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2008.03.01 Opéra Magazine: “For me singing is not a career, it’s my life”


“For me singing is not a career, it’s my life”.

Simon Keenlyside interviewed by Christian Wasselin for Opéra Magazine, March 2008

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Translated by Jane Garratt

On 29th March, at the Paris Opera, the British baritone takes on Wozzeck, under the baton of Sylvain Cambreling in the production by Christoph Marthaler.  It’s an occasion to get to know better a particularly engaging artist, who is also one of the best singers and actors of our time.

OM: Unlike other baritones who started singing after adolescence, you had started your career while still a child, in the prestigious choir of St John’s College, Cambridge…

SK: I stayed there for seven years. But I had the opportunity of being exposed to music much earlier thanks to my father, second violin in the Aeolian quartet. My bedroom adjoined the music room and I had grown up with the quartets of Haydn and Beethoven. Between 8 and 14 years old, I never stopped giving concerts with the Choir of St John’s College, making recordings, travelling to Europe, America, Japan, Australia… Exhausting certainly, but very formative! Our repertoire, which was not solely religious music, was very large: from Josquin nearly to Messiaen.

OM: At this time did you want to start a career as a soloist?

SK: No, I wanted to be an Ornithologist. Many birds, coming from Africa and elsewhere, over fly the British Isles. Early on I had the chance to observe them. Today even more, I remain a nature lover, I need to walk in the mountains to prepare me physically and mentally before singing. Life is everywhere, and art mirrors it. I also enjoy drawing, painting and sport. I used to play rugby and I even broke my nose aged 24! Not recommended for a singer… For that matter, this still gives me difficult problems with breathing.

OM: Do you like cities as much?

SK: I love New York and Paris. Not only because they are magnificent cities, but also because they allow you very quickly to make contact with nature. What a beautiful forest Fontainebleau is! When I arrive in such a place, I try to locate the way in which it is possible for me to run to it, if I am submerged in a wave of panic. London, where I live, is very difficult to leave by public transport. But it is always possible to take a boat and go East.

OM: Going back to your beginning at Cambridge university…

SK: I studied singing and science in parallel, I also studied with John Cameron at the Royal Northern College of Music. Looking back, I quickly rediscovered myself to be passionate about songs and lieder because, once launched into my career, I didn’t have time anymore to put them aside, in constructing a repertoire. Once I was a member of the company in the Staatsoper in Hamburg, for example, it would have been impossible. I was almost every evening undergoing a baptism of fire, tackling a role off the cuff, without rehearsal; as I did for Count Almaviva in The marriage of Figaro in 1987. It’s a good system for a young singer, with the condition certainly, that you run into a conductor who will make your role work! Except that you risk prematurely damaging the voice. You very quickly learn to adapt, not to fear. And, in a theatre of this importance, the secondary roles – in my case the night watchman in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg or Montano in Otello offer you the chance of mixing with the greatest stars of the moment. Some people want to stay in such a company for their whole life. For me, two years was enough. After Hamburg, I had started in collaboration with certain Houses: Scottish Opera between 1989 and 1994 – always very close to nature! or Welsh National Opera. The new theatre in Cardiff, all made from wood, possesses a magnificent acoustic and an ideal capacity of 1200 seats. It’s there that I dream of tackling Rigoletto, in 2010 if all goes well. This seems to me clearly less risky than on an Italian stage!

OM: which are your other favourite houses?

I love Le Châtelet, a large auditorium which becomes curiously intimate for Lieder, as I could notice in the recital I gave there on the 17 December last year. But I’ve never sung opera there. That said, a theatre is not intrisically good or bad, everything depends on the way in which it is inhabited by the piece. Take Zurich Opera: I had a joyful experience becoming Don Giovanni there in 2006, in Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production. But it proved even better, last autumn in “Le nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York! Even so, the auditorium is clearly much larger and difficult to overcome.

OM: Let’s talk about contemporary music. You participated in the creation of two important operas at Covent Garden in London: Thomas Adès’ The Tempest in 2004 and, the following year, Lorin Maazel’s 1984…

SK: Really, I agreed to appear in The Tempest simply because it allowed me to go home at night! I’ve already said this to Thomas Adès. I did not understand music previously and, thank God, I was busy with a master-work. It appeared to be a hugely difficult score, in particular for the soprano who interprets Ariel: if she is not mistress of all the parameters, she risks being ridiculous. But if she succeeds, as was the case for Cynthia Sieden at Covent Garden, the effect is stupefying. My role, that of Prospero, is itself also very dangerous, with many difficult heights to negotiate, But, after all, it’s no better or worse than Don Giovanni, which can break a badly prepared instrument! In the technical blueprint, Winston Smith, in 1984, falls more naturally in the voice, possibly because Lorin Maazel, as a conductor, has acquired immense experience of singing and of the tone of instruments. For this show, I equally very much appreciated working with the producer Robert Lepage, who truly knew how to proceed, for me Lepage is a genius. He is, in his way of conceiving images, working in the vein of a Jacques Tati.

OM: Is Thomas Adès’ Prospero close to that of Shakespeare?

SK: To answer you I need to tell an anecdote. One day, the director of the San Fransisco Opera told me that he would give me the title role of Werther (in the baritone version) on condition that I would also sing Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie. Ignorant of what this involved, I watched the DVD of the film of the same name by Tim Robbins, which I found excellent. But I immediately made clear to the director in question that this was not sufficient reason for agreeing to be in the Opera! One should not compare a lyric work with a film or a theatre play, they are two different things. For example, look at the Marriage of Figaro of Beaumarchais and Le nozze di Figaro of Mozart! In the case of The Tempest there is the same depth in Thomas Adès’ opera as in the Shakespeare play except that, in the delivery of the former, Prospero is no more than a sketch. The nuances, the emotion are in the details of the music.

