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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment 33 -

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”

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