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Simon Keenlyside – Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa in The Royal Opera’s Don Carlo : talks to Colin Clarke (CC)

Simon Keenlyside – Picture © Uwe Arens 

The interview with Simon Keenlyside is due to take place in the depths of the ROH. As the rehearsal for the most recent run of Don Carlo has just finished, I wait with a Royal Opera press officer outside Keenlyside’s dressing room. Semyon Bychkov, towel-draped and glistening, passes engrossed in conversation with Jonas Kaufman, the Don Carlo of this production. Keenlyside takes the role of Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa.

When the time comes for the interview itself, Keenlyside is more than welcoming (a welcome that even extends to proffered – and accepted – food). In between mouthfuls, somehow we manage to talk for over half an hour about singing, zoology, Lieder, German Romantic poetry, opera in general and, of course, Verdi’s Don Carlo

I mention that Keenlyside is one of the UK’s most popular singers. I remember reading a while ago that he studied zoology at Cambridge before moving on to music at the Royal Northern College. Why the switch? “It wasn’t a switch. Unless I was David Attenborough I wouldn’t have any more opportunity to see wildlife than I have had in my life. I have been many times in San Francisco (you’ve got the Sierra Nevada there, amazing wildlife); you’ve got the Alps just outside Vienna, or Salzburg, in Australia you’ve got the Barrier Reef and the wonderful wildnernesses out there. I’ve seen so many wonders and I intend to continue in that vein. I used to make time at the end of each job and stay out there and explore and have an adventure but with a young family now it is a bit harder … so there wasn’t a switch. Someone said to me the other day, ‘it must be nice for you Simon to go to Wales – home for me is Wales – and recharge your batteries’ but that for me misses the point. Countryside for me is not recharging batteries, it’s a way of living, a way of thinking, a way of wanting to be. I go there as often as I can because those are the values I love most. It is being of and in Nature. I grew up knowing what the trees and the birds and the insects were. I love noting when the swifts come, when the sparrows leave, when the martins come, when are the fritillaries going to come up. That’s what fires me up. And the human condition is examined in the German song repertoire largely through a rural world. Most of the analogies and the metaphors and the similes go through Nature. They are not always about Nature, that would be dull to sing about Nature the whole time (a bit like the Sound of Music) but it is applied through that. I find that the art form, the song repertoire, is old-fashioned, and that suits me well”.

Poets such as Goethe and Heine have this communion with Nature and I suggest he is speaking as if there is this communion with our souls. “Yes, it does. It resonates really with my own life.” Could you extend that to how you resonate on a general level with music?. “To me music is just a reflection of life. I don’t feel coy about defining what music is. Music– what is the point of it, if it is not in some way blossoming, reflecting the human condition. Certainly when it comes to words, and my life is half about words. The music is of course sometimes a separate but certainly a parallel dialogue with those words. So everything I do is in some way some splintered fragment reflecting normal, everyday, common human existence, whether it be love, loss, money, failure, revenge, everything. I haven’t come across anything that doesn’t reflect my life”.

How did the people who taught you bring you to this point?. “Good question. I got lucky. Just on a basic level you have to trust your teacher when you are a student otherwise you’re not going to learn anything. I got lucky. I studied German song with an Australian, John Cameron. Well, how a man orphaned out to a vast sheep station in New South Wales before World War II could have possibly come into contact with German Lieder, Goethe, Rilke, Heine, I have no idea but he did used to tell me that during the Second World War that, as a soldier coming up through Italy, he’d be reading German poetry in his tent, which must have been really odd for his colleagues. He utterly loved, he was fired up by and adored these poets probably for the same reasons I do. When one thinks of Germany from the point of view of the 20th century it’s a really sad catalogue of events, for the first half anyway, disastrous decisions, but the nineteenth century was a different world, a different culture. John obviously celebrated that and he imparted that to me. For two reasons, he told me that I would doubtless love it, and that I must persist with it and persist with it early because there wouldn’t be time once your career gets going, first because it is a different art-form and its very nerve-wracking and also because you wouldn’t have the time to get that sheer volume of repertoire and words and poetry memorised; secondly because any holes in our voice will be shown up in song. Singers that sing exclusively opera sometimes say rather ignorantly that ‘my voice is too big for song’ and I would point them to any number of songs that are just as big as any opera aria. So there is endless possibility there, and an elastic voice is a healthy voice. Songs encourage that. So for all those reasons I fell in love with it and I still feel crazy about it all.”

