The Guardian, 28. November 2002
Tim Ashley
'I don't mind my sexy image' long as the music comes first, tenor Jonas Kaufmann tells Tim Ashley
It is carnival time in Zurich, and in his favourite cafe, the tenor Jonas Kaufmann is eating a gugelhupf, a raisin-filled cake that he is washing down with black tea. "They make the best gugelhupfs in the world here," he tells me. He must buy one at the Konditorei downstairs to take home to Munich this afternoon for his daughter. Over the border, in Bavaria, it is the feast day of St Martin, a wealthy nobleman who gave his finery to the poor. There is going to be a candlelit procession. His daughter wants him to take her. "I'm not religious," he says. "It's a cultural thing."

A leading figure at the Zurich Opera House, Kaufmann is arguably the finest tenor Germany has produced in the past half-century. On the stage, he plays men of finer feeling such as Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or loners like Schubert's Fierrabras, who doesn't get the girl but who is superior in every way to the man who does. On the concert platform, he is famous for Schumann's Dichterliebe, Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and the songs of Richard Strauss - music that examines love, loss and male vulnerability.

In the UK, Kaufmann's name is associated with the Edinburgh festival (he makes his London debut at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday). He caused a sensation at last year's festival, with a morning recital at the Queen's Hall. He was offered the gig, he jokes, literally by accident, while he was in Edinburgh in 2000, performing in Mahler and Mozart concerts. He had just landed his Zurich contract and was travelling back and forth between the two cities. "The day of the first concert, I fell down some stairs in the old town and twisted my ankle. I couldn't walk around. I sang the Mozart and flew back to Zurich for two or three days' rehearsal. They all thought I would cancel the second concert, but I went back. They said, 'Oh, you're really here,' and immediately offered me this recital. I think it worked out more or less well."

That is something of an understatement. His Dichterliebe was rated by those who heard it as the finest performance in years. At this year's festival there was comparable excitement. Kaufmann was engaged for two late-night concerts in the Usher Hall. At the first, the chamber version of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, there was mayhem. Seats were unreserved and there was a scramble to get as close as possible. Two nights later he sang Die Schöne Müllerin, leaving the the audience once again open-mouthed in adoration.

He accepts his sexy image with amused reluctance: "As long as it's not the main cause of going to my concerts, then it's OK, but the music's much more important." What ultimately impresses about him, in fact, is his lack of self-consciousness in performance - that rare ability to break down the barriers between illusion and reality, so that you feel he has instinctively lived the music rather than merely sung it.

Kaufmann was born in Munich in 1969. Music was the family hobby, and his father was keen on Wagner and Mahler - "the heavy stuff". As a child he was taken regularly to the opera, and would dream about being on stage. "My mom always tells me that when I was at school, and people asked me, 'What are you going to be?', I always said, 'A singer', because I was impressed by the opera productions I'd seen, with all those costumes and stuff. I don't actually remember saying that," he adds, blushing.

He took piano lessons and sang in boys' choirs, but it wasn't until much later that he realised his childhood fantasy might become reality. His music teacher at school thought he was talented and recommended him to a friend who taught at the Munich Musikhochschule. "That was how I found out it was possible to study classical singing. Until then, I'd never had the idea."

Kaufmann's father, meanwhile, aware of the potential precariousness of a musical career, urged caution. "He said, 'Keep doing that, but do something else, something serious.'" He studied mathematics, and hated it. "It wasn't my thing. I needed to act, to do something with brain and body together, so I tried to get into music school and it worked first time."

He enrolled at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, decided that he "didn't like it at all" and returned to the Musikhochschule. While there, he took masterclasses with three great singers: the American tenor James King, the German baritone Josef Metternich and the great Wagner singer Hans Hotter. Hotter, once a close friend of Richard Strauss, coached him in the composer's songs and Kaufmann was hooked. Strauss notoriously disliked tenors, once calling them a "disease". "But he wrote some beautiful roles for tenors and I love his songs because they're written so naturally," Kaufmann says. He has recently taken Flamand, the lovelorn composer in Strauss's Capriccio, into his repertory.

When he graduated in 1994, he wound up at the opera house in Saarbrücken, where he had his "first experiences of what was theatre, the good sides and the shadows". It looked for a while as if the shadows might win: he was soon aware something was wrong. "After the first year I couldn't sing at all, because people kept telling me, 'You're young, and you have to sing as light as possible.' I tried to sing as light as possible, and it was exactly the opposite of my voice."

He decided he needed another teacher. Eventually he discovered Michael Rhodes, an American living in Germany who had studied in New York in the years immediately following the second world war, when the US was awash with great singers who had fled European totalitarianism. "You have to sing with your own voice," Rhodes told him. "Just relax and sing." The result was the dark, burnished sound that is uniquely Kaufmann's.

He admits that his voice is "growing and growing and I can't do anything against it". He once used to sing Jacquino in Beethoven's Fidelio, though recently the conductor Helmuth Rilling persuaded him to have a cautious go at the taxing role of Florestan in the same opera. "I'm usually a safe-playing person, but I did it, and it was like tasting blood. I'm so glad," he laughs, "that my schedule is full for the next five years, otherwise I would take an offer for a production, because I really loved it." He also desperately wants to sing Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - another of the vulnerable men he incarnates so well.

Balancing a growing career with his private life, he says, is sometimes tricky. His wife is also a singer, based in Munich. Their daughter is four. "When she gets to school, we have a huge problem, because we can't travel with her. Now we just take her for several weeks to the States, or France or somewhere." And he glances at his watch, realising it is perhaps time to go to the Konditorei, get his daughter's cake and start his three-hour drive to Munich.

In a world in which ambition is often paramount, Kaufmann's idealism remains untarnished. "The moment you think of singing just to earn money, you can't bring the same quality to it, you can't transmit that spark into the audience," he says. "You can sing like a god but it won't touch people unless they feel it's you, personally, who loves singing this music." Sending that "spark" into the audience is what makes him the fine singer he is. It's a quality that, one hopes, he will never lose.

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