2007.09.08 The Call of the Wild
The call of the wild
Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian “books” section, Saturday September 8, 2007
Baritone Simon Keenlyside is home after years working abroad. He enjoys flamenco and the blues as much as opera, but his greatest inspiration comes from the natural world.
To glance through baritone Simon Keenlyside’s CV is to see the well-worn path of an English singing career. He was a boy chorister at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he sang premieres of work by Tippett and Messiaen. Later came a scholarship to the university, training at the Royal Northern College of Music and a steady progression through concert halls and the national opera companies. As he moved up the bill, from Fiorello to Figaro, from Donald to Billy Budd, so the prizes and awards accumulated, culminating in 2003 in a CBE from a grateful establishment.
But listening to Keenlyside tell his own story, a more haphazard and rougher-edged career trajectory emerges than the apparently grooved template might suggest. First he has spent almost his entire professional career living and working abroad. It is only in the last year, with his marriage to the Royal Ballet Principal Zenaida Yanowsky, that Keenlyside has been based in the UK. More importantly, he says, the idea of the academic musician is misleading. When he went to Cambridge as an undergraduate he had a singing scholarship, but he studied zoology.
Simon and Zenaida, 2005
“They asked me at the interview whether I was a scientist or a bug hunter? I said I thought I was a bug hunter and I think that’s still pretty much right. I like looking at these unbelievable things from the natural world. And I like hearing and singing these unbelievable things from the musical world. Of course I’ve had some schooling in the academic history of music, but I’ve also done a lot of singing. And all the important musical truths I have encountered or discovered during my career have occurred to me through my belly, not through my head.”
On Monday Keenlyside sings Oreste opposite Susan Graham in the Royal Opera’s much-anticipated new production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. “The opera is a masterpiece and hugely important in the history of opera. Prior to Mozart, Gluck was a giant. But I learned this by singing the role as a student and then hearing Fidelio for the first time. Jon Vickers gave this great howl of anguish as the prisoner – ‘Gott!’ – and instantly I knew that Beethoven had taken this cry from Gluck, it is exactly the same. That’s how it works for me.”
From the beginning, music was a practical presence in Keenlyside’s life. Both his father and grandfather were professional violinists, and “as soon as I was conscious” Keenlyside, born in London in 1959, heard his father’s ensemble, the Aeolian Quartet, rehearsing. “They were at the peak of their powers and every day I’d get Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn. I’d also get all their chattering and giggling. I particularly remember the late Haydn quartets. People say the German character is heavy, but you only have to listen to the late Haydn quartets to know that is not true.”
The Aeolian Quartet (Ray Keenlyside, 2nd left)
His early music education was refreshingly eclectic. His father took him to jazz concerts – he remembers Oscar Peterson at the Festival Hall – and he has “thousands” of jazz and blues records. “Before the joy of the iPod I used to carry round 60 or 70 CDs everywhere I went. I hate the way the term ‘world music’ lumps together continents and traditions, but I do like music from many places and am crazy about the blues. The joy is in the infinite detail of the vocal line; the bending of voices and the tiny variations. When people say Billie Holiday had no voice at the end, they are talking rubbish.”
Keenlyside was sent aged eight as a chorister to St John’s, where he made several recordings as a treble soloist. “We know children are sponges, but it is astonishing how much you pick up. I wasn’t religious, but I can remember thinking even as a 12-year-old that the difference between Beethoven and Mozart was that Beethoven had his feet in the mud and he was desperately trying to touch the face of God. He would never make it, but he’d never give up. For Mozart the question of the ground never occurred.”
His life as a chorister was “not dissimilar to my life today”, with travelling, recording and performing. “But I learned what a joy singing could be without any of the almost exclusively English prejudice that it’s somehow ‘sissy’. Coming across the choral stuff by Palestrina was wonderful. You wouldn’t imagine a nine-year-old could have fun singing Tippett or Messiaen, and anyone who knows me would find it laughable that I was in any way an academic. I was very rough and tumble, outdoorsy, dirty-kneed. But the music was so thrilling.”
Just before he left St John’s in 1975, an elderly lady who attended every service gave Keenlyside a book token to thank him for the singing. “I bought a collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems. I wasn’t very good at analysing them, but they felt like water bubbling out of an upland stream. It seemed to depict a landscape that meant something to me and the sound of it was pure music.”
