In these moments of emergence and rediscovery of living again in the world with a sense of newfound wisdom and renewed vision, baritone Simon Keenlyside speaks to the heart of this return. During the pandemic, meanings have changed in many ways, on a personal as on a global scale; and even a song or a poem may be understood differently now. The realizations or reminders of what we truly love may have shifted our perceptions and reconfigured our plans in how we want to live our lives. For a performing artist who revels in sharing his artistry on the stage with audiences all over the world, the end of the “great pause,” the terrifying suspension, is a blessing at once soulful and practical. And Sir Simon Keenlyside, the celebrated, bold, forthright, and versatile artist, embraces this return with gratitude, vibrancy, and tenderness while always honoring another immortal love: Nature. Which brings to mind some words by the German poet, playwright, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller: “…Nature is the only flame on which the poetic spirit feeds; from it alone it draws all its power, to it alone it speaks…” I am profoundly grateful to Sir Simon Keenlyside for sharing his thoughts with us. (For Sir Simon’s biography and additional information, please visit the websites mentioned at the end of this interview.)
Nature is one of your greatest loves, in your words: “it is the very marrow of my existence.” You carry the landscapes and flowers of your Wales home in your heart wherever you travel to sing. Nature has been such a comforting and inspiring refuge for many during the lockdowns and your “From a Welsh Mountain” video posted by Grange Park Opera transmits those sentiments so touchingly and superbly. Please tell us about this marriage of nature and music that is intrinsic to who you are.
To begin with, much of 19th century song repertoire was filtered through Nature in any case. Cities such as Vienna were, and remain today, surrounded by great swathes of forest and pasture. The population of Vienna itself at the time of Mozart’s death in 1791 was only 200,000 and had only reached 700,000 by 1870. Not much more than a small town in America today. All music and literature would, therefore, have been colored by Nature. The natural world… a frame and context for our lives in general. As for me, why go out of my way to find the more overt songs about Nature? It’s where I feel most nourished and most curious: up to my neck in the wilds. I think and play no better than when my senses are full to the brim with all of that stuff.
You just sang a recital at La Monnaie in Brussels. How does it feel to return to singing songs?
I’ve always thought that there was a lovely distinction between song repertoire and opera. Opera is all about the great sociosexual and political issues, injustices of the day. Song repertoire, on the other hand, seems to me mainly to address what it is to live and make one’s way as an individual in the world. It’s a lovely thing to occupy one’s entire life in the arts. My little round life with a foot in both camps: opera and song. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy it no end. I have missed music and the performing arts profoundly. It’s not just a question of whether one quaintly likes classical music or not. That is really not the point. Put bluntly, it’s the way that I provide for my family and put food on the table. However, those of us who didn’t suffer the ultimate cost or lose loved ones are already blessed beyond measure. I’m just so very happy that the performing arts are now beginning to come back. I’m also deeply grateful to many of my employers who have fought long and hard to re-open concert halls and opera houses as soon as possible, and who are operating at great loss.
Why did you choose those particular songs by Strauss, Schubert, Mahler, Debussy, and Poulenc?
Honestly? No reason whatsoever. There is not so much logic in my song programs. I treat them a little like a walk with a friend. One speaks on this and that topic, periodically breaking off to turn one’s head to the left and right, to note something that has caught one’s attention. That is all a program is to me. I’m not really a fan of recital programs built around opus numbers or decades.
I might add that right now and in this terrible time of plague, I have found that context changes everything. Songs that I had chosen for this or that reason, may and have taken on entirely different meanings for me, and on account of this filthy Covid plague. Themes intended by the composer to be about love, seem to have morphed into something quite other. The song “Geduld,” for example, with which I began the recital in Brussels—my first concert in 18 months—has been hijacked by circumstance. The song speaks of patience, endless patience:
“I will wait as long as you ask me to, and I will be true to you… only please hurry… for I only have ONE life and one chance at this game of love and life.” I paraphrase a little. All the same, now and in this time of Covid, the song speaks to me of a different kind of patience. Time slips, and I long to return to a life in art and music that, long ago, I committed my own life to.
As someone who has written about Don Carlos, exploring the Infante’s story from history to the creative treatments of Saint-Réal, Schiller, and Verdi, I have to ask: What is your take on Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, a role that you interpret so masterfully (featured in a performance available to stream on the Metropolitan Opera website starting on June 19 at 7:30 p.m. until June 20 at 6:30 p.m.)? Do you see him as a true friend? Or is he so devoted to his cause and principles that, no matter how strong his love for Don Carlos, ultimately, he sees the prince as a pawn in furthering his mission?
Interesting question. On one hand, every singer enjoys this marvelous music Verdi has written. Such beauty of line and melody. He reinvented the baritone voice in many ways and has given us all a host of new vocal possibilities and challenges. The lyricism of the character of Rodrigo is a joy to sing. All the same, I don’t really warm to the character. Verdi’s Don Carlo is not Schiller’s play. To my mind, the play is hard edged and the characters more clearly delineated. For this baritone role, I think the character might be summed-up in the Biblical maxim: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I don’t wish to offend anyone, but merely to say that I feel that the Christian characterization kind of comes too much to the fore. We lose too much of Schiller’s portrayal of the young firebrand: his revolution and ambition. In the opera, we also lose his naivety in the face of Philip’s Machiavellian manipulation. In its place we have, for my money, a bit of a one-trick pony. Too much of the theme of sacrifice. There isn’t a lot of character development for Rodrigo in the opera.
Schiller’s play has so much more dimension to his characters.
Do you prefer to sing this role in Italian or French?
Many prefer the French version of Verdi’s Don Carlo; not me. For me, there is no contest. For one thing, the French version misses some of my favorite music. For another, I find opera much easier to sing in the Italian language than in the French. French music has its own flavor and colors. It’s wonderful when matched with a libretto in the mother tongue. I feel that Verdi’s Italian music is likewise better served by his own language. The marriage is an easier one.
My Romanian heart is immensely proud that you’ll be in my home country to perform at the George Enescu Festival in September, Jonathan Dove’s “Exile,” a work written for you and cellist Raphael Wallfisch. How do you feel about singing at the Enescu Festival?
I have always had one eye on Enescu. I come from two generations of violinists and so was indoctrinated in the endless violin lineage discussions. Yehudi Menuhin was a friend of my grandfather and me, and also a student of Enescu. And lastly, when I was a teenager, I came across the marvelous recording of Ysaye’s 6 sonatas, recorded by the great New York violinist Oscar Shumsky. Ysaye had dedicated each movement to a different violinist. One was Enescu.
So, you see, his name was already seared into my consciousness. I have many wonderfully gifted colleagues from Romania, but I have never been there myself. I’m looking forward to the occasion immensely for this newly commissioned work by Jonathan Dove. Looking forward to that concert with my friend, the eminent cellist Raphael Wallfisch.
What has surprised or moved you most about life during isolation?
I think watching my children and their friends has moved me most of all. They don’t have the same perspective on the world as we, and also have been alone for far longer than children ought to be. I’m not sure we adults gave them as much credit as we might have, so busy are we, in the arcs of our own hardship: of paying bills and seeing loved ones sick or gone.
Any special message for your New York City fans?
New Yorkers are famously resilient. I watched them cope with Hurricane Sandy, with such good humor and stoicism. Look, there are no reverse gears in life, and it doesn’t do to dwell so much on last year. We, who love the performing arts—the great panoply of beauty and expression of all sorts—all of us on both sides of the curtain, we just gotta look forward to a time where we can celebrate life again… together. We just have to hope that we must hang on only a little while longer.