What to make of Simon Keenlyside? The hugely popular English baritone has been described in previous interviews as 'self-effacing', 'cagey', as being like an 'emotionally rebellious teenage loner', 'restless' and 'painfully self-deprecatory'; the favourite adjective of journalists to describe him is 'troubled'. But while it's true that he's modest and far from arrogant when we meet to discuss his forthcoming appearances in the Royal Opera's productions of Die Zauberflöte and Don Carlo, I find him anything but shy and reserved. In fact, he seems open, relaxed, and only too keen to debate various aspects of his art. He's certainly amongst the most articulate opera singers I've ever interviewed and frankly, he just seems too down-to-earth to be troubled.
Keenlyside's return to Covent Garden next Monday, 28 January 2008, marks the fourth time he'll have played the role of Papageno the birdcatcher in David McVicar's celebrated production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. His previous assumptions of the part were met with universal admiration; his interpretation seems to resonate with audiences with a particularly human emotional truth. I ask him where Papageno – ostensibly a frivolous character – fits in with the widely-held opinion of The Magic Flute as a serious-minded Enlightenment masterpiece at the end of Mozart's life.
'I think we singers stand on the shoulders of all the scholarship that's gone before us', he explains. 'If I try to portray the endless discussions that happen in the literature, I don't think I'd get anywhere. When I was a student I remember trying a few ideas and the producer said to me, "If you try and do three things Simon, what do you think you're going to get across? Nothing".
'I think my job is to be a conduit, as far as possible, for the ideas agreed by the libretto, composer, conductor, producer and me. What is the point of different productions? I think it's just a difference of focus, that's all. I think the aim of any evening in the theatre is to show in some respects a mirror to our own humanity, or a part of our humanity.'
He elucidates further on The Magic Flute's relationship to the Enlightenment. 'You can get a bit hamstrung with the Masonic stuff – personally, I think it's a little bit of a red herring. The opera could just as easily be about banking or the legal profession. You go past the Inns of Court round the corner from here at Holborn, and it's an entirely closed world. As far as Papageno is concerned, it doesn't matter if it's the Masons or football: it's something that he's not able to be a part of unless his achieves his Enlightenment. Except, of course, he wants a different kind of Enlightenment.
'I don't think any great piece of writing is just frippery. People who think that The Magic Flute is just a kid's piece are sorely mistaken. Yes, I could hide behind the skirts of greater allies than Goethe, Wagner and Beethoven. But of course it's a great masterpiece.
'Think of all Mozart's mature operas. He's never just telling stories. He's a revolutionary. It's a pointing up of hypocrisy. Cosi fan tutte is about sexual politics. Le nozze di Figaro is about the breaking up of the droit de seigneur,which should not exist, and the pointing of an arc lamp of truth – without judgement, in fact – on the behaviour and morality of a nobleman as being no better than that of a peasant. And Giovanni of course is the same sort of thing to a greater or lesser extent. Why would the Flute be something entirely different?
'It might be, I suppose, in that it's a Singspiel and written in an entirely different form.' And it was written for a different theatre, I point out – a popular but downmarket theatre in a suburb of Vienna, in fact – and therefore a different audience. 'But I don't think that the man, having written all those other things, would diverge from his revolutionary nature in his final work. In what way do I think it's revolutionary? The freedoms I was talking about in relation to Figaro and Giovanni are absolutes; they shouldn't exist, and they are unfair, and they should change. Papageno represents freedom. He's Mozart and Schikaneder's way of saying that if you wish to achieve Enlightenment, you must follow the preordained paths and there's a driving test at the end of it. If you don't pass, you won't get into the Masonic building (or whatever it is) at the end of it. OK, by the end, the Priests look down their noses at Papageno for not wanting this, but the audience is with him. His truth is "Ich bin so ein Naturmensch". He thinks, "I'm an ordinary man of nature who just needs a bit of food, a bit of drink, and if you can get me a woman to love, that's all I want. I was happy as I was, I don't want your Enlightenment".