I suggest that elasticity is certainly needed in Verdi. “I think in any music. You’re in trouble if you lose the flexibility in your voice”. Keenlyside is taking the part of Rodrigo in Don Carlos (and has already recorded “Per me giunto” on the Tales of Opera album). He previously sang Rodrigo at the Royal Opera against Villazón’s Carlo (Marina Poplovskaya was again Elisabetta) – to which Keenlyside adds, “I sang it in Vienna twice, in Munich, with the Cleveland Orchestra, in Madrid and here”. How would you describe the character of Rodrigo? “Its interesting because it has been focused by the fact that it is heightened by the fact you have a producer, Nick Hytner, who comes from the theatre. Not only comes from the theatre, but I happen to have seen his production before we did this, the year before, with Derek Jacobi in it. Fantastic as well. Just sticking with my role, in the Schiller play, Rodrigo is a firebrand, he is an out-and-out idealist, uncompromising. Verdi’s take on the role is slightly different. I do try to bring what Nick wants out of that, which is much closer to the Schiller. He himself is so uncompromising. Verdi’s music is so noble for Posa and in a sense you have to fight against that because I don’t find that in the Schiller play at all. So the great death scene, the famous aria, I don’t know how one can get around that, it’s different. But you do have the possibility to set the character up earlier, fortunately, with the fantastic duet with Philip, which is more in keeping with the Schiller, to show that you are a hot-head and you are an idealist. You only have that duet to show it, I believe”. I refer also to the freedom duet with Carlo and its poignant use as a remembrance motif later in the opera. “You make me think why I don’t feel so much – you’re quite right I have the duet with Carlo to set up this idealist. I feel that my job in that duet is to focus attention on Carlo. You come in, Carlo is losing his nerve, he’s wobbling. I think the interesting journey is Carlo and my job is to point that out in that duet. My job is to keep driving at him, and that great anthem does, for a while, bolster him up, but the recitative beforehand is sharply focused on him. I don’t feel it is so much about the character of Rodrigo, except for the determination to get his friend to get a grip, to pull himself together and follow the agreement that we’ve made for a freer world”.

I point out his use of the word ‘journey’ and that Don Carlo is a journey of several routes as it exists in several versions (and in two languages). What is Keenlyside’s take on that? “I can’t answer that question fully as I’ve never done the French version. Many people I respect deeply say that I’d probably enjoy that even more but I’m not going to do it because life is too short. If I were to commit my life solely to the pursuit of music, well maybe I could, but I’ve got a wife and a young family and that impinges on those sorts of decisions. I like this slightly longer version [Don Carlo: Modena, 1886] of the Italian very much if you’ve got a tenor strong enough to do it, and honestly the audience are in for a fabulous treat with Jonas because – we know him from Tosca, and we know his reputation, but in this piece he is without compare. He is absolutely fantastic in it. He has elasticity, he has ample volume, he has the character and I’m really looking forward to watching the audience have the privilege of hearing him. A strong way of putting it, but its true.” I point out that Kaufman has also entered the consciousness of the country via his opera albums (which have attained a similar popularity to Keenlyside’s ‘Tales of Opera’). “It is remarkable to have a star who is worth his weight in gold. He’s the real deal. He’s a good actor, he’s a fabulous singer, a good colleague”.

