2007.11.10 Metropolitan Opera interview
Interview on Sirius, the Metropolitan Opera radio station, November 2007
The interview took place during an intermission in a performance of La traviata at the Met. Interviewer Margaret Juntwait (MJ:), Simon Keenlyside (SK:)
MJ: Right now we have a very special guest, it’s baritone Simon Keenlyside, so don’t go anywhere! This is radio… This is Met Opera radio! On Sirius.
Baritone Simon Keenlyside hasn’t been heard at the Met for six years, but last night he gave a taut performance as the Count in the Marriage of Figaro. Classics today has weighed in already with a review and they said of Mr Keenlyside; “both sensual and infantile, this is a count not to be messed with”.
SK: Well the cheque’s in the post! What can I say? [laughter]
MJ: I’m very happy that he’s with us during this intermission.
SK: Thank you.
SK: Hi, nice to be here.
MJ: So the Count’s a pretty petulant guy, isn’t he?
SK: Well, I’ve always enjoyed doing the Count much more than Figaro. The spectrum of colours that you are given for the Count is enormous. It’s not my invention, I think that they’re there. You have aristocracy, you have childishness, you have grace, you have annoyance, you have a great… a large palette of colours and I really enjoy that.
MJ: And do you have to sort of find them more in the Count, or is it all there, and maybe Figaro is a little more specifically written…
SK: Figaro is a different animal
MJ: More fully written…
SK: No. Figaro is a different animal, he’s… he doesn’t… he can’t do what he wants when he wants, consequently he’s more in control. Has to be in control in social situations where the Count can do exactly what he wants. It’s all there, it’s all there if you discover it. I don’t think anything, apart from a few fatuous pratfalls, are in my performance that’s not in the Da Ponte.
Click photo for details of the Met Le nozze di Figaro
MJ: Is there anything else about your description of the Count that you tell yourself in order to form this character?
SK: Well, you’ve got to be disciplined. Like anything else, you can go so far, but always keep that half step back from total involvement because otherwise someone gets a boot up the rear end or I break a finger or… you know, that’s the theatre in general though.
MJ: That’s not always the easiest thing to do, is it?
SK: No, but I think it’s like when you go and watch “Cirque du Soleil” or something, you don’t really want to see the workings of it. The workings of it are my quiet business, I’m supposed to make it look easy.
SK: Yeah, there you go
MJ: That’s why they call it “acting”.
MJ: Do you ever find yourself thinking: “how did this guy get like this after winning over Rosina in the Barber of Seville?”
SK: No, I don’t. I don’t. And I never made, when I was doing Hamlet, or something, I never spent years pouring through the play because I… To some extent, I don’t think it helps. It’s a different person entirely, sometimes for fun I might come in at the back of the stage to the Count’s entrance humming “Ah, ah! che bellla vita…” something that comes from Figaro, but that’s just a joke for me.
MJ: But you enjoy doing the Count more than Figaro, you say. The…
SK: I mean the Figaro in Nozze.
MJ: Ah-ha, mmm
SK: Yes, much more, yes.
MJ: And, do you get much… you were singing the role of Figaro for a bit
SK: Chose not to,
MJ: Oh! I thought you had, oh for goodness sakes!
SK: Barber of Seville, Figaro
MJ: Ah ha, OK! Right, so it … and that’s the reason why. It’s because the Count is a more colourful character.
SK: Oh, I prefer it, Yeah, “horses for courses”.
MJ: And yet you do play big physical roles, “Papageno” is a big role for you and certainly has been for a while.
SK: Well don’t forget Papageno is written for an actor, Schikeneder was no singer, so that’s your challenge. It’s nothing to sing, in fact I’ve seen it performed with Austrian actors and it’s fascinating. It needn’t be Austrian… Erm, you know everything has its challenge. For example this evening, “La Traviata”, Pére Germont is a… well it’s not a physical role but it’s a beautiful vocal acting role. Papageno is an entirely different kettle of fish, shall we say.
MJ: Do you like to do the physical stuff?
SK: Yeah, sometimes! I think too much is… you do too much of it, even in any one role it’s a little tiresome, I think for the audience. If you just set your stall out, do a few things to mark the nature of the character, that’s enough.
MJ: Mmm hmm, and the audience always falls for Papageno, they love him.
SK: Yeeeah, if you don’t get a good round of applause in that you’ve really missed the boat somehow.
MJ: I was asking a Tamino, who was here recently, Eric Cutler, who’d been singing the role lately…
SK: Oh yes, he’s a lovely singer
MJ: How much he enjoys singing the role of Tamino, but doesn’t he have a little Papageno-envy? He says “Yeah, you can’t help…”
SK: No, that’s not true, I don’t believe him!
MJ: You don’t think so?
SK: Eric! You would miss your aria, I’m telling you!
MJ: Have you played the Count to Bryn Terfel’s Figaro before?