'At a certain point in this opera, in the middle of all this froth, Papageno comes to the front. The priest says that he's absolutely failed and asks him, 'What do you want?', and Papageno says, 'Give me a glass of wine'. So he has a glass of wine, and anyone who's got the wit to notice in vino veritas, and he feels weird and says 'I wish, I want…What is it that I want?'. That's also for us in the audience. When you're doing that onstage, you can feel everyone thinking that: am I working too hard, am I working too much? That's the freedom he's talking about. It's as revolutionary as anything that's gone before in any of the other Mozart operas, but the point is that it's a personal freedom. He is saying, I want to be free to be that which I wish to be.
'For me, that's one of the most important messages in the Flute and that's what Papageno represents. He represents the antithesis of the social norm. Pick for yourself, pursue the goal you want to pursue. Shakespeare put it another way in Hamlet: 'Be true unto thine own self'. He's a profound character in that sense. Like Shakespeare's fools, his truths are delivered with such a feather touch that you don't know you're being infected by them. That's the mark of true geniuses: they don't want to moralise to you. They don't say, "It should be this, it should be that". Look at the truths that come out of Lear's Fool or Falstaff in Henry IV: they are profound but they deliver it gently. That's Papageno's role in The Magic Flute: he is as profound as the others but he's Everyman. Everyman doesn't talk in metaphors, nor like an Oxford professor.'
It's the fourth time he's done this production of Die Zauberflöte, so I ask Keenlyside whether his interpretation changes every time he does it or whether he has a fairly fixed idea of what it should be like. 'It's a good question. When I was a boy, I heard a comment by Yehudi Menuhin that really resonates with how I feel about myself. He said that there are fiddle players who perform the Beethoven or Mendelssohn concertos and it's the same every time. It can be stupendous, but if you heard it again it'd be exactly the same. Then there are those who live in the moment, who ebb and flow, who change the use of vibrato and so on. I'm definitely that sort of animal. I don't think Menuhin meant it as an insult to either type, it's just horses for courses. The reason I will never get bored of any of the great pieces I've been involved in is that they have a great arc, a journey to them. Speaking personally, I think the theatre is a moment by moment process. You know the parameters you've agreed with the other protagonists, so you can do whatever you want within the piece of cloth that you've cut. You have an agreement to be in the right place at the right time and you're following the route given to you by the director, composer and conductor, but beyond that you have endless freedoms.
'And I'm not talking about big freedoms or changing the entire thing. For me, just as with life, theatre is about details. You can go to see the Eiffel Tower or New York, it's incredible and amazing. But the real things that affect us in the theatre are those which refer to our own common nature, I believe. And those are tiny things, nuances, half-truths, shadows. Life is not black and white. That means that a journey in the theatre can be different every night. I try to do that, though I don't always succeed – sometimes you make a dog's breakfast of it. You need a director who can make it clear what they want, and your job is to try and realise their overview.'
Keenlyside plainly admires David McVicar's production very much, and as it happens he agrees with me that its third and most recent incarnation, with Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans as Pamina and Sir Charles Mackerras in the pit, was the greatest so far. 'It's like a pair of shoes: if you have a new pair on, they're nice and sparkly but very uncomfortable to walk in. After a few years, they may look a bit shabby but they fit better. You've got room in your head to look around you and respond. Comedy, slapstick, vaudeville, anything like that requires great precision. Inevitably, if you do something a lot, you grow more precise at it. It was a brilliant team with Mackerras, and Rebecca Evans is a great friend of mine.' When I tell him that she said he was her favourite Papageno during a recent interview with me, he laughs and says 'I paid her a lot of money to say that!'.
The potential highlight of the current Royal Opera season is the forthcoming new production of the five-act Italian version of Verdi's Don Carlo, in which Keenlyside will play Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa opposite Rolando Villazón's Carlo and Marina Poplavskaya's Elisabetta. The nature of this piece has often been questioned, in particular whether the opera should have been called Rodrigo rather than Don Carlo because of the way in which so much of the action seems to revolve around Posa.