I’m intrigued to know more of Semyon Bychkov, who will be in the pit, very experienced in opera and possibly better known on the Continent than here. “It’s always very difficult, the dynamic between singers and conductors in rehearsals. It is a little bit easier when you do a new production because you have a bit longer time, and this is one of the few houses in the World that still gives us the honour of a rehearsal period for a revival, which is very rare in these tight times. Even so a revival is a much shorter time and if you have a conductor one hasn’t worked with, of course the conductor doesn’t know you, and on the other hand you don’t want to give too much in rehearsals because you get tired. So that’s always a little bit of a dance. I think if you are honest and straight with somebody, then that’s all you can hope for. I think Semyon is a very caring musician and man so I look forward to a nice run of shows.”

As far as Keenlyside’s other Verdi roles are concerned, I’m aware of Ford (Falstaff): “not very often, I do that because I want to be part of the opera, the duet with Falstaff is wonderful of course and the aria is exciting but it is not something I tout around the World at allI do it because the opera is sublime. I am a very cautious man (I started these Verdi roles around 8-10 years ago abroad). I don’t regret that because I’m not sure what would have been the point. If you do all your blue riband, beautiful roles in your thirties, what are you doing in your fifties, and I was having such fun with other things as well. My caution brought me to Don Carlo first. The new boss of Vienna, Welser-Möst, was then the boss of Cleveland. We had a chat, because he did the odd opera thing out there, and years ago I said I’d like to have a crack at Don Carlo. So Don Carlo and Traviata (Germont père) are the obvious ones, then I put in places where I wanted to, Macbeth and Rigoletto. I don’t want to do too many at a time because if you go around singing Schubert songs, you can’t expect people not to say, ‘he sings Schubert songs’. My life has always been on the hoof, so one should take it as a compliment but in fact that all singers end up ‘kicking’ a bit – I don’t just want to sing Pelléas or Billy Budd or whatever it is, but I have been lucky to be able to do things in different places. Apart from this wonderful Italian repertoire I’ve got Wozzeck and things like that. This last year alone has been embarking with Wozzeck, Onegin and Macbeth and it is quite tiring. I don’t want to commit myself to too much learning, not to mention the two new programmes of Brahms and Wolf that have got to be ready for January so my head is ready to explode sometimes”. I suggest Wozzeck must have been quite something: “Wozzeck’s a headache; Onegin’s more of a headache. I speak German and I loved it so much that it fell in unbelievably. Onegin didn’t but then I don’t speak Russian, and it is the only role I will sing in Russian (admittedly I have done Pique Dame in Paris). Consequently, it was a nightmare. But we all struggle with it. All baritones take on Onegin at some point.”

