Stay calm, don’t panic: Stephen Costello interviews Simon Keenlyside

Author: Stephen Costello

Extract from Stephen Costello’s blog, 20 November 2014:

This week I am very excited to share my conversation with British baritone Simon Keenlyside. I have had the privilege of sharing the stage with this great artist several times. He has such a presence on stage that I can forget I am in a scene with him and watch as if I were an audience member. He has the power to draw you in and keep you in the palm of his hand. Simon is a big advocate for young singers, who spends much of his time hearing and helping so many of them. And with Simon, family comes first, and that is what makes him the model of a great man.

You were raised in a musical family. Did that start your interest in classical music? Did you ever feel in their shadow or feel you had a certain expectation to live up to?
My earliest musical memories are of my father [violinist Raymond Keenlyside] and the Aeolian Quartet rehearsing in the room next door. Separated only by a glass partition, my bedroom adjoined the music room, and I drifted off to sleep most nights with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and late Haydn quartets.‎ I think it’s fair to say that these early influences didn’t so much encourage a love of classical music…as quite set me on fire for it.‎ From a family point of view, however, nothing was expected me and, in any case, I showed no promise whatsoever with any instrument put in front of me. Neither did my parents show any disappointment when I preferred to be outside, or playing sport.

You sing a lot of Verdi roles now, and beautifully. Did you feel you would always end up in this repertoire? Did you have doubts?
I feel a little like Mark Antony talking to the crowd about Brutus, after the murder of Julius Caesar: endlessly repeating the mantra that Brutus is an honorable man and yet, slyly, saying quite the opposite.‎ I say that I am not a Verdi singer. And I am not. I just sing some of the lyrical Verdi roles and… I like to sing them many times. I feel some kinship with the remark that the great tenor Giuseppe di Stefano made about himself when he said that he really did not start to get to grips with a role until he had sung it around 50 times. For me, it’s something similar. A pity that it takes me so long to begin to be comfortable, but there it is – upwards of 30 odd outings, before I think perhaps I am better able to “speak” in the role. Perhaps this gives the lie that I sing only Verdi? Nothing could be further from the truth. For me, that would be a foolish way to go. I retain some Mozart roles and many other operas than I love and that challenge me. Retaining those allows me to be a little more present in my private life. Kids give energy but they sure do steal it in equal measure! Perhaps the mix of repertoire might just even grant me a slightly longer vocal life. We shall see!

The other thing I would say about Verdi is there are many ways NOT to sing him. I cannot say here what they are. However, there are also, self evidently, many ways for a singer to be faithful to the master and his score, and still diverge from some of the conventions that are not worth the paper upon which they are NOT written. A singer need not always heed a lot of those expectations that come from a variety of quarters, but his life will be a lot easier with a good ally and conductor. In the end, an audience will tell you if you are not suited to a role.

What is your thought on voice teachers? Did you always have one? Many? Do you believe that singers should have many opinions or just a few?
Hard question to answer because most of us singers will justify the paths that we have taken, and so long as our careers are blossoming, we feel that we cannot have gone so very far wrong. Perhaps that’s true too? Of course all singers should have a good teacher in their formative years. The world of opera is littered with far too many wonderfully gifted artists – awesome talents who hit the buffers far too early. Perhaps on account of the fact that they were not so technically aware? Every singer is going to have bad patches. All of us, in a long career, will find ourselves in technical difficulties, and for a variety of reasons. Without a good technique, developed in conjunction with a sound teaching, we singers would be unlikely be able to right ourselves, and find a way back to healthy singing. That’s when the problems can compound and threaten a career.

There are more ways than one to achieve healthy singing. Some singers retain their teacher for much of their career. Some (like me) work hard at trying to recall what they were taught, and to practice as hard and as honestly as they can to implement that. Perhaps that’s not as preferable as the former, since one is no longer working (most would say rather crucially?) with external ears and an objective opinion. Some singers do their research and, along the way, take their chances with a new teacher. This latter path can work brilliantly of course, but it’s also a bit of a minefield. Surprisingly, many teachers have radically different approaches to the production of a voice. To reconstruct a voice in mid-career is a dangerous thing to do. It could undo a lot of sound technique already there. Alternatively, of course, what the teacher might bring could be far preferable, and bring a new lease of life to a singer? There’s the rub! Unless you trust yourself absolutely 100% to the methods of a teacher, you are not going to learn a lot. And yet, in doing so, you might come a cropper!

How do you practice? Do you spend time on scales? Legato? What is your normal routine?
Whether one copies the same exercises that Caruso, for example, note down, or those of any other idol with a great technique, or whether one sings scales or leaps or sustained notes, I don’t think the minutiae of it really matters. What’s important is careful thought and proper practice. Twenty minutes of proper singing and addressing the linkages, one note to another and back, is far better than an hour’s full-out singing. Of course we all need the latter too. Not least to build stamina. I don’t think there’s any substitute for honestly addressing one’s weaknesses, either over a relatively short period of time, or else a longer period of time broken up: working gently and with regular breaks between bouts of practice. After all, what’s the point of practice? To encourage and retain elasticity, balance and color and weight and stamina.

Personally, I do vary the exercises – depending on the music that I might be singing. For example, song repertoire tends to require a different palette of colors than opera. The tiny colors and the mezza voce are used so much more, and so, in that case, one would need to encourage those sounds when singing a lot of recitals.

It might or might not be useful to mention, that for me it is also a great frustration – but I think a natural one – that I cannot combine well the demands of opera and song in close proximity. By and large, the softer colors of one medium do seem to get in the way and inhibit the other. Either way – opera to song or vice versa – I need a week or ten days to encourage the sounds and colors of one to another.