Keenlyside seems intrigued by the idea. 'It's another interesting question. I didn't read the Schiller, but I saw it in the Burgtheater in Vienna with a friend of mine. Then I saw it in London with Derek Jacobi. And you realise that the play is not the opera. It's a shame – it's like Faust the opera is not like Faust the play. The Christians hijacked Faust and made it this sort of redemptive, sentimental story, in my opinion. The original is not judgemental - it's entirely different and you don't get even a smell of it in the opera. That's not quite true of Verdi. But to be specific about Rodrigo, I find that you don't get the sense that he's a hot-headed radical in the opera; he's become a Christian martyr.
'What does that great seven-minute scene communicate in terms of the play? Not a lot. The music is sublime, but it's pretty static. The duet with Philip is magnificent, it's real live theatre in real-time. But then right at the point when you have your greatest aria – your only aria – you're on your own and nothing happens. I find that difficult.
'The play might credibly be called Philip rather than Don Carlo,but I'm not sure about the opera. With a great Philip, you have an ominous cloud over the whole opera, for instance on the video where Samuel Ramey plays Philip. He's absolutely magnificent. You can see the all-encompassing power, and the brain behind the power, and if you could see his cynicism in the scene with Rodrigo you would know how it would end from there.'
I tell him that in nearly every production I've seen of Don Carlos, most recently Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Thomas Hampson and Dwayne Croft, it's been the Posa who's stolen the show. 'It shouldn't really be like that', he says. 'One of the things I like about Rodrigo is that he's not the eponymous hero – I've tried to avoid those roles. Even Pelléas and Billy Budd should be one of several main characters. Don Carlos is a wonderful opera from that point of view. If you have a great Eboli, like Luciana D'Intino, you'd better watch out, because she could sing everyone else off the stage.'
We've not yet had much chance to witness Keenlyside as a Verdi singer in London, so I ask him whether he has to tailor his voice to the lyric Italian repertoire in comparison to, for example, his great Mozart roles. 'I've done Don Carlo everywhere, and I've done Ford in Falstaff everywhere, and the answer to your question is yes. But any of us who sing songs know immediately that Schubert's 'Prometheus' is completely different from Schubert's 'Nachtviolen'. One's a tiny miniature and one's a massive, gargantuan depiction of the gods chained to rocks. When you hear singers talking about songs and saying 'I don't sing songs, my voice doesn't come down that small', I just keep quiet because it's such utter ignorance. Think of Wolf's 'Prometheus': there isn't a voice on the planet big enough to take that on really, it's an enormous orchestral song.
'The point is that if you sing songs, you tailor the voice differently for each one. My first Wigmore Hall concert was with Geoffrey Parsons, who said to me 'Simon, you have to take the Klang or "iron" out of your voice when you sing songs, and put it back in when you sing opera'. It's a really difficult thing to do, and by the time I found out how it all works I'll probably be at the end of my career!
'But yes, you have to prepare things differently if you're singing Italian opera. Italian singing requires a lot of head resonance. You'll lose the will to live, though, if I go on about technique!' I assure him this is not the case and that plenty of people are interested in his approach to singing, but he explains, 'I'm not sure it's what the opera-going public are interested in or that you could really explain it to them. My father used to say, "I wouldn't go into a room with a brain surgeon and expect to have a conversation about brain surgery when he's spent his whole life doing that", yet everyone expects to be able to talk about music as if it's something you can pick up overnight.'
Simon Keenlyside has only done two Verdi roles so far – Rodrigo and Ford in Falstaff – but on the cards for future years are Rigoletto and Macbeth, so I ask him whether he is moving in this Verdian direction generally. 'I've been doing Don Carlo for six years and Ford for even longer. It's not a question of changing repertoire, it's a question of embracing another role. That's rather difficult because it means you're increasing your workload, so you do it bit by bit. My Rigoletto's not until 2010. My Wozzeck is now, Onegin is a year later, Rigoletto's the next one after that. I wouldn't take more than that at once, it's too much hard work.'