Talking about languages, I point out he has done opera in English – Pearl Fishers (Chandos) “I just did that for Peter [Moores]. I’ve known Peter since I was a student and if Peter asked me to jump, for a good reason, I would jump. A wonderful sponsor of our world. Even though I wasn’t in many of those, I’m deeply grateful for the likes of Peter who sponsor us. I like to do some things in English, to be honest. I’d like to do Magic Flute at ENO for example, and I’d like to do a Wozzeck in English there too. I think they would work”. I point out I find it difficult to divorce Wozzeck from the German. “Of course, but I just think it is so powerful as a piece and I would like to have the opportunity to do that in London in English”. I point out that a lot of people still think of Wozzeck as modern music (“crazy, isn’t it?”), and moving on to the music of today I mention the music of Thomas Adès, and The Tempest in particular. “That is a masterpiece. Very dangerous for your voice, and very demanding. You have to be so careful. You could ruin your whole career singing Tom’s music incorrectly”. I suggest it is about writing well. “I’m not sure what that means, you know. I’m sure people in the past when they encountered Mozart’s Magic Flute and the Queen of the Night’s arias just laughed, but I think if it is possible then it is good writing. I’ve done The Tempest and look at the absurd high writing that Ariel has. Cyndia Sieden has done that and other sopranos will come along and do the same. It doesn’t take genius to know genius and I don’t care what Tom is but his work is a masterpiece and I’m not frightened to say it. I remember worrying about this when I asked some of my old teachers who were involved in Britten operas for the first time, and I asked them if they knew if they were masterpieces at the time, and they said ‘yes’.” Talking of Britten, I remark that there are still many Britten operas that aren’t that well known. “That reminds me I was watching a TV programme recently on the Scottish colourists. One of the relatives said of her antecedent that not everything he painted was masterly. Well, I’m not talking about any composer in particular but I don’t see why that should apply just to painting. Take Schubert, some of the songs that he dittied in a pub, a little drinking song, it is not a great masterpiece”. I mention that is true of Verdi as well, some of the early works (which I personally love) and Keenlyside supplements with a cry of “Donizetti”. Of Verdi, I suggest that Don Carlo is not as finished a masterpiece as some (because of the various versions and languages). Keenlyside underlines the fact that he would love to have the time to learn the French one, but won’t. I point out that Domingo did, famously. “Domingo is a giant in many ways but his appetite for learning music, for singing different roles is surely unparalleled in the history of singing. He also has committed his life to music. Even leaving talent out of it I just wouldn’t be prepared to do that amount of work”. Keenlyside’s knowledge of his predecessors is well-known, and documented in his own booklet notes for Tales of Opera. Things were different, then of course, the way they expressed themselves, the rubato they might use. Who would you consider to be your great heros form the past?. “I haven’t got heroes from the past. I’m always learning. For example ten years ago I was in Vienna and one of my colleagues, a soprano from Moldavia gave me a cassette of Nicolae Herlea [a leading Romanian baritone of his generation]. Now nobody knows who he is but it’s a great, great voice, or for example a man who didn’t want to travel too much, Louis Quilico [Canadian baritone] – fantastic, but not hugely known. A great voice. It is interesting to hear a voice closer to the first performances. And modern music for them was Madama Butterfly”. I mention changing ideas on tempo, and Keenleyside chimes in with pitch having changed also. “Brass instruments are louder, stringed instruments are louder. If you look at the theatres, there’s a couple of books that feature quotes by some of these great singers of the fifties and sixties, singers that we now adore and worship as being without peer who went to America, saw the opera houses and thought ‘how can we possibly fill that?’. If you see the size of the opera houses in Italy, when you think that people like Tito Ruffo were singing in those mostly tiny houses, they’d have taken the roof off. So that when Verdi writes seven ps in ‘Era la notte’ (Otello), yes he meant it but he was probably doing that in Pisa or some tiny little place. Its no Liederabend these days and you have to make choices and people will judge you on those choices but self-evidently in a large house you have to project – for example in dynamics. It’s the nature of the attaca on the note, it’s the nature of the quality of the sound. The actual dynamic of the sound may be nothing to do with the score is, it may be actually quite loud, but you’re carrying it in a dolce manner into the hall. That’s perhaps not something an audience has any interest at all. They judge you on what they hear. And there will be times that you’ll want the audience to come, to bring their ears to the stage, and there will be times when you choose to take your sound into the hall. I remember thinking that in Wozzeck, for instance. The Bastille is a house that flatters to deceive, it is a terribly difficult house, probably one of the most difficult. It is one of the most directional, very wide, but when you’re on the stage you think you can be heard everywhere. In Wozzeck I was thinking in terms of shapes and of colours and the shape that I wanted to take into the auditorium of this ungainly and angular character, Wozzeck, dysfunctional, I wanted actually to chuck these armoirs into the auditorium. These square wardrobe shapes. It is not about the beauty of the line. So every house has its own requirements, some are more difficult than others. For a few years we were doing a Mozart series on the Theater an der Wien, a 900-seater. It is beautiful but it is a slightly different dynamic”. I had to ask, of course, about Covent Garden. “Covent Garden is a great, great house. You’ve got to be careful and I think it is all about give and take. It depends on the role, it depends on the set, the conductor (who can kill you if he doesn’t keep the orchestra down), it depends on your age and stage of development, whether you’re ready to take life by the collar and if you have all those things with you it would behoove you to use as large a palette as possible, at times bringing the audience in to the stage and other times flinging sound out. I think nuance is everything”.