All the same, specific needs aside, I use a group of exercises: arbitrary ones to be honest, but which I sing most days. Crashingly boring it might be, but it does give me an idea: some kind of a yardstick of exactly where my voice is and how it is behaving at any given time. I find that a very useful way of knowing something of the lie of the land. There again, this is useful in itself too. If you know, more or less, with a given preparation, how your voice is going to behave: well then, you are likely to be able to keep other anxieties about the performance at bay.

You are a role model to singers today, including me. Have you ever felt that you wouldn’t make it to where you are today? Or even make it in the business?
Well, I shouldn’t be! What NOT to do would be closer to the truth I feel. Were I to stand in front of any young singer who thought that I had anything to offer, my first and my last reaction would be to want to share the puzzles with them. I am just the same as them: only a few clicks of the wheels further around. This is not modesty. It’s just a plain fact. There is so much glorious talent out there, waiting perhaps just to be aligned and focused a tiny bit more by old dogs like me. Perhaps I can give the odd pointer, but, in all honesty, as often as not there are aspects of THEIR gifts that I can learn from and will want to steal!

Technical issues and problems never ever go away. They evolve and morph as one grows older and embraces new works, and with new vocal abilities too. I think that a balanced voice: an unforced voice, will very likely gift a singer more power after he is 40 years old, or thereabouts. If you don’t believe me, go and examine the lives of past singers and see what they began with, and what they then embraced, quite naturally, from middle age onwards.

I doubt myself all the time. At some level you must, of course, know that you CAN do it, otherwise presumably you would never have embarked on the role in the first place. All the same, Mother Nature has her own imperatives and, sure as eggs are eggs, she is going to run you: me, you, all of us, a merry dance of miserable doubt from time to time on our journey through singing.

Young singers shouldn’t despair at admitting to panic and fear. The trick is to slow the head down, think gently and resort to the technique and training – physical and dramatic – and gently work it out. Little by little, recall the ways that were workable and healthy for now. You might not fully realize what you know you can do, but you can find gentle ways that will get you through the work without damage. Ways that can be built on later: that will allow you to fight another day. After all, you have to nurture this instrument for 40 years or so. You might as well try to look after her!

The funny thing is – and here I know that every single professional singer will tell you the same – very often, the performance you thought was under-powered, undercooked and compromised in every way: that will often not be the experience of the audience! Why is that? Probably because you were thinking more carefully. That, then, always begs the question with me: then why I don’t do this every time? Even when feeling strong and healthy!

Who do you feel will make it further in this business: the greatest singer with a bad attitude, or a good singer who is a great colleague?
Wonderful question. I have not met so many singers with a terrible attitude at all. There are some, of course, and it’s not so nice to be on the receiving end of their frustrations. Two things occur to me. First of all, if you are in your prime, and on top of your own work, then the tantrums and difficulties tend not to make a lot of difference. Even a bad colleague with the best gamesmanship is kind of easy to circumvent. If you sing well, keep your wits about you, employ the odd sidestep, and (actually, yes!) try to help them on stage, then you will have no problems. I have found that fronting-up to what is quite bad behavior really gets nobody anywhere, but more entrenched.

The bottom line is, that when people do behave badly, you have to wonder why it is that they are? Usually it’s because the work is hard. They are terrific singers, but are struggling in some way with themselves. That’s no excuse, but it’s a fact of life that sometimes cannot be changed. A dog does not bite for no reason! You just need to recognize that reason, and try to lower the threat value – if that’s what it is – that might have elicited the response in the first place.

Fortunately, I think that most singers want the best for everyone. Most seem lovely, open, vulnerable, and are a pleasure to be around. Famous awkward singers make it a little hard for us all. They aren’t quite subject either to the same laws as we journeymen are, and history shows that their bad behavior is rarely checked, on account of their market value. However, really, none of this is an issue. More often as not, the only real use is to turn it into a fun story in the pub.

I once read a beautiful motto in the obituary of an old colonel. He said that even when dealing with sociopaths during the Second World War he had come to realize that it was always better to approach a man’s weaknesses via his strengths. That I find most beautiful. And even in the tiny matter of the odd difficult colleague, its true. Those people are often so beautifully gifted, and with a little help, they might not bite.

Could you maybe share a story of an embarrassing – and possibly funny – moment that you had as a singer that might make a younger singer feel relieved to know that “shit happens” to everybody – even to the most distinguished artists?
What, you mean apart from wigs and moustaches coming off? Of trousers splitting seam to seam? Of cracking notes? Of failing to come in at all? Of missing crucial phrases? Of singing absurd, laughable words and phrases in front of an audience whose mother tongue it is? Of failing to open doors in the wall, after some piece of ludicrous posturing? Of falling into the pit? Of accidentally pulling off a soprano’s entire costume, leaving her traumatized and naked on stage? Of dropping a beautiful woman and making her look heavy in front of the crowd? Of stabbing yourself accidentally? Of eating far too many pies for a couple of months, then realizing with bleak horror that you are now obliged to take off your shirt for the latest concept production? A 50-year-old Apollo Hippo! Oh really! The job description of opera singer might so easily be written down as “clown” or “fool!”

What is one thing you know now that you wished you knew as a student?
I happen to think that the luckiest person in the world is the one who even KNOWS what it is that they want. Not even that they might actually achieve it, but that a person knows what they want: aligns themselves and aims at something that will keep them inquisitive for life. A bit simple perhaps, but, in my love of singing, I didn’t stop to think about some of the logistical implications of a life on the road. Would it have made any difference? Nah! I doubt it. Who has control of anything at the beginning of a career in the performing arts? No! Second thoughts, to Hell with them! There’s nothing at all I would want to have known then that I might just know now! Nothing I could have controlled in any case, and so the chaos of the adventure, of a vagrant’s life, was difficult – but just fine!

Share Article