VOCALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2011 Honorees

By Heidi Waleson

The British baritone inhabits he operatic stage with such fervent intensity that you dare not take your eyes off him. “I want people to see these pieces with the same passion as I do,” he says.

British baritone Simon Keenlyside made a splash at the Metropolitan Opera in March 2010, singing and acting the title role of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet with such fervent intensity that you could not take your eyes off him. As it turns out, Keenlyside is leaving Hamlet behind, and leaping whole-heartedly into Verdi. New York got a taste of that new direction this winter, when he sang the selfless Marquis of Posa in Don Carlo at the Met; opera houses across the Atlantic have also heard him as Germont, and just last season, as Macbeth (Vienna) and Rigoletto (Welsh National Opera). The Guardian commented, “It’s hard to believe Keenlyside is new to the role, when his embodiment of the embittered but vulnerable Rigoletto is so complete…. Keenlyside makes this a must-see.”

Keenlyside’s ardor for singing and theater means that if you think that the Verdi operas are predictable, think again. “I want people to see these pieces with the same passion that I do,” says Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year. “The tuneful daddies—people think of these operas as standards and warhorses, but they are relevant to modern day. There are so many layers—the relationship of father and daughter, notions about responsibility and the abuse of power. I believe in it in a visceral way.”

And he puts it on stage. When Nicholas Hytner first directed the Met production at the Royal Opera House, he wanted Keenlyside to play Posa as the crusading zealot of the original Schiller play, but that isn’t what Verdi wrote. “In the opera, he’s so Christian!” says the baritone. “That ‘greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for his friend’—it’s hard to play it without being sentimental, and one of things I hate most in art is sentimentality.” How to do it? “With as much intensity as I possibly could, and hope that would carry it. I strap myself into these roles and go for it; I’m never quite sure where it will end up.”

At 51, Keenlyside knows that he’s coming to this repertoire relatively late. Earlier in his career, the baritone made his mark in Mozart—the Count, Don Giovanni, and Papageno (still a favorite)—and roles like Billy Budd and Pelléas. There were unusual ventures like a Monteverdi Orfeo directed by the choreographer Trisha Brown and the 2004 world premiere of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, which he calls “a masterpiece” and looks forward to singing at the Met. “I was on a long fuse, and I was shy, perhaps overcautious,” Keenlyside says. “It was good for me: I didn’t blow my voice up. It’s a natural progression that if your voice is elastic, nature will give you more power as you get older. But I’m not going to give up Mozart. I won’t be put in a box. And it’s too tiring to keep bashing away at your voice all
the time.”

Keenlyside’s father was a violinist in the Aeolian Quartet; not surprisingly, his early life was filled with music. He became a chorister at St. John’s College, Cambridge, at the age of 8, and stayed for six years. “I wouldn’t do it to my kids—it made me the half-wit I am,” the baritone jokes. “It was a strange childhood, rather like now—touring all over, recording, being coached on how to address kings and popes, how to not blink in front of the camera. No holidays. As a kid, that’s all I knew, but I loved singing and it was exciting.” When it came time for university, Keenlyside pursued his other passion, the natural world, and got a degree in zoology at Cambridge. “It’s part of my spinal fluid—when I was 14, I lived on an island as a bird protection warden.” Afterwards, he studied singing at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and following a stint at the Hamburg Opera, moved on to principal roles at the Scottish Opera. He made his debut at the Royal Opera House in 1989.

Along the way, Keenlyside took on the occasional offbeat  project, like Schubert’s Die Winterreise, choreographed for him and three dancers by Trisha Brown, which premiered in New York in 2002, selling out all nine performances. Jane Moss at Lincoln Center had offered to produce a chamber piece for him, and Keenlyside, an accomplished lieder singer, thought this might be the way to take on that “great yardstick” for the first time. Keenlyside’s lyrical, anguished vulnerability carried over from the music into the movement, which he embraced fully, allowing himself to fall backwards to be cradled by the dancers, or leaping into the air. The physical challenges were even helpful in taking his mind off the purely musical rigors of the 75-minute cycle. “The piece of art that Trisha made was greater than either me or the dancers,” he says.

The last five years have been especially eventful. At 46, he married Zenaida Yanowsky, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. The couple has two young children, Owen and Iona May—the “May” comes from the first song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe which he was performing shortly before the birth last spring. In July, joyful but exhausted after his first Rigoletto, Keenlyside retreated to his 17-acre farm at the edge of a heather moor in southern Wales to look after Owen (wife and baby were in London, where Yanowsky was dancing) and build raised flower beds to deter the marauding rabbits. He has already planted thousands of trees, thus attracting many species of his beloved birds, and lives in bucolic harmony with the natural world, including the indigenous stoats and weasels. “I’d like to have some cows, but I’m not here enough to look after them,” he says with regret.

Still, when not doing manual labor, Keenlyside was studying Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and contemplating the next round of recitals and operas. He plans to record Winterreise (and illustrate it with line drawings). Eventually he will add Simon Boccanegra and Iago to his Verdi roles, but right now he has a lot to say with Rigoletto and Macbeth. “I consider myself a storyteller. It’s the way I was taught as a child. I do that still. Rigoletto—it’s about human life, and life isn’t neat, so art isn’t neat. That’s why these pieces are so long! They touch on so many issues, and they are not about answers but about addressing the interesting questions. There’s no time to do more than that. Take Don Giovanni—he’s a bastard, but you like him; and Don Ottavio, who is absolutely nice, but you don’t like him. So what does that say about you?” •

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and a contributor to innumerable other publications.

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