2011.05 Wales Online Interview
by Karen Price, Western Mail
As baritone Simon Keenlyside takes on the role of Macbeth at the Royal Opera House, he chats to Karen Price about on-stage accidents, taking opera to the masses and protecting the environment
IT must be pretty challenging playing Shakespeare’s tyrant king Macbeth, particularly on an opera stage.
But for Simon Keenlyside he has the added pressures of taking on the mighty role with his arm in a cast.
For the baritone, who lives in Carmarthenshire, hurt himself during rehearsals.
However, it sounds as though he’s not letting his injury get the better of him.
“My arm injury is nothing,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Stages are very dangerous places. They really are building sites without the yellow hard hats. I made a mistake, but all will be well.”
Macbeth may be traditionally staged as a play but the drama is not new to the opera world.
Set to Verdi’s score, London’s celebrated Royal Opera House has just opened its second revival of Phyllida Law’s production with Keenlyside in the title role.
“I’ve sung it before, so mercifully I didn’t have to do that whole immersion thing for months, walking around parks with my tatty old Dictaphone, mumbling to myself,” says Keenlyside, who lives near Abergorlech with his wife Zenaida Yanowsky, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, and their children Iona and Owen.
However, Keenlyside admits that Macbeth doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly to the opera stage.
“It’s true that Verdi was a huge fan of Shakespeare, but I don’t think that makes the opera any more of a bedfellow to the play,” he says.
“Shakespeare’s work is all word-play, nuance and astonishing imagery.
“The opera is overlaid with powerful music full of emotional content of its own. The brevity, sparseness, stillness of the play is not the opera.
“But what does it matter? The story is probably not Shakespeare’s in the first place. The treatment is everything.”
Injuries aside, Keenlyside has enjoyed working alongside his fellow cast members during rehearsals, including Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth, Dimitri Pittas as Macduff and Raymond Aceto as Banquo.
“It’s [the cast] as good as it gets and that is thrilling for me,” he says.
“I cannot imagine you will hear a better or more thrilling Lady Macbeth, sung by Liudmyla, but then isn’t that kind of what you would expect from one of the great opera houses in the world? It’s a great and multi-national platform to which all the best singers in the world gravitate.”
As well as being staged at the famous Covent Garden venue, the production, which runs for almost three hours, will be relayed live into cinemas across the country on June 13.
Does Keenlyside think it’s a good opportunity to take opera to a much wider audience?
“You know I was really rather ambivalent about the old phrase ‘everyone needs opera’,” he admits.
“No, we don’t need everyone to love this great art form. We only need enough. Some art forms need time to come to and I happen to think that, by and large, opera in Britain is one of them.
“I do believe that if younger people are occasionally exposed to great art – be it opera, museums, poetry or modern art – they have a chance of at least knowing it’s out there: perhaps growing into it, or returning to it later.
“Opera is one of the great art forms of Western Europe and I just hope that enough people will love it enough for it not only to continue, but to continue in a way in which the standards are not diminished.”
Despite a long and successful career, during which he’s performed at most of the world’s major opera houses, including Paris Opera and Metropolitan Opera, Keenlyside admits that he still gets nervous before his performances.
“If I don’t sweat with a little fear then I know that I’m heading for a careless mistake,” he says.
“Singing an opera and a taxing role is all about pacing and anyone, however experienced, can get that wrong.
“To make a mistake in pacing these heavy roles correctly, can be a personal disaster and ruin the evening. So nerves and respect for those requirements is essential.”
Due to his work commitments, Keenlyside admits that he doesn’t get to spend as much time in Wales as he would like to.
“My little corner of West Wales is the nearest I could wish to any heaven – it’s also my life’s work down there,” he says.
When he’s not performing he can be found in the great outdoors.
“I plant woodlands, fields of bluebells and re-stock hedgerows with shrubs and trees. Right now, I’m working at getting a better understanding of how to make wildflower meadows.”
He’s also a passionate advocate for a sustainable environment.
“By and large, we can only address what’s in front of our noses.
“However, I’m dead against a headless-chicken approach that threatens to ruin every Welsh landscape – and exchanging wilderness for concrete industrial landscapes.
“I refer to the uncritical notion that we can power Wales by clothing the landscape top to toe with these turbines. It’s deeply misguided.
“A few turbines are a feature.
“Hundreds are an industrial landscape.”
Macbeth is at the Royal Opera House, London, until June 18. It will be screened live at Carmarthen’s Apollo, Port Talbot’s Apollo, Nantgarw’s Showcase and Cineworld and Odeon in Cardiff on June 13 at 7.30pm