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2010-2, Metropolitan New York, To the Manner born

To the Manner born

Baritone Simon Keenlyside is a natural to sing the title role in the new production of Thomas’ s Hamlet this March.

Hamlet may be the best-known character in all of literature. What’s it like to play the role in Ambroise Thomas’s opera version?
There’s a visceral pleasure in singing 19th-century opera. The tessitura is quite high. Many 19th-century composers, like Verdi or Tchaikovsky, created wonderful vehicles for higher baritones to sing, and Thomas’s Hamlet is also one such role. Hamlet is a joy for a modern baritone to sing. And because the opera is a 19th-century melodrama, there’s a small window of opportunity for swashbuckling that’s not in the play!

Tell us about working with Natalie Dessay, your Ophélie.
Natalie is a serious artist and her work in the rehearsal room is always focused and concentrated. It seems to me that the key to working well with a colleague, whom you must be intimate with and committed to immediately, is to keep your radar on full beam. To be aware of the way that your colleague is working and, as far as possible, try to meld with that. Natalie is incredible. She forces me to turn the volume up.

You are working with two directors on this production: Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. How does their collaboration work?
They take on slightly different roles. Patrice does a great deal of work behind the scenes and Moshe is sleeves-rolledup, charging around, getting you to do what he wants. I admire them both hugely—it has been a pleasure.

Do you have a favorite scene in the opera?
I don’t really have one favorite moment in the piece. All dramatic works have an arc, and my favorite place in any opera is that watershed realization that, at a certain point, I’m going to get to the end of the performance in a way I would hope to. That’s a good feeling.

Thomas wrote two different endings to this opera—one in which you live, one in which you die.
I think it’s a little embarrassing to a modern audience if Hamlet lives at the end. I’ve sung that version before and noticed the sound of 2,000 faint coughs and the shuffling of feet in the stalls. At the Met I get to die, and it’s the first time that I’ve performed that ending. We’ll see what the audience thinks!

Hamlet opens March 16 and will be seen live in HD in movie theaters on March 27.

This interview was first published online in February 2010 and in the Met’s Playbill in March 2010.

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