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2010.03 A Prince Apart: Opera News interview, vol 74, no. 9

A Prince Apart

Opera News, March 2010, vol 74, no. 9

2010 Simon Opera News Johannes Ifkovits
Photo credit Johannes Ifkovits

Simon Keenlyside’s singular gifts have made him one of classical music’s most admired artists, but he has no use for media hype. WILLIAM R. BRAUN visits with the baritone, whose celebrated interpretation of Hamlet will be broadcast by the Met on March 27.

“When it’s your time,” says British baritone Simon Keenlyside, “you take a hard look at things and think, ‘Get on with it.'” He’s talking about a string of recent debuts in large and heavy roles such as Macbeth and Wozzeck. But a few minutes later, when he repeats “When it’s your time,” he’s talking about his ability as a performer to control large halls. And later still, “When it is your time” means coming back to the Met this month for the title role in Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, a smashing good opera that the company hasn’t presented since New Year’s Day of 1897.

It is Keenlyside’s time, but Met audiences have missed his final ripening as one of today’s true singing actors. His company debut, as Belcore in a revival of L’Elisir d’Amore in 1996, slipped by. Soon thereafter, he was a deliriously moony Olivier in the company’s sole run of Strauss’s Capriccio, followed by routine house assignments in La Bohème, Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. European audiences have had a fuller picture.

Our interview in September 2009 finds him bustling around a sleek pied-à-terre in London, offering a selection of teas and a fresh box of cookies. Twelve hours ago, he was carried off the stage of the Royal Opera at the end of a sweeping, grand performance as Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo. On the morning after, he is bubbling over with praise for his colleagues Jonas Kaufmann, who sang a strikingly comprehensive Don Carlo, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. (Furlanetto’s Indian-summer triumph as Filippo won him the first paragraph of the review in the Financial Times.) Keenlyside didn’t go to the pub after the performance, and he didn’t sleep late. He has, he says, already been out on his bicycle. He’s a family man now, having married Royal Ballet principal dancer Zenaida Yanowsky in 2006. Their son turned one year old last fall, and another child is on the way.

Stories about Keenlyside’s life onstage tend to be inextricable from stories about his family. He has done Hamlet before; he first encountered the role in Geneva in 1996, and his 2003 outing in Barcelona is preserved on DVD. If you know his work, you know enough not to ask whether his Met Hamlet will be different. You can only ask how it will have changed. “I was thinking about it walking with my boy. Your frame of reference is what? It’s the score — it’s what the librettist and composer have given you, into which there’s what the conductor wishes from you and what the director asks of you. And hopefully he or she will have done enough homework to have an arc and not try and be clever at the expense of the piece. And then, last but not least, there’s what you think. Some of those dynamics will be different every time — the conductor and director, some of the singers and therefore your response to them — but for me it is now plus now plus now.

“There was a maple tree, a North American one, so it’s this gorgeous scarlet color. And it had, like alien exotic creatures on the ground, these crimson leaves amongst the more subdued British leaves. And on top of the British leaves were these starbursts of maple leaves. And I was walking along with him, terribly slowly — the mind’s drifting. He would stand on a leaf, then another, then another. Well, that’s just how it is for me onstage. You go back to the beginning of that part, then go again. Can you remember the way you took? No, and if it is really now plus now plus now, within the frame of reference that you’ve already organized, then, in that particular coat you’re wearing, you can do anything. So just like those maple leaves, you go, and that step impinges on the next. And before you know it, you look back and you’ve taken an entirely different direction.”

Met audiences will finally hear a new direction when Keenlyside sings Prospero in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest (presumably, if the economy cooperates). He also has a long-term goal of singing Germont in La Traviata for the company. He sees the Met as an Italian house. Moreover, asked about baritones he admires, he says, “They’re mostly yours,” meaning Americans. “Robert Merrill is the reason why I wanted to do La Traviata as soon as possible at the Met. Because I think the way that role is being sung is going in the wrong direction. The Toscanini Traviata recording is Merrill at twenty-three or twenty-one, and it’s the way that music is written. It’s written bel canto in the loose sense of the word — beautiful and lyrical. Nowadays it’s cast from singers who are that age, and whose voices are worn out. It doesn’t suit the music at all. I want to try to sing it in the tradition that I grew up with, with Robert Merrill, at the Met. Where better?” Frederica von Stade once offered to set up a meeting with Merrill, Keenlyside relates, “but then I thought, well, what’s the point? What am I going to say to Robert Merrill — ‘You’ve given me more pleasure than I can tell you’? There’s really nothing more I can say than that.”

