Thursday 9 November 2023

Remembering Keel Watson

Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2018
Puccini, arr: Burke: Toscatastrophe! - Gwenneth-Ann Rand, Keel Watson - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2018

With the sad news of the passing of bass-baritone Keel Watson, I thought I would look over some of the remarkable and diverse roles that we have seen him in over the years, in everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Wagner, he had a remarkable, Derek Hammond Stroud-like ability to inhabit a role whether it be comic or serious.

One of my favourites moments was his wonderfully louche Scarpia in Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe! in 2018, a comic reworking of Puccini's Tosca with Gwenneth-Ann Rand and Ronald Samm [see my review] and the last role we saw him in was also in the comic vein, a wonderfully pointed (and political) Private Willis in Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe at English National Opera last month [see my review], whilst in 2018 he managed to dominate proceedings as the Usher in Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury in a semi-staged performance at Alexandra Palace at the BBC Proms with Jane Glover conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra [see my review]. He was also a laid-back Mars in Emma Rice's heavy-handed version of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld with ENO in 2019 [see my review]

Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo - Fulham Opera 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)

But Keel's finest achievement must surely be his wonderful sequence of roles for Fulham Opera (now Regents Opera). I missed his Dutchman and Falstaff (in 2015), but his Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger (2019), one of the largest roles in the repertoire, was a stupendous work in progress [see my review]. He was Wotan in their 2022 Das Rheingold, whilst in Die Walküre earlier this year Florence Ann Maunders described his Wotan as 'dominating the stage with his powerful voice and physical presence, and bringing a welcome humanity to his role' [see Florence's review and my photo essay]. 

He created the role of the Caterpillar in Will Todd: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at Opera Holland Park in 2013 and continued in the role with their subsequent revivals, and was a complete delight as the Blues-singing, weed-smoking Caterpillar in IF Opera's production this Summer [see my review], and joined Opera Holland Park on the 2015 recording [see my review]

Lesser known operas included a wonderfully inebriated turn in Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve with Chelsea Opera Group in 2017 [see my review] and Cilea's 'other' opera, L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park in 2019 [see my review]. 

Back in 2009 he was a remarkable Iago in Verdi's Otello with Birmingham Opera Company, which we caught online in 2020 [see my article]. In 2015 at Holland Park he played the King in Verdi's Aida [see my review], Another Verdi role deserves mention, I don't know whether he ever sang the full role, but his incarnation of the title role in Macbeth with English Pocket Opera in 2015 was thrilling and mesmerising [see my review]. But one of his finest achievements was his remarkable incarnation of Philip II in Fulham Opera's performance the 1886 five-act version of Verdi's Don Carlo, which is described as 'simply remarkable, a highly physical performance where Philip's martinet nature was embodied in every gesture. This was also highly detailed, and it was wonderful to watch the play of emotions on Watson's face as scenes played out, particularly intense encounters'. [see my review]

Wagner: Die Walküre - Keel Watson (Wotan) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson
Wagner: Die Walküre - Keel Watson (Wotan) - Regents Opera 2023 (Photo: Steve Gregson

He was also a lovely man, I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at a Opera Holland Park gala dinner a few years ago and he was delightful company.

Keel Watson (1964-2023) - more information and some wonderful pictures at Steven Swales Artist Management website.   

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