|Sunday Times, 9 August 2009
Jonas Kaufmann: Opera's pin-up and great tenor
|He's made his mark all over
the world in Italian and French opera, has new album on EMI and is appearing
at Covent Garden
It is the day after Jonas Kaufmann's second performance of Wagner's
Lohengrin --- a new role for him --- and we have been talking for an hour in
his suite at the quiet hotel outside the centre of Munich where he is
staying. He opens a portfolio of publicity photos and shows me the ones that
he's not happy about. "I've told Decca I don't want this one used again." In
it, he looks a fresh-faced, clean-shaven, almost girlie youth in a red,
It's hard to recognise in this the tousle-haired, Heathcliff-like figure who
glowers from the cover of Kaufmann's new Decca album of German arias, where,
dressed in 19th-century period garb, he is superimposed onto misty
landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, the quintessential Romantic German
landscape painter. He's fed up with being portrayed as male opera totty in
what he feels are inappropriate magazines: "Men's Health!" he snorts. His
new pictures, he thinks, reflect the image he would like to project of a
mature artist at the peak of his vocal powers.
His rugged good looks --- more Italian footballer than German Heldentenor
--- are hardly a disadvantage in a classical-music world as obsessed as any
other division of the entertainment business with youth and beauty, but
Kaufmann is hardly a new kid on the block. He celebrated his 40th birthday
in July (even after a long night singing Lohengrin, he looks 10 years
younger in his casuals) and he can look back at a 15-year career that has
followed the classic route of climbing up the ladder of the smaller theatres
of the German-speaking world: Saarbrücken, Stuttgart, Zurich. By the end of
the 1990s, he was getting small parts at the Salzburg Festival and La Scala,
Milan, after he was chosen to sing in the late Giorgio Strehler's last opera
production, Mozart's Così fan tutte at the Piccola Scala.
The great Italian director didn't live to see the opening night, but
Kaufmann's vocal and histrionic gifts put his name firmly on the
international map. I first heard him as Belmonte in Mozart's Abduction from
the Seraglio in Brussels in 1999, and it was clear that here was perhaps the
finest German lyric tenor since the great Fritz Wunderlich, who died
tragically after a fall in 1966.
Unlike Wunderlich, however, Kaufmann has already made his mark all over the
world in Italian and French opera. He made his Covent Garden debut in 2004,
opposite Angela Gheorghiu, in Puccini's rarely staged La Rondine (The
Swallow), and has since returned for Don Jose in Carmen (2006), Alfredo in
La Traviata (opposite Anna Netrebko, 2007) and Cavaradossi in Tosca (2008).
Next month, he is back as Verdi's Don Carlo in the first revival of Nicholas
Hytner's 2008 production, and Decca is releasing the new German album to
coincide with his appearances here.
What, I ask, was the thinking behind a programme that seems to chart his
progress from a Mozart tenor (two excerpts from The Magic Flute) to a
lyric-voiced Wagnerian: solos from Lohengrin, Die Walküre (Siegmund) and
Parsifal? "After the first album, which was a sort of overview or visiting
card, I wanted to find something with more focus. I think my voice feels
most comfortable in the Italian repertoire at the moment, but this is my
music. I grew up with it, my grandfather was mad about Wagner.
"The idea was to demonstrate the variety of German opera, moving from shy,
withdrawn characters such as Alfonso in Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella to
the extremely passionate, overwhelmingly emotional world of Parsifal. I
didn't have the Schubert on my wish list, but it was Claudio Abbado [the
record's starry conductor] who mentioned it, and I kind of fell in love with
it. I don't only want to sing the mainstream pieces. I thought, as a German
tenor, it would be a challenge to try something with less well-known German
things in it as well."
Kaufmann says he has had to push for some of his other choices on the disc:
in particular the long scene from The Magic Flute in which Tamino is
confronted by the speaker of the temple, a "philosophical conversation" he
calls it, in the finale to Act I.
"For me, this is the essential scene from Mozart's opera. This was one of
the ideas I had to fight for, because, obviously, it's a bit of a luxury to
have another singer [the German baritone Michael Volle] and a chorus, and
the record people said, 'Why should we do that when it's not even an aria?'"
It becomes clear that Kaufmann has a tough core beneath what appears to be a
relaxed and laid-back exterior. He has paced his career, tackling the
heavier roles in his repertoire only when he has felt ready, and maintaining
a healthy balance between opera, concert work and song recitals. Having paid
his dues --- and, he says, made some mistakes --- in the German provinces,
he has learnt to say no. The pressure on the small number of internationally
bankable opera stars is immense --- the world's great opera houses all want
a slice of the action, and the record companies, in particular, expect their
artists to spread themselves wide, performing amplified in vast arenas as
well as the more rarefied surroundings of recital halls and opera houses.
