2007.05.16-22 “Simon Says”: Interview with Time Out
Martin Hoyle has a rare audience with Simon Keenlyside, roguish baritone and straight gay icon
Time Out London, 16 – 22 May 2007
Notoriously cagey about giving interviews, Simon Keenlyside says it’s being ambushed that he hates. Like being quizzed on bird species because of his zoology degree. Like being called a gay icon because of his looks and on-stage physicality (notably in the sexually ambivalent ‘Billy Budd’ – he’s not gay and it’s his art that’s iconic). These are some of his more exasperating memories. Luckily he doesn’t need the coverage; his talent has said it all over twenty years. And unlike many singers, he’s happy to tot up the years and move on.
He’s saying goodbye to Debussy’s Pelleas, for instance. Heading a dream cast in a controversial production at the Royal Opera House, Keenlyside hints at passion in the snatched phrases and half sighs of the dreamy boy. When he returns to the expressionistic mists of the kingdom by the sea, it will be as the frustrated Golaud, Pelleas’ jealous half brother. ‘I’m 47 now,’ the baritone says, matter-of-fact. The vocal colours change. When Pelleas utters ‘the hardest thing a young man has to say – he loves her – the voice is right on the edge.’ Fey youth acquires knowledge.
Equally, he’s said goodbye to Billy Budd, Britten’s doomed innocent, a role that suited Keenlyside’s athleticism as he leapt and climbed in the rigging of a man-o’ war- ‘jumping around like a rabbit,’ he grins of yet another part where he could shed his shirt (he’s forgiven us for dubbing him ‘Preenlyside’). His farewell to the role was memorably at ENO. ‘Wolfram [‘Tannhauser’] in Munich, Pelleas in Paris, Budd in London,’ he recalls with pride: roles and places ideally matched.
Despite his formidable talent in recital, it’s Keenlyside’s opera performances that stay in the memory – unsurprisingly, since he states flatly, ‘I’m an actor. Look at Malaysian puppetry, ballet, mime – all acting, just stylised.’ He gives the whole theatrical package. ‘ I don’t want to do the stand-and-deliver stuff.’ His riveting creation of Winston Smith dominated Lorin Maazel’s ‘1984’. Both the work and Covent Garden’s judgement were slated but Keenlyside found it ‘a very exciting time. I’m not a doyen of taste but being with Maazel and [director] Robert Lepage in one room … ! It’s wonderful working with Maazel as a singer. Conductors came to watch rehearsals – phenomenal technique. And Lepage is the only person I’ve gone to and said “Give me a job – I’ll carry your bags”.’
Other modern composers are less experienced in writing for the voice. Of Keenlyside’s superlative Prospero in Tom Ades’ ‘Tempest’, the composer recently admitted he hadn’t realised what difficult music he’d written. The baritone plays down the hideous demands of much new composition, comparing music with sporting standards (he’s been an athlete himself –it shows on stage). ‘As soon as Linford Christie ran 100m in less that 10 seconds lots of British Caribbeans thought “we could do that” – and did.’
The ‘can do’ philosophy has been judiciously acquired. Though Keenlyside’ s opera debut was Mozart in Hamburg – in at the deep end – he’s grateful for grounding in the repertoire with Scottish Opera. After work in Germany, France and Italy he regards himself as European (‘I’m forced to be!’). Only recent marriage – to a Royal Ballet dancer – has reduced his annual ten-month touring enough to enjoy his home, a Welsh farm. It’s a late marriage, he grins, ‘putting the brakes on as hard as a Ferrari on a racetrack.’
Besides Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’, a role heaven sent for his dramatic abilities, Keenlyside will sing Verdi at Covent Garden next season: Posa in Nicholas Hytner’s new production of ‘Don Carlo’. Unlike most singers he finds the vibrant Italian repertory easier on the voice than, say, Mozart. ‘The end of “Don Giovanni” leaves you utterly exhausted, vocally and physically. “The Magic Flute” too, after yelling dialogue in a 3,000-seater. But ‘Don Carlo’ leaves you fresh. It’s written so well you could sing it again.’ Surely much of the Italian repertoire is formulaic in its tenor-soprano-baritone triangles of hero-lover-villain? This particular baritone looks roguish. ‘Even Don Giovanni doesn’t get the girl. But you know what they say: baritones don’t get them on stage, they get them off .. .’
Back to Pelleas, who doesn’t get Melisande, Keenlyside responds to the French production team’s theatricality. The director’s an actor with a play by de Sade in his CV (what, complete with stage directions?). The singer’s guarded about the high stylisation but extends a sardonic tolerance to directors. ‘It’s not a bad idea to do something of what they want you to,’ he concedes drily. ‘You never know. You may find something useful, even if you think it’s lousy.’ Of such pragmatism is great art born.