SK: Yes. We did it many times in Milan and we had a hoot. I must say I don’t, I mean I’ve had… I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had doing this. I think the set is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful. You’d expect me to say that, But it’s the truth! And my colleagues are fabulous, you can throw the ball at them and they’ll throw it right back.
Click photo for performance page. We have very little information on the 1996 La Scala Le nozze di Figaro, if you can help us please email email@example.com
MJ: You certainly got a big hand last night. It was a wonderful crowd.
SK: Yeah, it was fun, a lot of fun.
MJ: They were giving you a lot of response. Probably gave you a lot to work with, I would imagine.
SK: Yes! Certainly it’s a fourth wall, isn’t it? It’s…
MJ: Yeah. Umm, I noticed that Bryn Terfel gave you some pretty menacing poses. There was one point at which you seemed to be sort of looking up his nostrils.
SK: Yes. Yes, that’s actually a very serious moment, because… you know, I think Mozart without class… producers that do Mozart in… well it doesn’t matter if the period moves up a bit towards, well how far can we go? I don’t know, 1830 or something, but any later than that if you miss the class distinction I think you undermine – you pull a rug from under your feet. So one of the interesting dynamics of doing it with Bryn, with his stupendous voice and his enormous, you know, stature and charisma on the stage, when, for example you’re doing Giovanni with him, it’s interesting. Small men generally rule the world, in real life. And power in the hands of even a small man… this contract cannot be broken, the audience know that should this man, in the case of Bryn if he were doing Leporello, if he should turn he would swat Giovanni like a fly, but it would never occur to him, because of the class distinction. That’s a very interesting dynamic. To some extent that exists also in this Nozze di Figaro. When you are working with a big man you can make that point clearly. So for that one point that you mention, where he comes up so very rebellious, not as rebellious as a radical revolutionary moment.
SK: It’s not just Bryn’s invention it’s in the Da Ponte. He fronts up, it’s a hanging offence, to the Count in front of staff. It’s very amusing, of course, but it has a deeper point to it.
MJ: He really stares the Count down
SK: Yeah, more than that he shouts him down
MJ: And you, do you find yourself changing… not quite changing but playing your character a little differently in the face of such a big Figaro?
SK: Yes, I do. I think if you’ve got a tool, then you’re wise to use it. You know it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
MJ: You have been away from the Met for a while. How does it feel to be back?
MJ: Yeah? Does it?
SK: I’m sure the Met has got on just fine without me!
MJ: No, not at all!
SK: But I’m very happy to be back
MJ: We’ve been saying “where’s Simon?” Good, it’s good to have you back again. Some opera houses must feel like a second home to you, I would imagine, and where do you feel that way about when you sing? Maybe Vienna? I see you sing there quite a bit.
SK: Yeah, well I’ve been a gypsy for 20 years, so that’s my life and I’ve always said in interviews that I feel myself a central European. Which I do! I don’t feel I belong anywhere really, but New York, oddly enough, is my favourite city because of my mother tongue, there or thereabouts, and I love the city. The atmosphere here is very, very nice and I’m very happy to be back.
MJ: And your artistic home being the Royal Opera House
SK: No, no. No I don’t think that’s true.
SK: No. It’s my home and I’m glad they give me the work, but I couldn’t say it’s my artistic home since most of my interesting roles have been elsewhere.
MJ: Do you have… would you say you have an artistic home? Or several of them?
SK: Sounds good, but I don’t think so. No, I think anyone who gives me a nice job and continues to give me good work has my… loyalty. And over 20 years that’s what counts really. You build a relationship with a House and… Yeah.
MJ: Baritone Simon Keenlyside is my guest during this intermission of “La Traviata”. We are going to take just a little bit of a break and we will be back in just a few seconds, don’t go away! This is Met Opera Radio on Sirius. …
I’m talking to Simon Keenlyside now, during this intermission and I was noticing, I was looking at your schedule of performances. You have a wonderful website, it’s really complete, there’s so much to look at and so much information.
SK: Ah ha. The funny thing about that is I have no computer, so I’ve no idea about that!
MJ: I got the sense that someone else was doing it for you?
SK: I don’t know, I’ve never been on the internet, I’ve no idea.
MJ: They really refer to you as the third person! You’ve never been on the internet?
MJ: What do you mean?
SK: I’ve got a lovely “crackberry” Blackberry, [laughter] and I write my letters to those I love and my friends, but I don’t go on the internet.
MJ: Do your thumbs ever get worn out by that Blackberry?
SK: Yes they do! And I keep pressing the “E” too many times.
MJ: You know what I noticed, mine doesn’t have a semi-colon, it really upsets me!
SK: Oh! I don’t mind about the grammar at all, I just put that… My friend, Alan, told me the name of it. I put dots all the time, he calls it “ellipsis”, I believe.
MJ: Uh huh
SK: So at least I know what incorrect thing I’m doing.
MJ: But I was looking at your website and it, the… your performances go back to 2005 [!] I believe and I’m not seeing a lot of the US. Do you not come to sing here a whole lot?