"That's true, absolutely. Look, I am always happy to do one or two arena
concerts. It's nice, a beautiful atmosphere, but if your schedule is filled
with those concerts, to please the crowds, you can't be treated as a serious
artist. I'm afraid that people, especially in the record business, don't
understand that. My wife says that I am very strict with myself, and I say
'No!' 10 times if they ask me 10 times, and I don't lose my temper when they
ask me to do such crazy things. I used to get furious, but now I prefer to
stay cool. I use up a lot of this anger and energy on stage in order that I
can be a bit laid-back in real life."
Kaufmann's wife is a mezzo-soprano, Margarete Joswig, who makes a cameo
appearance as Kundry in one of the Parsifal extracts on the new disc. Her
career is on hold while they raise their young family --- children aged 10,
5 and 3 --- but Kaufmann says she will be a great Wagnerian when she resumes
it. They are clearly a devoted couple, and she calls his mobile towards the
end of our chat, asking when he will be ready to meet her for lunch. It
seems that a settled and contented family life --- they live in Zurich,
where Kaufmann has had a contract at the opera house since 2001 --- has
laid the foundations for a carefully mapped-out career.
An accident he sustained earlier this year has also persuaded him to pace
himself even now, when he is one of the most sought-after tenors in the
world. "I had been in Baden-Baden, singing the tenor in Der Rosenkavalier,
and I had to do a photoshoot, so I had piles of luggage. And when I got
home, unloading the bags, the movement of carrying and turning made me slip
a disc. I had to have cortisone shots. It was horrible."
As a result, he had to cancel a production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in
Venice --- not, contrary to rumours in the blogosphere, because his voice
had grown too heavy for the role. "That's absolutely not true. It has also
been suggested that I cancelled because I didn't like the production, but
that isn't true either. I really want to sing Roméo while I can still play
the character on stage."
He points ruefully to a few grey hairs in his George Best stubble, but only
last year he was Des Grieux to the Manon of Natalie Dessay at Lyric Opera of
Chicago, and they convincingly suggested besotted teenagers in love.
Kaufmann's trump card is his versatility. A guest at Brian McMaster's
Edinburgh International Festival for eight consecutive years, he was cast
primarily in his native repertoire --- Schubert, Schumann, Mahler's Song of
the Earth and Song of Lamentation, Weber's Max in Der Freischütz. At Covent
Garden, in the latter half of the decade, he will only have been heard in
French and Italian repertoire.
The evening before I left for his Munich Lohengrin, I ran into a retired
record executive and we discussed Kaufmann's Lieutenant Pinkerton in EMI's
recent recording of Madama Butterfly. "Oh, he sounds too much like a German
tenor," he said. In Munich, all the word was of his Italianate singing of
Lohengrin a few nights before. He can't win, I tell him. In fact, he's
"If it is true, I have achieved my target. That's what Wagner wanted. He
often wrote that singers should sing his music in a very Italian way,
especially Lohengrin. It is the most Italian of his tenor roles, so it was
important for me to do it now. I was convinced that you can sing it from the
beginning to the end in a beautiful, Italianate way."
Don Carlo at Covent Garden should suit his German intellect and Latin voice
and looks to perfection: Verdi's most penetrating psychological portrait of
a tormented hero.
*His greatest hits*
*Richard Strauss: Lieder (with Helmut Deutsch, piano) Harmonia Mundi*
The disc that alerted international audiences to Kaufmann's gifts as both a
superb singer and outstanding interpreter of the German art-song repertoire.
The Strauss song hits are here, as well as some rarities.
*Romantic Arias (with Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, cond Marco
Kaufmann's debut solo opera album showcases his versatility in Italian
(Puccini and Verdi), German (Weber and Wagner) and French repertoire: Fausts
by Gounod and Berlioz, Don Jose, from Carmen, and Massenet's Des Grieux
(Manon) and Werther.
*Puccini: Madama Butterfly (with Angela Gheorghiu, Accademia di Santa
Cecilia, cond Antonio Pappano) EMI*
A German tenor might have been a controversial choice for the caddish
Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini's Japanese tragedy, but Kaufmann's dark,
ringing tenor gives greater substance than usual to this shadowy,
unsympathetic role, and his Italian is idiomatic.
*Bizet: Carmen (with Anna Caterina Antonacci, Royal Opera, cond
Pappano, dir Francesca Zambello) Decca*
Despite the presence of Antonacci's charismatic antiheroine, Kaufmann steals
the show with the intensity of his portrait of the young corporal driven to
insanity by his sexual obsession.
/Jonas Kaufmann's new album is released by Decca on September 14; he appears
in Don Carlo at Covent Garden, WC2, from September 15 /