It must be great to do that here, at the Garden. “It’s my turn now. I suffered many years knowing that I had lots of ideas but I didn’t have the wherewithal to put them out. Others singers have had it much earlier than me. It is partly a combination of my temperament, which is a bit overly shy, so I would not let my voice out, and partly because I was a late developer. But I’m enjoying it now”.

So, what plans now? “Well, my wife is away on tour and I’m left with the baby. All my learning time, always, is early morning and late at night. Ninety minutes of new song repertoire is hard work, in German. And then at the end of October I’ve go to be ready to go for a new production of Macbeth in Vienna, where they’ve been so wonderful to me that I can go home every weekend. So the least I can do is arrive absolutely ready”. I mention the Wigmore concert coming up (October 25th). “The programme for that one is different from the one in January next year, and that’s different to another one in April, so three different programmes and one of them is pretty much entirely new. They are being done in Paris, Geneva, La Scala, a few places. Even then I’ve got to mix and match it. Its funny, the deal is that if you do a recording it would be discourteous to at least include some of that recording on the subsequent tour but it can be that if you’ve just done, say Dichterliebe in Vienna, you can’t then do it the next year. Or it can be (and this happened to me once) that the Wigmore will say ‘not too much Russian, you did Russian last time’. You can’t please everybody. So this tour in the autumn will involve some chopping and changing. Again, I refer to John Cameron from when I was younger because I never stopped learning new repertoire so I’ve got an enormous stack of it there. It slips out of your mind but it comes back so much quicker”. And what about pianists you work with?. “I worked most of my adult life with Malcolm Martineau. My first Wigmore Hall was with Geoffrey Parsons, and I said to Geoffrey that I wanted to work with a young pianist. We had a good giggle about it. I wanted to work with a generation that was coming up with me otherwise where would the next generation of pianists come from? And the other thing is that you have to really love doing song because for many years you’d be paid no money for it. We went for years to the Schubertiade in Hohenems and Feldkirche and Schwarzenberg for just the cost of the flight. We did the small Concertgebouw for £200. We were doing these concerts for nothing but love. Of course it is all good grist to the mill. Sometimes you think you’re just going to dissipate into the ether. So why would you like to go through all this with the dangers of someone you didn’t even know?. I liked to work with my friend, he understood me, if I couldn’t hold it together he would forgive me for it. But I do work with others. I’ve worked with Julius Drake all my life on and off, and Graham Johnson. I’m not very proud of most of my recordings, most of them are really not that good. Why?. Because I didn’t do that many and it is a different artform. It is extremely irritating, the microphone is right in front of your mouth the sound is too close. If you listen to the Salzburg live recordings with Sawallisch, Barenboim and Dieskau from the Mozarteum, that’s the sort of distancing I want to hear. I don’t want to hear the mouth’s noises, I don’t want to hear the clicks of the clarinet keys but we still suffer from recording technology that doesn’t appreciate that, doesn’t understand that the sound is too close. So I always suffered with that a bit, and I didn’t like it in an empty room. Anyway the recording with Graham of the Schumann songs, I really liked that, I enjoyed it and I’m quite proud of it (Hyperion CDJ33102). And I do work with other pianists, and I’ve got a new friend in Emanuel Ax and I’ll be doing some recitals with him in New York (Lincoln Center). I know he’s up for it. I met him in London a couple of weeks ago and dragged him into the British dens of iniquity, the pubs (he told me he had never been in a pub in his life). He was like a little elf, little twinkly eyes, and we talked about Schubert. I don’t want to work with too many pianists, but I get on with Manny. I know I’ll be with Malcolm for most of my life – I’ve done 25 years with him already.”

Plenty to look forward to then. For now, though Don Carlo is the focus. The review of the first night is available on this site.

Colin Clarke

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