The mention of Wozzeck leads us naturally onto Berg's opera, which he is to sing for the first time in March of this year, in Paris. The score lies tantalisingly on Keenlyside's dressing room table as we chat, so I ask him how long it has taken him to learn Berg's harmonically complicated role. 'It's difficult because although I learn quite quickly, I don't read very well. It sounded like a load of scaffolding pipes falling on the pavement when I first heard it. But the thing about this music is that if you're in the privileged position of having time to learn it, it slowly reveals itself, little by little. You start to hear the little "leitmotifs", for want of a better word, and quotations of something else. You hear the Passacaglia and think, wait a minute, why is he doing that there? But then you read up about it, because people have written books about these things, and they tell you what it means.
'It takes me about three months to learn an opera. The reason that I don't like to talk about technical issues is because that is the ground floor, and you want to get up to the first floor. It's not even the first step. You take it as read that you know what the words mean and that you can sing it. That's when you open the door and say "Right, I'm ready to start work now". You've got enough to do to try and portray a number of relationships in a piece. To take on the ideas of the director and conductor and your colleagues, you can't think about technical issues. You leave them at the stage door with your coat. You don't want to be thinking about how to get from A to B: when you're on the stage in a performance, your job is to tell a story.
'Wozzeck is difficult because Berg writes, for example, 'spoken', then the next bit will say 'half-spoken', then the next bit, 'towards sung'. It sounds a bit like someone's just making it up, but if you look at the score, it's very specific. But it's still a play. Berg wrote various forms to represent various people and the type of nature that they have. The Passacaglia is the Drum Major: he's an action man who repeats himself and repeats his boorish behaviour all the time, which is what a passacaglia does too. There are lots of things like that. But Berg himself said, "Ignore all this. I don't want you to identify with Wozzeck, it's the story I'm interested in". That's where I take my cue from. It's just a story in a different "dialect". But nothing changes, it's no different to doing Mozart. You have instructions to follow.'
What was the attraction of the part for him: the character, the music, the mere fact that it's a colossal piece of writing? 'It's a good question, because when I was younger I didn't have the resources to do all sorts of things; I didn't have the power. Very few people come out like new-born wildebeests – as soon as they hit the ground they're ready to run. The Bryn Terfels of this world are very few. Most people, even wonderful singers, take time; some take a lot of time. As a thirty year old, I wasn't ready to do all these big parts at all. There were personal issues to address as well: it's difficult to stand on stage and have the confidence to be free and talk, but you work all that out. And then again, I've done a lot of Mozart and you can't stand and sing Mozart either. Mozart is about theatre, it's in real-time. Even the arias, in my opinion, are in real-time. They're just like Shakespeare monologues, 'To be or not to be'. The action stops while the character thinks. Time is not an absolute construct in the theatre: you enter into a pact with the playwright. So it is with Mozart, for example. The arias are reflected moments: you think about what's been happening around you.
'So it's in real-time, and that means that I was interested in theatre. People say 'Oh, you're an actor-singer' and I say 'No, I'm not, it's musical theatre'. Opera is not about preening hyenas, as the prattling press would like to say about our art form.
'And by the way, in Central Europe, it's not for the elite', he adds for good measure. 'And by the way, out of London it's not for the elite. And by the way, you can get a ticket for the Royal Opera House, if it's your penchant, for no more than it would cost you to go to a pop concert or an evening in the pub.
'I like the theatre and it is theatre. People say to me 'Would you like to be an actor?' and I feel like saying 'I am a bloody actor, mate!'. So I'm only really interested in music theatre. I'm not so interested, as I used to be, in the more 'stand and deliver' pieces – not that I wouldn't do them, for instance in Turandot all the protagonists stand and stuff happens around them. But I like pieces of lyrical, fluid theatre. The reason I say that is that some people think Wagner is static. Well again, it's only so static because you don't speak German! If you were standing up and reading Blake or Shakespeare, you wouldn't start doing handstands and mug and gum at the audience. The reason you understand it is that it's your language.
'The weapons of an actor are inflections: they are sharp arrows, and if the actor has any wit, they will pin you to the seat with inflection. That's how it should be in opera. The trouble is, it's a difficult art form, and England is not a very multilingual nation. So when people complain that Wagner is very static, I respond by saying that while I appreciate that it's difficult, it's perverse to say that it's static when you don't speak the language. But the pieces I've been involved with have been a little more fluid that that, because there are usually more scenes.'
