Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mazel Tov: Simon speaks to The Jewish Chronicle

Photo by Lukas Beck

Simon Keenlyside, has recently given an interview to The Jewish Chronicle. The interview carries the title "The British opera star who 's quietly Jewish".

"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.

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."

"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 one-upping 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.'"

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's wife, Zenaida Yanowsky and her Jewishness

(Photo ruthlessly stolen from Intermezzo <3)

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