voice from damage this is no doubt permitted! I remember a composer in an “Ariadne” at the Vienna State Opera where I “put down” “Du Knabe, du Kind, du allmächtiger Gott” like lightning. I think that it is also better for the audience to hear a safe but transposed passage than an unsuccessful top note.

…well, actually I wanted to talk to you about operetta…

Kirchschlager: Well, look what different subjects we are talking about!

So could you two imagine trying an operetta revival on stage too?

Keenlyside: This would be a step too far for me. I really don’t shy away from accepting every challenge on stage but with operetta I’d feel unsafe. The great amount of spoken text and the dealing freely with it would be a problem for me because German is not my mother tongue. I could possibly imagine the “Lustige Witwe”. But the particular Viennese tone of “Fledermaus”, I could never wangle this perfectly. There would be many other projects I’d like to do and up to which I simply feel more.

And other forms than Viennese operetta? For the Englishman Simon Keenlyside, who is married to a Spaniard, Gilbert & Sullivan or Zarzuela would occur to me for example.

Keenlyside: No, I would not want to burn my fingers with this! As a novice I once sang “Die Zauberflöte” in Scotland and wanted to be particularly funny speaking the dialogues in Glaswegian dialect, then a colleague came to me and said: “Simon, don’t even think about it!” And what would not even work in my mother tongue would be even less possible in foreign languages. It is ok to do an interesting project outside the actual core subject like this one for example from time to time but afterwards I have to get back to Verdi, Wagner and lieder singing. There are still more than enough fish to fry for me!

Let’s imagine nevertheless that you two would stand on stage in an operetta production together. Would you rather wish for Otto Schenk or Calixto Bieito as a director for it?

Kirchschlager: This depends very much on the piece of course. I could very well imagine “Die lustige Witwe” for example in a modern production. But “Die Fledermaus” is a very Viennese piece, this would not work. The wit in the dialogues is so Viennese, you can’t actually change anything at all without doing harm to the piece. Maybe I am a little prejudiced in this as an Austrian but I simply can’t imagine modernised “Fledermaus”! These specific jokes on Viennese society, on tenors at the Viennese opera etc., you can’t modernise this. But irrespective of the director I think that it would be worth an experiment to put an operetta on stage with great financial engagement once. An excellent orchestra, top-class soloists and elaborate settings, after all that’s something people love. You absolutely could stage operetta as an opulent show on stage, then maybe the audience would not go to musical productions like “The Lion King” in such huge flocks any more. And the director could simply put something beautiful instead of self-realisation on stage for a change: Operetta as a space without dispute, just to feel good, would this really be so reprehensible?

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