New York Times, 15 May 2009
Tenor at the Top Is Determined to Stay There
FROM his safe haven in the ensemble of the Zurich Opera House, Jonas Kaufmann has seen more than one young tenor set the world on fire and swiftly flame out. Now that he is racking up triumphs in one musical capital after another, he hopes his path will be different.

“To reach the top is definitely less difficult than to stay there,” Mr. Kaufmann, 39, said recently by telephone between performances of Massenet’s “Manon” at the Vienna State Opera, the scene of his latest conquest. “In the past no one became a star overnight. Now things can happen very fast. Quick to rise, quick to fall. I’m very thankful for my 15 years of experience. I can lean back and be a little more relaxed at all the craziness than if I were a rookie.”

Big dates are looming. On Friday Decca will release Mr. Kaufmann’s CD of scenes and arias from German opera. On Saturday, for the 60th anniversary of the German constitution, Mr. Kaufmann will join Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin for a telecast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. And on July 5 he will sing the title role of “Lohengrin” for the first time, at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, his hometown, though he has not performed there much. This will be his first major Wagner with a leading international company.

“I sang small roles at the house when I was in school,” Mr. Kaufmann said. “That was a big mistake. For a long time the management just saw me as the student I used to be.”

Among heroic tenor roles Lohengrin, the white knight sent by the Holy Grail, occupies a niche apart, suffused in a shimmer of otherworldly orchestral sound. Wagner’s unhinged patron, Ludwig II, the last king of Bavaria, identified deeply with the character, and to play him in Ludwig’s capital is no small honor. To judge from the opening tracks of the new CD, Lohengrin’s narrative of the Grail and his farewell, Mr. Kaufmann seems unlikely to disappoint.

His first recital disc for Decca, last year, included one Wagner track (the Prize Song from “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”) but otherwise ranged widely, through Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Massenet, Berlioz and beyond. “It was my calling card,” Mr. Kaufmann said.

A critic once described his timbre as, paradoxically, “light and dark,” an assessment the album bears out. It also documents Mr. Kauffman’s elegant musicianship, his idiomatic ease in three languages and a temperament that, though introverted by operatic standards, is thoroughly involving. Though he rises easily to the pitch of high passion, intimate passages seem whispered into the ear. He can achieve that effect in the theater as well, though it is harder.

The disc to be released Friday, though entirely in German, ranges widely too, doubling back from “Lohengrin” to Mozart, rare Schubert and Beethoven before returning to Wagner with climatic sequences from “Parsifal.”

“We deliberately avoided chronological order,” Mr. Kaufmann said. “The arc is emotional. Some of the material is very explosive. Some of it is very lyrical. But the mainspring for everything is Sehnsucht, the sense of longing the German Romantics wrote so much about.”

Though A-list symphonic maestros seldom lend themselves to such mixed programs, Claudio Abbado did so gladly in this case.

“I regard Kaufmann as certainly one of the greatest tenors on the international scene,” Mr. Abbado said from Bologna. “He is a complete artist, the only one who could pass the test of such a broad repertory with such assurance and such excellent results.”

His experience tells. Mr. Kaufmann saw his first opera — Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” — from the front row of the Bavarian State Opera at 5. (The one thing that bothered him was Cio-Cio-San’s curtain call. How could she take a bow when she was dead?) Right away he decided to be an opera singer when he grew up. He started to study voice in his midteens, graduating from the Hochschule für Musik in Munich in 1994. The local opera houses could not have cared less.

Bouncing around the German provinces Mr. Kaufmann took part in the premiere of Antonio Bibalo’s “Glass Menagerie” in Trier and spent two summers as Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince at Heidelberg Castle. In Italy, Giorgio Strehler hired him for Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in a cast of young unknowns. The production, at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, was to be that legendary director’s last.

In 2000 Mr. Kaufmann joined the ensemble of the Zurich Opera House (capacity 1,165), gaining the security to raise a family and time to grow into leading roles in many styles, including some that would have been folly to try on larger stages at the time (notably Wagner’s Parsifal). Guest performances took him to other stages, often in a regional journeyman capacity, though in 2001 audiences at the Lyric Opera of Chicago embraced him as a star on the strength of his portrayal of Cassio, the dashing young officer in Verdi’s “Otello” with a weak head for wine and no aria to sing. This season in Chicago he sang his first Des Grieux in “Manon,” opposite the scintillating singing actress Natalie Dessay.

These days Mr. Kaufmann fields constant offers for new productions at the top houses. The soprano Angela Gheorghiu does not mind taking credit, having requested him as her love interest in prima donna vehicles like Puccini’s “Rondine” and Verdi’s “Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala on the strength of a DVD from Zurich that her manager gave her.

“My instinct has never deceived me,” Ms. Gheorghiu said recently. Image conscious as she is, she must have noticed that in addition to the musical goods, Mr. Kaufmann has the build of a model and the face of a Renaissance portrait. She said she also insisted on him over more familiar names, for the recent EMI studio recording of “Madama Butterfly,” an opera new to them both.

Powerhouse appearances in London, Vienna, Milan and Paris in weighty parts like Bizet’s Don José (in “Carmen”) and Puccini’s Cavaradossi (in “Tosca”) have shown Mr. Kaufmann to be much more than a diva’s trophy walker. Still, asked to list the milestones of his career, he names just one: his Met debut in 2006, opposite Ms. Gheorghiu, as a midseason replacement in “La Traviata.”

“I came to the Met as more or less a nobody,” Mr. Kaufmann said, “and the audience gave me a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed, absolutely. The reaction wasn’t based on my name or my reputation but 100 percent on what I did that night. From that moment on all the European houses that had already hired me suddenly took me more seriously. It was like the Ritterschlag — how do you say that in English?” The dictionary gives “accolade,” in the sense of the stroke of a ruler’s sword, conferring knighthood.

The Paris Opera is scheduled to have Mr. Kaufmann in January for the title role in Massenet’s “Werther” (role debut, new production). His commitments have precluded premieres at the Met for a while, though he has signed as Siegmund (another role debut) in the new Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s “Ring” beginning in 2010-11. Meanwhile he will be back next April as a late-season replacement in new productions of “Carmen” and “Tosca.”

For now his mind is mostly on Lohengrin. “He has many layers,” Mr. Kaufmann said. “Underneath the radiance there’s bitterness and disappointment. Making him sympathetic isn’t easy. What people tend to see in a hero is the heroic exterior. But what’s interesting is not the shell. It’s the human being within.”
Fotos: Otello, Chicago, Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Manon, Chicago, Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
La Traviata, Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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