Sherrill Milnes, of course, is much on his mind. Keenlyside first heard Hamlet in the Milnes recording. “Sherrill used to come to Manchester to do master classes, and I wanted to hear what the man’s voice was like.” The voice remains a touchstone. As recently as last summer, Keenlyside was preparing for a drive from the Vienna State Opera to Munich. “As I was getting in the car, the boss’s secretary came round and said, ‘Have a listen to this, it’ll keep you busy on the way.’ It was a live recording of his Macbeth. It was astonishing singing, fantastic singing. Thank God I had already made my work tape! I’ve no doubt he’ll show up at Hamlet in New York. He turns up at all sorts of things, unnerves the hell out of all of us.”

Keenlyside nonetheless hopes to have a chat about the opera. He has a print of the original designs, salvaged from a Paris junk shop. “The sheer grandiosity of the set and everybody on it — it’s melodramatic. It’s very difficult to take it out of its time. I think in that respect I and my generation have gone back toward a darker, more modern take on the opera, which is more in keeping, I think, with the modern take on the play. Fashions have changed. Our age of Hamlet in the theater, in the opera, is darker. And Sherrill’s wasn’t. Sherrill’s was, I think, much more open. I’m interested in that.”

Don Carlo
Keenlyside as Posa in 2009’s Don Carlo, with Jonas Kaufmann (Don Carlo)
© Catherine Ashmore 2010

Melodrama, as it happens, is part of Keenlyside’s own makeup. His Rodrigo — from his entrance, like a speed-skater, ready to save Flanders single-handed, to his death, standing up until the last possible moment — was a star turn. His Prospero, too, is grand and elegant, in the Jon Vickers mold. But Keenlyside also has a goofball side. He delights in his refusal to play in the fancy baby-carriage escalation game, preferring “a fifty-nine-year-old piece of crap.” He earnestly pines to make a recording of The Tempest, unaware that, as he speaks, his live recording from Covent Garden is in shops on both sides of the Atlantic. He beams when he sees an old cassette tape recorder in front of him. It gives him a chance to bring out his ancient Olympus Dictaphone, held together with rubber bands and possibly from the Fred Flintstone collection, that he still uses for study. (“I just don’t trust digital,” he says.) Yet in Don Carlo he also pulled off what may have been the subtlest move ever heard on the opera stage. When Rodrigo attempts to manipulate Filippo into helping the Flemish people, he warns him not to let people say he was another Nero: “Ei fu Neron!” Keenlyside flicked out the last “n” to taunt him, testing the air. You half-expected to see a forked tongue.

The greatest compliment you can pay a singer is one that many singers don’t much like to hear. The finest artists have such a range of expression, such a variety of responses to the music, that if they are heard amid a string of arias on the radio or in a shuffle of tunes, you won’t necessarily recognize their voices. In our day this is most true of Anne Sofie von Otter and of Keenlyside. If you tell him, with a bit of trepidation, that you don’t always recognize his voice, he gets the compliment immediately. “Ah,” he says. “Good.” He relates it specifically to Don Carlo. “Doing the duet with Philip with René Pape is very different from doing it with Ferruccio. Your emotional responses are different. Basically, as a singer, if you do your preparation, you think the color and you’ll probably get something of it out in the voice. And if the parameters around you are right, it will come across.” The most distinctive element of Keenlyside’s voice is something discernible only in live performances. In the area of the E and F above the bass staff, just where most baritones have a transitional challenge, his voice is particularly warm.

<I>1984</I>
As Winston in the 2005 world
premiere of Lorin Maazel’s 1984 at
Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper 2010