OM: do you feel a particular liking for the French repertoire?

SK: Yes, generally I try to put French melodies in my programs. Take Poulenc, he offers a fantastic mixture of depth and lightness. The colour of the words is everything and it’s those which make, for example, the elegance and the seriousness of the two melodies composed for the poems of Louis Aragon. The French language corresponds exactly to the French spirit, in its clarity, in its steadiness. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t know them could sometimes have the impression, on hearing Poulenc, that they are listening to cabaret music!. Also there are Debussy and Fauré… Ah Fauré! I could sing them for five years running without growing weary of them. But, when you give regular recitals, you must struggle against imposing this repertoire.

OM: I imagine that you would rate an opera like Pelléas and Mélisande very highly?

SK: Yes, very highly, but the role of Pelléas is over for me. I’m too old! For the same reason I’ve given up Billy Budd. In Britten’s operas there are no other parts that lie in my vocal range. In those of Debussy, by chance, there is Golaud, which I count on approaching one day. Without being able to tell you exactly when… At the moment, the one which excites me, that monopolises my energy, is my first Wozzeck. I think I’m ready to throw myself at it, understanding that it’s on at the Opera Bastille, an auditorium difficult to totally master. Several years ago I would without doubt have refused. For these debuts, I proceed with a method: first I read the libretto, then the play by Büchner, and finally the score. It’s an opera that I haven’t seen much, other than in Salzbourg under the conducting of Claudio Abbado, and on television with Franz Grundheber, who made his mark on the title role, notably in Hamburg. Quite like Debussy in Pelléas, with the declamation, Berg had truly invented something new, which is his alone. The score swarms with information about  interpretation: one measure semi-spoken, the following entirely sung, the following mostly sung, and the soloist must watch them just as carefully as the composer did! In my liking for Wozzeck, I remind myself of the moment when, as a student, I worked on Histoires Naturelles with Betty Bannerman, a pupil of Claire Croiza who had herself studied this song cycle in detail with Ravel himself. When I avowed that I had started to study them from recordings she fell into a black anger. A true dragon! Wanting to reproduce other people’s faults, what heresy, she told me. Ravel knew exactly what he wanted and he put it down on paper, with an identical precision to that of Berg. It is sufficient to refer to what he wrote to understand the intelligence of his prosody. Thanks to Betty Bannerman, I have gauged to what point it is foolish to imitate other people. The important thing, is to take the measure of one’s own freedom of interpretation in rapport with the score. I should thus invent “my” Wozzeck leaning on my faithfulness to Berg.

OM: Is Wozzeck for you the role among roles?

2008_Opera_France_2SK: It’s the highest mountain that a baritone longs to climb! What interests me in the character is the process of disintegration of a human mind. Is Wozzeck ill at the start? Does he become so during the course of the action? What is he fighting? The comparison could be surprising, but I ask myself the same questions concerning Golaud: how could the mind of this man shatter into pieces? What is the trigger, if there is one? In the two examples, even if the expression of the violence is different, it’s a question of an intimate route, of a journey to the interior of himself. The hero of Schubert’s Winterreise doesn’t go about things differently, he doesn’t travel in the snow, in the forest or in the mountains, but in his head.

OM: You said once that an opera singer is an actor who sings…

SK: I don’t talk any more about this. In the opera, in fact, the motor of the expression remains the voice. For my part I try equally to be a good actor, that I project myself with or without a director, as seen in a choreographed version of Winterreise, such as in the show by Tricia Brown shown notably by the Opera National de Paris, in 2006. I don’t think that one should arbitrarily split up the different elements which make up a lyric artist. The voice should serve the expression, in the theatre, in one’s game.

OM: From 22nd July, you retake the role of Don Giovanni in Barcelona in the production by Calixto Bielto, the prototype of which play which North-American magazines described as “euro-trash”…

SK: there can be many reasons for someone to accept an invitation, and not only wanting to sing such or such a role at such or such a moment. I am happy to go to Barcelona because my wife, born in Lyon, is Spanish, because I would also like to perfect my knowledge of the language with my friends in Licieu, where I’ve already created Hamlet at the side of Natalie Dessay. And then, living in this town in July, with the mountains very close – always the nature! – will be a real happiness. I’ve not seen the Calixto Bieito production but I am certain that it is possible, as an actor, to bring something new to it: I do not necessarily want to make Don Giovanni the same thing as my predecessors. The essential thing is to always to stay oneself and to remain faithful to principles acquired at the beginning of the career. I’ve never forgotten two things that Piero Cappucilli told me when I was young. The first: don’t wait too long to learn Italian, because that will end up by you running the risk of never being mature with the language, and in his Italian homeland, of never being recognised in the Peninsula. The second: prima la voce. At the time, I didn’t catch this, I had the impression that he was hammering on an open door. With time, I’ve understood: he wanted to show that I was already playing with the voice. Playing, is not only shifting the voice, it’s making the singing live, that it carries the sense, the drama. It is thus impossible for me to approach a new score without a minimum of the language used in the libretto. When Gerard Mortier, five years ago, proposed singing my first Eugène Onegin with the Paris Opera, I immediately began learning Russian. I was enthusiastic about the idea, in my opinion very elegant, of celebrating in this way the old friendship between France and Russia. And then crash! I fell over, I broke my foot and I did not take part in the production.

OM: Are you going to take on this role one day?

SK: Yes, in Vienna in 2009. I’m having to re-learn it! Then I’m doing my first Macbeth at the Staatsoper in 2011. I constantly want new roles but, above all, I would like in future to dedicate myself solely to those things I really want to do. Because singing, for me, is not simply making my career, it’s my whole life.

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