Next season, Keenlyside returns to play Rossini's Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, eighteen years after he first played the role. I'm intrigued as to why he's taken on this assignment, which is not outwardly as psychologically intricate a part as one might expect him to play. But his answer is surprisingly short: 'So I can stay home.' As simple as that? 'Not really, it's because it's the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. If I look at the discography of who sang that role even in their mature years – people like Robert Merrill and the great Italians – they were fantastic. I did a production of Barber once in Berlin with Ruth Berghaus that was very simple but so careful. It was all commedia dell'arte. Of course, we've made up gestures based on paintings so we don't really know what commedia dell'arte was, but anyway, this production was all in a language of gesture, a very simple syntax. It was utterly wonderful. To me, this piece made some sense for the first time, because I do think these pieces – like L'elisir d'amore – have got their feet in Italian commedia. They're very stylised. The piece has its moments; I love it, it's wonderful. The second half is less interesting for the baritone than the first, but that's just the way it goes. I do it because it's fun – you don't have to stretch yourself to the limit all the time. Your voice wouldn't last, then, or mine wouldn't. Mix and match is good.
'There are lots of reasons for doing something. In the old days, when you had theatres with fixed ensembles you'd get great voices singing small roles like Harlequin in Ariadne auf Naxos. Why? Because it kept them home. It was good for the house to get the big name in a small role – and I'm not alluding to myself here – like Hermann Prey would sing Harlequin, and then he'd do something marvellous another time. I think that's good for vocal health. People ask why I've got such a large box of roles, everything from Monteverdi or Gluck to Verdi or Wagner. So what? I think it's interesting. There are so many misconceptions about how these composers should be sung anyway. I think a long voice is a healthy voice.'
One of Keenlyside's more intriguing current projects is a CD of operetta arias and duets (pictured right) with his long-standing colleague, mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, who will join him for a concert of this repertoire at the Barbican in November 2008. It's a subject which gets the baritone fired up with even more enthusiasm than before. As he explains, 'We all know the tunes.' He breaks into song with 'Wien, Wien, nur du allein' and then says, 'Actually, I'm not doing that one, but you know what I'm talking about: they're beautiful, wonderful tunes. I came across them when I was a student. When I came down from Cambridge, I knew nothing about opera singers at all. I went to Manchester, which was a fabulous college, and all these people were so much better than me and knew so much more than I did. They'd sit around the canteen and say 'Have you heard Tagliavini? Have you heard Merrill? Have you heard Taddei? Have you heard Cappuccilli' No, I hadn't!
So I spent all my days in the library sucking up this stuff. And on the way, I bumped into, for example, Heinrich Schlusnus, who was a great Lieder singer and a great opera singer. In his day, he'd sing it in German, but the quality of his voice was fabulous; he could sing Rigoletto and Schubert. Or Brigitte Fassbaender – her dad, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, was also a great baritone. And I thought, I love this music. On these records of the German and Austrian greats, I also found these old operetta tunes. I knew Tauber from black and white films, and the tenor stuff, but there's lots of material for the baritone too. There's even music that baritones can sing in the original key because it's not too high. The truth is that this is essentially Central European, mixed-cultural music written largely by Jewish Austrians in the melting pot of Europe at the time. Before the First World War, before the filthy Nazi regimes and pogroms, Austria was such a melting pot. The music stinks of it, and I absolutely love it.
'I did a series of recitals with my friend Angelika Kirchschlager in America and when we were talking about future projects, we both found that we wanted to do operetta music. I think I was in an awkward position: because I'm a baritone, you have to have a soprano or a mezzo. Even a tenor on his own is just boring in this repertoire, it's like toast without jam or butter. Sony/BMG said fine, so we went ahead and did it in Vienna with the boss of the Volksoper, which is the biggest specialist in that sort of thing. I really enjoyed it. You don't make records for any other reason than fun. Sorry to be brutal, but there's absolutely no money in it at all for us. Some people do it for the publicity, but I've got all the roles I want in all the houses I want. So I don't see the point of doing it unless you want to do it for yourself.'