Keenlyside’s interest in the natural world had led him to become an RSPB warden aged 14. He now spends as much time as possible at his remote smallholding in west Wales – “real Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood country” – and wherever he is in the world, he takes his walking boots. “I go to these places ostensibly to work, but there’s usually some spare time. I was in the Alps last month looking at big things. But my little patch of earth in Wales is just as fascinating. I like seeing tiny spiders or watching the tick on my leg and finding out how long it takes him to get what he needs.”
He says Cambridge “took a chance” on his “middling” academic results. “I didn’t have anything like straight As. But they put faith in me and people like me who sang or played rugby or rowed, and I don’t think I let them down.” However, there was no question of a career in zoology. He won a Peter Moore scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music, where he studied under the baritone and much-respected teacher John Cameron.
John Cameron (1918-2002)
“So much of learning to sing is metaphorical. It’s not your left elbow sticking out or your bowing arm doing something wrong. Everyone has to trust a teacher and I trusted John. It is possible to make the Faustian pact of beefing up your voice young. You might survive, but many talented young voices have been ruined. John always said ‘don’t push it, sing your age’. That can be very frustrating. You just have to trust that nature will eventually grant you heft.”
It was through Cameron that Keenlyside developed a love for lieder and German poetry, and it was as a recitalist that he built his early reputation. “Some of the nature ones, the pantheistic anthems, aren’t always by the greatest poets, but they speak to me. And everything that happens in your life – the good and the bad – is somewhere in my box of song texts or lieder or French song.”
After college Keenlyside moved to Germany, where the presence of 50 opera houses makes life easier for a singer. “If you sang well on the day you’d get a job. But even though I could sing songs, I was a little arty and worthy and I couldn’t really do opera. I wanted people to bring their ear to this perfect little jewel of Mozart or something, but eventually you need to take your instrument out there into the hall and grab people by the scruff of the neck.”
In 1986 he won the Richard Tauber prize and made his professional opera debut the following year as Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro at the Hamburg Staatsoper. After working as a house baritone in Hamburg, he took jobs with the Scottish and Welsh national operas. “Both were very kind to me, even though I mummed and gummed a bit and once even learned this rather difficult juggling routine for a Barber of Seville. It took time to learn that you pin people through the inflections and colour of your voice, not through doing cartwheels.”
It is a lesson, he says, particularly relevant to the Gluck. “The character begins crushed and stays that way. Like Ford in Falstaff, the cuckolded husband, there isn’t much of an arc so you have to find a way of depicting the move from Stygian black to a little blacker.”
At 48, Keenlyside is an athletic and youthful presence on stage, and his new UK base has afforded him a fresh perspective on the British opera scene. “It’s always been different in that opera has been perceived, particularly in London, as something for the privileged few. Perhaps it is a little bit, but I can tell you that it is definitely not like that in Europe and while, of course, there are operas that are more pretty than profound, they nearly all talk about the human condition in some way and I’ve never sung a piece that hasn’t had some relevance to my ordinary life.”
Two recent landmark British productions – Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and the Royal Opera’s [sic. ENO’s] Billy Budd – for both of which Keenlyside won Olivier awards, exemplify his case. “The Tempest was stunningly relevant. A great work for the global operatic canon. It is difficult for composers to write things that are accessible and also imaginatively interesting. But this was superb music and eminently accessible. Billy Budd has always been special to me as so many of my teachers were involved in the first production with Britten.”
While he says that the difficulty with languages can be overstated – “they are certainly not the preserve of the intelligentsia. I managed. And I saw Paul Gascoigne giving interviews in Italian when he was playing for Lazio” – he claims that delivering a libretto to an audience “who live in that language is pretty much the apex of the art form for me”. Surtitles are “the best compromise we’ve come up with so far” for the opera house, but “good music and performances transcend language and the emotions are clearly communicated”.
He explains that for many years he was an insomniac, caused by “the anxiety of my gypsy life, which I loved, but you are always wondering what you were doing or where you were going next”. Now “happily sedentary and sleeping” for the last year, he still misses listening to the radio in the middle of the night somewhere and “coming across something interesting and heartfelt; flamenco or Hungarian folk or Congolese drumming. I remember once buying some Mongolian throat music after hearing it somewhere. It was actually a little like buying a Hawaiian shirt on holiday, in that when you take it home it’s not quite the same, but these musics can nourish me in the same way as great classical works. In the end, I’ll always take the Louis Armstrong line: there are only two types of music, the good and the bad.”
Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten
Late Haydn quartets
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas (the Richard Burton recording)