The British opera star who’s quietly Jewish
Simon Keenlyside, the acclaimed baritone, has until now said little about his family background. He talks to Mark Glanville
IN AMERICA, UNTIL recently, the opera world was dominated by Jewish singers. In the UK, though, you would be hard-pushed to name even one. So it comes as a surprise to learn that one of the most distinguished classical singers of the day happens to be a British Jew. Simon Keenlyside is one of the only two opera singers of his generation (the other being Bryn Terfel) to have been honoured with a CBE. His first CD for Sony, Tales of Opera, won him the prestigious Echo Klassik Singer of the Year award.
Keenlyside’s Jewishness is not common knowledge, nor is it something he has ever felt the need to broadcast. But for his recitals, he often chooses songs with Jewish flavour or connotations, included as personal tributes to his grandfather, the eminent violinist Leonard Hirsch.
“I sang the Ravel Kaddish in New York because my grandfather had just conked out,” says the 49-year-old baritone. “I didn’t tell them I was singing it for him. I just sang it for him.”
It is in Viennese operetta, so much of it the work of Jewish composers and writers, that Keenlyside has found the most satisfying musical outlet for his own eclectic brand of Judaism.
“There are so many things that smell of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, of gypsies, of Jews, and that’s what I am. I’ve been a wandering gypsy all my life. I’m no different from my father and my grandfather, and I love that. I love the mix. I celebrate the mix. I don’t want to make a declaration of my Jewishness. It is there, but the thing that I love is the mix.”
A great deal of his recent life has been spent in the Austrian capital, whose culture and society were once dominated by Jews benefiting from the inclusiveness of the Habsburg Empire. One feels he himself would have thrived in the city of Mahler, Freud and Schnitzler, and he believes it no coincidence that Vienna, located at the meeti n g p o i n t of East and West, should have been the centre of so many important artistic and intellectual movements he feels are not yet extinguished.
“It’s the grinding of those continental plates, of those tectonic plates of uncertainty, of frustration, of notbelonging that actually, to my mind, promote and result in great art. Comfortableness is not really the order of the day in this.”
Yet he is wary of expressing these views too openly. “The Austrians are proud. If you start rubbing their noses in it, by saying: ‘This music isn’t Austrian, actually it’s a mix, it’s Jewish,’ it’s just provocative, and I don’t feel any need to do it. The best thing you can do is do it well, then people will say to you: ‘Did you know, these people were Jewish, and you’re Jewish?’ That’s nice.”
Keenlyside’s own upbringing was, if anything, more Anglican than Jewish. He was a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, first as a schoolboy (one can hear him as a boy treble on a disc of Purcell’s Te Deum), then as an zoology undergraduate student.
“I didn’t know what the [Jewish] law was. I didn’t care about the law. But my Jewishness is very, very important to me, and the reason I keep quiet about it is because I don’t like people oneupping me. I don’t like some of my dear friends saying: ‘Well, you don’t speak Yiddish, you don’t know anything about any of the festivals, your father isn’t Jewish.’”
The family name has solid NorthEast English roots, but it is to his father, Raymond Keenlyside, violinist for the Aeolian string quartet, no less than to his mother Ann (née Hirsch), that Keenlyside ascribes his sense of cultural Jewishness.
“My father was more Jewish than any Jewish person. His only friend was Manny Hurwitz [leader of the Aeolian]. He married a Jewish woman. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence!”
On October 12, Keenlyside’s own wife, Zenaida Yanowsky, prima ballerina for the Royal Ballet, herself of mixed Russian and Spanish parentage, gave birth to their first child, Owen. How will Keenlyside’s sense of Jewishness impact on his son’s upbringing?
“Strictly speaking, he will be even more in the pastry mix. But he will have lost a bit of the identity with Jewishness that I have and feel. I will tell him my feelings one day when he’s older, and if he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let him find, identify and express himself in his own way, just as I did.” Simon Keenlyside appears alongside Angelika Kirschlager on Sunday November 3 at the Barbican, London EC2, in a concert of operetta to tie in with the UK release of their new album, My Heart Alone (Sony).
Keenlyside with Angela Kirschlager
Simon Keenlyside: “I don’t want to make a declaration of my Jewishness. It is there but the thing I love is the mix”