But he doesn't see himself singing any more of the 'lighter stuff' in the future. 'You call it the "lighter stuff", but you try singing it! My God, it's very hard. You have to play the game a little bit and do the interviews when you make a record. It's annoying but you have to do it; that's just life. If somebody's shelled out a lot of money for you, you want to make it back for them so at least they break even. And for the same reason, you might have a "hook" which might be something you really don't want to do otherwise, which was "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" in my case – unquestionably tenor territory, not for a baritone.
'But it's not light; it's light in content, but believe you me, it's horrendous to sing. I wouldn't sing it on the stage, because I went to see a really echt, proper Die Fledermaus a few years ago when I was killing time in Vienna, a piece I've done at WNO and various places. I was so shocked to see how the real thing should be done. My language isn't good enough; this is a wonderful, amusing, frivolous theatre piece, and I couldn't do it. I maybe could do The Merry Widow, but in all honesty I don't really think so. Besides, I don't burn to do operetta at all, I just like the tunes. I think the disc is good fun and I'm glad of it.'
When I raise the question of what future plans he has for recordings, Keenlyside plays down the importance of this activity in his career, explaining: 'It's only a little diary of my life for me. I think I want to go back to songs. I did some Schubert and Strauss songs when I was almost a student with Malcolm Martineau. I did the Schumann Kerner Lieder with Graham Johnson, which I really enjoyed. Most of the other records I've done, I'm not interested in. They're not very good. It's a hard thing to do, a record – four or sometimes only three days, six hours a day, of recording. Who can sing Strauss songs for six hours a day and then do the same thing on the following two days and sound the same? So it's a very particular and different way of working, and not one that I've always warmed to. But I love songs so much, and having done opera arias and operetta, I'd like to go back to song. Schumann or Winterreise, something like that. I can't live without Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven, Duparc.'
The biggest event in Keenlyside's life recently was his marriage to Zenaida Yanowsky, Principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet. The pair recently took part in a video installation at the Leeds City Art Gallery (in association with Opera North) in which Keenlyside sang the soundtrack to a film in which Yanowsky was the main dancer/protagonist. The project was part of the 400th-anniversary celebrations of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. But the baritone explains: 'I haven't seen that yet. I wanted to be a spear-carrier, that's all, because she's an incredible artist. When I go to watch my friends or my wife, I don't see them as my friends or my wife: I just watch them. The only difference is, if they fell over and something awful happened or I didn't like it, I just wouldn't say anything. But I don't do them any special favour when I'm watching or listening. Zen is just incredible. I'd seen a couple of her films before, and the Quay Brothers are masters. They're animators, great artists, and I wanted to be around them so I said I'd do the soundtrack, and they asked me if I'd also stand in the film. It was very interesting. The lighting man, the costume ladies, the Quay Brothers, Zen, the other dancer, Kenneth: they're all brilliant at their jobs. You've got to be on your mettle and not mess it up for them.
'As to whether I'd do another collaboration with her, well I couldn't, could I? There's nothing that I could do that would be of the slightest interest to her. I could sing in the pit for her; I'd be delighted to do that and I've told her so, loads of times. But I'm busy and it doesn't occur to them to do it. It's sentimental, and they have their own people.'
To end, I ask him if he has any further ambitions and the answer is typically simple. 'Have kids with my wife. Work a little bit less. Enjoy the little things in life. At the end of your life, you might remember big trips that you've made, but it's the smaller things that stay with you. Your mum's going to remember your first steps, your first poo, the first word you said. If you're singing Wolf's 'Fussreise', a walking song about cutting a stick and going for a walk in the mountains, it might behove you to go for a walk in the mountains once in twenty years if you want to know what you're talking about.'
Simon Keenlyside sings Papageno in Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from Monday 28 January 2008. Don Carlo opens on 6 June 2008.
His album of operetta arias is out in the UK later this year and he returns to the Barbican in November alongside Angelika Kirchschlager for a concert of operetta duets.