SK: No. I used to go to San Francisco quite a lot and recitals, and to Chicago a couple of times and the Met. No, because if you want to go home, if you want to have your family in… you’ve got to make decisions. They’re really hard decisions and that means saying “no” to wonderful things, but I’ve got to do that. I got married last year and I’m not going to be as much of a gypsy as I have been.
MJ: It seems we’ve been talking to artists lately who’ve said things like this.
SK: Mmmm. It’s easy to say but hard to do.
MJ: Yeah, that they live somewhere in Europe. That’s where I want to stay. Yes I’ll come here every now and then but I don’t need to be here all the time.
SK: Well I don’t know. I can… Yes, Europe is where most of my work is but, nevertheless, the Met is important to our lives. You know, you want to sing with the best colleagues that you can, with great orchestras and great Houses and you can’t ignore the Met.
MJ: I see you have a lot of recitals, a lot of recital work.
SK: Yeah, I’ve always done that.
MJ: You are very fond of recital work.
SK: Mmmm, I like it. I think a long voice is a healthy voice. I think you find your little holes and threadbare bits in your patches in your voice when you are singing songs.
MJ: You have a few coming up in December.
Click photo for recital details
SK: I do.
MJ: And you are going to be singing Schumann and Schubert.
MJ: And it seems that you favour German lieder. Would you say?
SK: No, er but the Germans, this is a terrible generalisation to my dear German friends, but they don’t… often you are asked not to put in too much French music in Austria or in Germany. So it’s a perpetual battle to… they consider it… that is they seem to… I apologise… but they appear to consider it as cabaret music and it’s not.
MJ: Ah ha
SK: It’s every bit as great as the German. I do a lot of French too.
MJ: Where do you…
SK But it’s true to say that French and German is my main staple.
MJ: I did see a lot of French, it seems you like to get that in, Francis Poulenc’s music and such.
SK: Yes, Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc.
MJ: Where do you get your fondness for recital work from? Is it from school?
SK: No. No, I don’t think so. It’s chamber music, it’s our only opportunity as singers to do chamber music. There’s no compromise, it’s a little bit scary but … just the piano and yourself, no logistical problems. You know, singing on stage is a lot about compromise. You try and compromise as little as possible with costumes, with distances, with conductors, it’s far away, it’s difficult. But song and chamber music, there is none of that. Great masterpieces of poetry, written by great geniuses, I mean it couldn’t be better.
MJ: Is there something in the recital that you walk away with, where you say; “I think this was a successful recital”? Is it a sense that the audience and you had a shared experience, or something like that?
SK: I, I don’t know. It’s an interesting question and we haven’t got the time for it right now. I mean, I’ve always been a nervous man and the only reason… why would a nervous man want to stand up on stage to do recitals? Opera’s different, because you climb on and go for the ride, as it were, but in lieder recitals you are yourself. You’d think that would be the last thing a reticent person would want to do. But the truth is, it’s so wonderful, I… it outweighs the difficulties of doing it. I want to do it. I want to share it with people, like-minded people who’re in the same club, as it were. They love it as much as me. That’s it really, I just love the poetry and I love the music.
MJ: I think you’re right. Frequently people who come to vocal recitals are people who really want to be there.
SK: Everything that has happened in my life, everything that will happen in my life, is in those poems. Everyday life is in those poems. If I…you know, of course, after 20 or 30 years of doing them, they just pop into my head in any particular occasion. Not all of it, a few bars here or there, you forget it.
MJ: Speaking of your everyday life, you live in London, but you have a farm in Wales.
SK: I do! That’s home for me.
MJ: I bet you that this time of year you must miss being there.
SK: I miss it any time of year. It’s a lifelong project for me, planting wild flower meadows and thousands of trees. Choosing which trees, some for colour, some for speed, some for… oak, you know, for the long duration, which I won’t see. Yeah, I love it, I love it.
MJ: Planting trees, that’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it?
SK: Yeah, I need help now.
MJ: Do you need something special to …
SK: Funny you should say that. I’ve just come to a crossroads, I can’t do it on my own anymore, my wife and myself, it’s just too much work.
MJ: You get small ones from a nursery and
SK: Yeah, because I asked a forester, “Snowy, how can I get bigger trees? This is crazy, they’re too small”
MJ: They’ll never grow fast enough!
SK: So he was rolling up a cigarette and said “Want big trees? Plant small trees!” [laughter]. Well my friend Angelika Kirchschlager put it beautifully, because I was grumbling about not seeing my trees and she said “Si, look at it this way: you look at other people’s trees and then in the future other people will look at your trees!”.
MJ: That’s a good way of looking at it. I’ll remember that from when I plant something. One of these days…
SK: “When I plant!!!”
MJ: I promise I’m going to plant something! Simon Keenlyside is singing the role of the Count in the Marriage of Figaro and he’s been my guest during this intermission. Thanks for joining us!
SK: Thank you very much for having me!