"I Have no Talent For Religion" Wina Magazine Interview, November 2023

Wina magazine, photo ©Reinhard Engel


A new interview with Simon, recorded in Salzburg during the summer, has been published by Wina magazine. 


Link to the original article in German


Our thanks to Gudrun for the English translation below:


Though he was born in London and studied in Cambridge, among other places, the charismatic star baritone and passionate European with Jewish roots refuses to be described as a typical Briton.


After his wonderful musical and acting performance as the most famous court jester in opera literature – Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Vienna State Opera – the British baritone joined a small circle of friends who were just discussing and celebrating the successful performance in the restaurant “Sole”. There was the opportunity to ask Simon Keenlyside for an interview for WINAMagazin. But before he could react, a drunken guest shouted: “What do you want from him, he’s not  Jewish!” Then the well-timbred voice said: “Oh, yes, I am! My mother’s name is Ann Leonie Hirsch.” This impromptu exchange took place in the winter of 2022. We met for the following interview at the Salzburg Festival in 2023. Sir Simon sang and played the role of “Ford” in the new production of “Falstaff”: He was content with a “Radler” and two pretzels during the conversation in the beer garden.


WINA:The staging of this year's Falstaff by the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler was not very well received by the critics. How did you as a singer experience this production?

Simon Keenlyside: I know Christoph as an open and sensitive director, and I like him. We did a wonderful Wozzeck together in Paris a few years ago. He always has a lot of ideas, all of which have to be realized on stage at the same time. This makes it more difficult for a singer to have the desired intensive dialogue with the audience, the orchestra, even with the conductor. But I have a pragmatic approach: if you can't get anything out of the director's interpretation, you just have to leave. However, if you stay, you have to do your best and help the whole team with the implementation. Even in a tricky production you find some freedom for yourself, which nourishes you and is fun as well.


Do you know who's directing before an engagement?

I usually don't, I don't know many directors. But what would happen if you knew a year in advance? Then you'd spend the whole year thinking about it. . . no, I don't do that. It's enough for me to know everything when rehearsals start. I was always lucky, there was never anyone I couldn't or didn't want to work with.

Doesn't it distract the singer when so much is happening on stage and around him at the same time?

Of course, the art of directing should also support the text, because it comes first, which means that we singers strive to reach the core of the work and the hearts of the audience through words and music. Of course, there is a danger that the more layers are introduced into the action, nothing will reach the viewer, because our senses cannot absorb everything. I learned from John Cranko, my mother’s half-brother, who grew up with her in South Africa, an important motto for my acting on stage, and I stick to it: “Don’t do three things at once, because the audience can't follow them, already two are hard to perceive – so pick a focus and stick with it.”


Your appointment as an Austrian Kammersänger in 2017 – a year before you were knighted by (then) Prince Charles – shows your popularity with the audience of the Vienna State Opera.  A brochure says: “What Simon Keenlyside creates on stage, both vocally and through his acting, are images of human beings of incredible vividness. He makes the characters he portrays believable by a highly intelligent psychological approach, a richness of facets, a mastery of nuance, and a devotion that infects his colleagues – all of which made him one of the finest and most important performers in his profession.”  When will you be back in Vienna?


In mid-October I come to Vienna with Gustav Mahler songs as part of a concert tour of the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Franz Welser-Möst, but first we will be in San Francisco and then in Tel Aviv.  My musical life is divided into two branches: I love French and German lieder and, of course, opera.  These are two very different worlds: while opera mostly deals with social, political, sexual injustice and religious freedom, lieder are mostly about themes concerning the individual, such as love, loss, death, home and longing.  I love both forms of expression.


Have you ever been to Israel on business or privately?


About 20 years ago I was in Israel on a concert tour  with Zubin Mehta.  I have a big family there, but I don't know them.  Even though I didn't tell anyone at the time, my hotel phone was hot because every few minutes some uncle or cousin called.  I must have at least twenty aunts and other relatives there ...


 Speaking of family: your grandfather, the well-known violinist Leonard Hirsch, was born in Dublin.  When you were a child, did you know your mother was Jewish?


 It was pure coincidence that Leonard Hirsch was born in Ireland.  His family were actually on their way from Riga to New York.  His mother was well advanced in pregnancy with him and the authorities ordered them to leave the ship in Ireland.  Already at the age of 17, my grandfather attended the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied with Adolf Brodsky for the following eight years.  He had a great career as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor and teacher and during the Second World War not only initiated concerts in air raid bunkers, but also played there himself three times in one evening. He spoke Yiddish all his life; and I loved him because he was so humorous and full of Jewish charm.

So he gave you a taste of being Jewish?

Yeah, actually, he did.  I remember asking him if I was Jewish. And how does grandfather respond? Of course with a counter-question: “Do you want to be Jewish? Then you are!”


Now we still are missing your mother's story.


 Fortunately, my parents (sic), who were not yet British citizens in the 1940s, noticed that the mood against “foreigners” was beginning to change for the worse, and the British were sending a lot of Jews to Australia as prisoners.  So they emigrated to South Africa, where they were free and safe.  Ann Hirsch grew up there and came to the Jewish community of North Hampstead only at the age of 16, after her mother had died.  My father, Raymond Keenlyside, was a classical violinist, “English” through and through.  Nevertheless, he had only Jewish violinists as role models and in his various string quartets.  He could speak Yiddish well, and I am convinced that he only married my mother because she was Jewish – and he got along so well with her father.


Your family had a strong Jewish awareness, but was assimilated.  What does religion mean to you?


 I don't have a talent for religion:  I think I'm going to vanish into the universe, from where I came. But I know for sure that I have no affinity whatsoever for the British. I neither understand them nor their culture, everything is cramped and cold. Look at Brexit and the Corona pandemic: they have left alone all artists cold-heartedly, they hate what we do and what we stand for. I grew up in a completely different environment. We were passionate about a Western democracy in our Europe, being Jewish is just as important, it's part of my mix. I am always amused when someone says to me, “You are so typically English with your waistcoat. ” Because then I react like this: “Yes, yes, and my mother is Ann Leonie Hirsch, have a good day!”





Our thanks to Wina magazine and the photographer, Reinhard Engel, for permission to publish their photos in the Gallery below.