Keenlyside recalibrated his career with two recent premieres. In addition to The Tempest, he created the lead role in Lorin Maazel’s 1984. He is full of admiration for Adès’s music, in spite of the difficulty, but he notes, “Nobody gives any sympathy to the baritone because of the awesome and absurd difficulty of the soprano Ariel’s music. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and there is nothing in the operatic canon that is like that. It’s a new color. Tom is a young man who has invented a new color for the human voice.” Prospero, he says, is perilous vocally “with its very sharp edges, as if it were on an oscilloscope.” But he finds the duet for the lovers heartbreaking. “I was listening to that just before I got married, and I wake up in the night with it still.” Maazel’s 1984 got a rough ride critically, but Keenlyside praises it as “a great night in the theater.” Maazel, he says, “was lovely — a complete gentleman, open to all sorts of things.” Compared with Adès, “Lorin is more respectful, with a small r, of the art of singing. Lorin’s work with the voice was very nice. What Tom wrote was what’s in Tom’s head — ‘You have to do this,’ he’s saying. ‘It’s possible.’ If you asked for a change, he’d say no. One singer — I heard the conversation myself, rather disingenuously; whilst reading the paper my ears were batting out — asked for a change, and I overheard him saying, ‘No, because somebody else will be able to do it.'”

No one could mistake Keenlyside for anything other than a thoughtful man. There’s probably not another singing actor who could conjure up a complete character for Pelléas in concert with the Boston Symphony using nothing more than his eyes and the tilt of his head, yet also work up some hoary shtick to enliven his Met debut and perform an endearing Papageno in the famous Achim Freyer Salzburg production of Die Zauberflöte. His Papageno was as industrious as the singer himself, buzzing around on a mission, as if the single most important job in the world was catching birds. But one can still be sidelined by the depth of his observations. He will analyze the varying approaches to Shakespeare of Olivier, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance, then tell you that knowing your Shakespeare is really no help in playing the operatic Hamlet. Observing the change in theatrical style in his lifetime, he says that in the 1950s “it was much more champagne than it is now. When you look at Don Giovanni with Pinza, it’s so much more diamantine than it is now. The Don Giovannis that I’ve been involved with, and I’m a product of my age, are driven men. It’s more psychoanalytical — it’s much more Rousseau’s tiger than it is some debaucher.”

<I>Winterreise</i>
The baritone in Trisha Brown’s choreographed Winterreise at London’s Barbican Centre in 2003, with dancers Lionel Popkin and Brandi L. Norton
© Asya Verzhbinsky/ArenaPAL 2010

It’s an unexpected reference. If you revisit Rousseau’s Surprised! at the National Gallery, not much more than a mile from where we sit, some things are as you remember. Rousseau’s tiger is no lord of the jungle; his eyes are panicked at the approaching storm, which has turned the vegetation into threatening claws. But if you’ve just left Keenlyside, you think of two more things. One is that he never does anything the easy way. After singing Schubert’s Winterreise dozens of times in demanding choreography by Trisha Brown, when he eventually sang the cycle again he started over. “You can’t just rest on your laurels and remember that you could do this first thing in the morning, any time,” he said. The other is that Surprised!, though not an especially large painting, gets a wall all to itself. Like a Keenlyside performance, it’s too strong, too specific to go with just anything. You are reminded of what he terms his main goal: “I’d like to do the simpler things better.”

At the 2002 Salzburg Festival, Keenlyside joined Angelika Kirchschlager for a lieder recital. His performance of Schumann’s long, complicated song “Ballade des Harfners” conjured up three distinct characters, more through witchcraft than through musicianship. It was one of those moments when nothing else in the world exists. The Salzburg audience, accustomed to the greatest lieder singing in the world, nonetheless burst into applause in the middle of a grouping of songs. His face was a study in horror. He didn’t want to bow, knew he needed to do something and attempted to corkscrew his way into the stage floor, never to return, at such a show of approval. But last fall, at the end of Don Carlo, he got an enormous ovation — the local boy making good. He may have taken the shortest curtain call of the cast, but at least he bowed. His time, indeed.

Or almost. In Vienna for Eugene Onegin last year, he was given a dressing gown for backstage use. Inside was stitched “1974 — S. Milnes — Macbeth.” And, he recalls, he said, “I’m not wearing that. Maybe I’ll wear it one day, but I’m not wearing it now.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John "Bill" Palik January 27, 2011 at 4:39 am

Of course, my DEAR friend Chrys means “Macbeth” and not “Onegin” in her comment above – That rapturous if short review of Macbeth in Opera News a year ago (“gorgeous … generous … positive glowing”) was instrumental in persuading me to travel to New York to hear Simon in live recital in February 2010.

Chrys Atwood February 21, 2010 at 8:06 pm

What a wonderful interview! And Larry L. Lash’s review of Simon’s Vienna performance of Onegin in Opera News is also terrific! “His gorgeous lyric baritone is at its zenith, generous and positively glowing.”

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