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2008.01.8-14 The Lady: Down to Earth

Down to Earth

Interview with The Lady, 8-14 January 2008

Opera-singers are notoriously temperamental – not so one of our finest baritones, the energetic, garden-loving Simon Keenlyside, who is charmingly unpretentious but always professional, as music critic David Gillard finds

One of the world’s foremost baritones, Simon Keenlyside is a charismatic opera star who never gives less than 100% to a performance, be it as Billy in Britten’s Billy Budd, swinging athletically from the rigging as a foretopman should, or amazingly avian as Mozart’s birdcatcher Papageno, winging and flitting his way through The Magic Flute.

He has been called “one of opera’s pin-ups” although, as an unpretentious, self-effacing man who rarely courts publicity, he would undoubtedly hate the tag. The son of the violinist Raymond Keenlyside (who played in the Aeolian Quartet), music has been part of his life from his earliest years. He was a chorister from the age of eight, touring the world with the choir of St John’s College School, Cambridge.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of his debut as a professional opera singer, years that have seen him acclaimed in the great opera houses of the world and on the concert platform, where he is much in demand as a recitalist. But at the age of 48, he feels it is time for taking stock. After 40 years of jetting around the globe, Simon is coming home to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Recent performances there have included the role of Winston in the world premiere of Lorin Maazel’s 1984 (for which, along with Billy Budd, he won the 2006 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera), Prospero in Thomas Ades’ The Tempest (a role he created at the world premiere in 2004) and Pelleas in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande.

He sang Oreste in a new production of Gluck’s Greek tragedy of love and sacrifice, Iphigenie en Tauride, and he returns this year to put yet another feather in his cap as Papageno later this month and as the brooding Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlo in June.

“Travelling for up to 10 months a year, as I used to do, is no way to live,” he tells me. “I’ve seen enough wonders to have satisfied 10 lives, but nothing compares to domesticity, does it?”

It is domesticity that has now happily claimed him. In 2006 he married the beautiful ballerina Zenaida Yanowsky, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, and immediately decided to “put the brakes on so much foreign travel. After all, Zen’s career is here. I didn’t want to be away all the time.”

There was the lure of his other “home”, too – his old farmhouse (parts date back to the 18th century) with 17 acres in west Wales. It is there that he retreats, relaxes and, you sense, finds his greatest refreshment.

“When I was a child my father had a cottage in that part of the world. I was forever travelling and recording with the choir, so the only bit of stability I had was there. It was a little cradle and it fostered all my interest in wildlife.” (As a teenager he spent school holidays as a warden with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and later returned to Cambridge to take a degree in zoology.)

He eventually bought a cottage in the area and then, six years ago, seized the opportunity to purchase the old hill farm with its heather moorland and wildflower meadows. Ever since, he has laboured to “leave a very small comer of the world a little better than it was when I found it. We’re all just passing through. I’ve planted 8,000 bluebell bulbs and a whole field of daffodils. One day, when I’m long gone, somebody will pass by and get pleasure from them.”

He has also planted thousands of trees, many hundreds of them set in the ground by his own hands, and has planned a mixed woodland that is “designed for longevity, with huge numbers of oak and birch”.

Not content with tending his Welsh pastures, he also has an allotment at the bottom of the garden at his house in Ealing, west London, and was busy making plum jam from the current year’s prodigious crop when we spoke.

Does his wife enjoy the country life, too? “Oh, yes. Zen has taken to it like a duck to water. She was born in Lyons of mixed Russian and Spanish ancestry, but she was brought up in the Canary Islands.”

Although he may be travelling less, he still has a busy international schedule that has seen him perform operetta recitals recently with the soprano Angelika Kirchschlager in Munich, Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg (their recording, Dein ist Mein Ganzes Herz, is available from Sony BMG) and singing the Count in Th Marriage of Figaro with his friend and Welsh neighbour Bryn Terfel as Figaro in New York last November.

Simon thinks he is too old now to continue to play Budd and Pelleas (“I do not want to play Billy as a 50-year-old”) but there are plenty of other roles out there and he currently has his eye on the other great baritone part in Pelleas et Melisande, Golaud.

He regularly works with some of the world’s greatest conductors and producers and his worldwide fame rests not only on his phenomenally expressive voice but also on his athletic, intelligent and psychologically intense acting.

Simon’s lithe physique allowed him to perform a choreographed version of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, running and leaping with the dancers. In fact, Ms Brown described him as “a superb mover”.

I ask if he ever wanted to be an actor and he responds at once: “I am an actor. People like to think of opera as static and full of fat people. It isn’t. It’s musical theatre.”

Of course, but I had in mind Sir Willard White, who once famously played Shakespeare’s Othello (opposite Sir Ian McKellen’s lago), successfully crossing from the lyric stage to straight theatre.

“Well, I thought I might like to play the Fool in King Lear, but I’m not so sure now,” says Simon. “I think 1 should stick to singing. Whatever you do on stage it’s essentially about communication. I love being a conduit for some great bit of work.” ,

Music has always been in his blood. “Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms were my nursery rhymes,” he explains. Opera became a passion at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he studied and won the Richard Tauber Competition.

At the RNCM Simon ran with the Sale Harriers and, although formal athletics have now been abandoned, he is combining his love of nature with his musical travels, disappearing into the wilds to explore the flora and fauna at every opportunity.

Roles such as Count Almaviva, Pelleas, Papageno, Figaro, Budd and Don Giovanni have become his international calling cards and he has picked up his share of prizes along the way. Her Majesty The Queen presented him with the CBE in 2003, although in the biographical details that come from his agent, this award does not get a mention.

“If somebody gives you a present you say ‘thank you’, but I would never put it in a biography,” he says. “I’m just doing my job – I haven’t saved anyone’s life. “It’s wonderful to be rewarded for doing something you enjoy and it’s a fantastic life – you get to meet princes, kings and popes. I’m not an intellectual by nature, but I do know that the art form I’m involved with is utterly wonderful. “However, my job is not just to let people sit comfortably in the opera house and say, ‘What a lovely tune’. I hope I’ll always have the nerve to take risks.”

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