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...and we had the most fascinating chat. Most of the interview will appear in the magazine of the Musikverein in Vienna, auf Deutsch, but some of it is for right here, right now.
JD: Simon, thank you so much for making time to talk. I heard you've had an arm operation. What happened?
Simon Keenlyside: I fell through a trap door 12 years ago and shattered both arms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The ligaments that hold the bones on had gone. It’s only been the muscles holding it on and one by one they got tired and snapped off - left arm triceps, left arm biceps and I’m sure this is the last one. It usually takes a year to get it back, and in that time I’ve overcompensated with the right arm and it just snaps.
But you know, in the light of lovely Dima Hvorostovsky passing away, I keep things in perspective. It’s very annoying, I can’t sleep and the pain is big, but it’s just an arm injury, it’s just mechanics.
Something about people, not just singers: as Dima got older, he got nicer and nicer. He was such a nice man, such a kind man, never mind his wonderful talent. And he had two young children...
JD: Now that the operation's done, how are you enjoying Pagliacci?
SK: Oh, I love it! That aria’s my favourite in the whole baritone repertoire. I think it’s wonderful and beautiful - and actually I love this opera deeply. I used to feel quite offended that wonderful maestri like Muti and Abbado used to consider it "cheap" music. I don’t agree at all, I think it’s a great, great piece. The baritone aria, if you peruse the words, couldn’t be more of a credo for any of us. I just love it. And right now, when my arm is so painful, it upsets me quite a lot because it’s so in keeping with what I’m singing about. Life reflecting art reflecting life reflecting art, chicken and egg in a nutshell.
JD: You're extraordinarily versatile - you seem to have done everything from Papageno to Pagliacci to Prospero - and that must mean being versatile about productions too. [The ROH's 1950s-realism Cav and Pag production by Damiano Michieletto won an Olivier Award, but hasn't been universally adored - the revival, starting tonight, gives us a chance for another look...] Do you have a preference for modern productions or traditional ones?
SK: Well, I think it would be a mistake to set Pelléas et Mélisande in the baroque period - and I don’t like Figaro set after 1930 - because by and large you lose the whole discussion about rights, responsibility and class. The points that are made are about general humanity, but are made through issues of class, and that is lost. If there’s no distinction in class between the Count and Figaro or Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio and Leporello, or what they consider the ordinary people, the servants, Susanna and Figaro, then you can’t make the point. I think that makes it very difficult. It just becomes a toe-tapping evening with nice tunes.
On the other hand, I’m thrilled to bits when we dispense with the need for Masonic symbolism in The Magic Flute. It’s a distraction. The closed world of the Masons can just as easily be represented, to my mind, by the closed world of, say, banking, or anything that shows a world or society that one man, Papageno, doesn’t want and his friend, Tamino, does want. It represents something - if you get hung up on what a set of compasses represents I think you’ve missed the point.
Sometimes getting into a diffeernt time period can make it more difficult, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you dislike something so much that it makes you miserable, then resign and go home! And if you are going to stay, then please don’t stay and moan the whole time. Help, as far as possible, the director to realise what he/she wants to do. The piece, guess what, will live to fight another day and you’ll get to do your thing another time. And occasionally a little nugget of interest will present itself to you and you can add it to your toy-box of your life’s experience in that role. It’s really interesting. Sometimes it comes from the most unexpected of quarters.
JD: Could you give us an example, please?
SK: Truths for performing artists often reveal themselves viscerally rather than intellectually. For instance, in Flute, we know "in vino veritas" and we know that when the young man [Papageno] is told by the Priest that he’s failed, he’s failed in everything, and he rounds on the Priest and says "But I don’t want anything, I never asked you for anything, all I wanted was a glass of wine and maybe a nice girl. That’s all I wanted!’ and the Priest says ‘That’s really all you ever wanted?’ - in frustration the young man says, "Well, yes, actually." Then he gets his wine, he drinks it and says "wow, wonderful, beautiful, fantastic..." And he says "I wish…I want…what is it that I want?"
And if you get the timing right as the singer, you will see in the audience a lot of shiny bums on seats shuffling uncomfortably. You will see elbows being nudged into, usually, old men’s sides; you can see the winks and nudges and looks to one another; and as if that wasn’t already rather lovely, you then get ten notes from a man who could have written any melody under the sun, ten notes that are as close to the Marseillaise as we know it now as any notes could be. And if you look at the original scores, which I have, there aren’t even the embellishments. The Marseillaise itself would not have been embellished with its syncopation as it is now, and it was written only shortly before Flute anyway as the European anthem for freedom.
So I think what Mozart is saying, and I’m certain in this belief in my little truth, he’s saying ‘What is it you want?’. Given Mozart and da Ponte’s whole operatic discourse on freedoms and liberties in Figaro, Giovanni and Così, I think Flute you’d put in the same boat. What is it you want? And there comes the melody from the least threatening instrument imaginable, the glockenspiel, saying again and again: freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom. But not the freedoms of the da Ponte operas. The freedom to be that which you want to be, but at nobody else’s expense. That’s a long-winded answer to your question - but that’s the truth I believe was revealed to me through hundreds of outings.
The Royal Opera House's Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci opens tonight. Booking here.
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