musicalamerica, 2012
By Zachary Woolfe
Jonas Kaufmann - Vocalist of the year

He is truly one of the great singers of our time, in an intentionally wide-ranging repertory. Whether in Tosca and Traviata at La Scala, Werther in Paris, or Lohengrin at Bayreuth, Kaufmann is king.

The pirated footage is shaky, the image tilted, the supertitles half-obscured. A handsome, lightly scruffy man with curly, shoulder-length hair is sitting on a chair, wearing a grey T-shirt. Lit from below, he looks up and sings his aria with otherworldly sadness and focus. The sound seems to float effortlessly, but with stability, a core. His tone is dark and burnished, but the high notes are clear and soaring. The phrases build and recede; the climax is hair-raising.

It is “In fernem land,” the “grail narrative” near the end of Wagner’s Lohengrin. The clip is video of a live feed that was shown in front of Munich’s Bavarian State Opera on July 5, 2009. The singer is the tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Amazingly, this commanding, sensitive performance was the first time he had ever sung the title role.

In May 2011 Kaufmann, now 42, was in New York, finishing a run of performances as Siegmund, another role debut, in a new production of Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. Strenuous and low-lying, Siegmund presented many potential challenges, but Kaufmann, charismatic and clarion, had a big success. That was no surprise: He has become one of the singers who experience very little but big successes, in an intentionally wide-ranging repertory.

“If I’m singing one part in an opera house,” he said in an interview at the Met, “it means that I will only come back the next time in a part in a different repertory. The idea is not to become or get the reputation of being the ‘Italian tenor’ or the ‘German tenor’ or the ‘French tenor.’ It will always be a mix.”

It is hard to believe it was just three years ago that Kaufmann expressed frustration about his limited engagements in New York in an interview with Opera News. Now each season, as far as the eye can see, will bring a new Met production starring Kaufmann. It’s much the same situation in each of the ten or so houses that he returns to regularly. Kaufmann is king.

His rise has somehow been both gradual and swift; as recently as 2004, Opera News could write offhandedly of a Paris Otello, “Particularly fine support came from Jonas Kaufmann’s Cassio, who sang with virile tenor tone and made a very positive contribution to the first act.” Born in 1969 in Munich, Kaufmann studied the piano, sang in boys’ choirs, and enrolled in the city’s Musikhochschule. When he graduated, in 1994, he joined the opera company in Saarbrücken, where, artificially lightening his tone, he had what he describes as a vocal crisis.

When he emerged, his voice was larger and darker—the beginnings of the sound we now associate with him. He began to find his footing at the Zürich Opera, where he joined the company in 2000. He made his American debut at Chicago Lyric Opera as Cassio and followed it with Alfredo there in 2003. He bowed at Covent Garden in a 2004 La Rondine with Angela Gheorghiu, who surely helped to get him in the door of the Met, where he made his debut opposite her as Alfredo in 2006. It can be hard to pinpoint the precise moment that Kaufmann switched gears into superstar, but it may have been in December of that year, when he created a sensation in Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen at Covent Garden.

But it was really only when he starred with Patricia Racette and Bryn Terfel in the 2010 revival of Tosca that there was a true sense that he had arrived in New York, a feeling cemented in 2011 by the Lepage Walküre in the spring, his New York recital debut on the Met stage in October, and a new Faust in November.

He has triumphed in the major roles of his fach, and in their native countries, no less: Werther in Paris, Tosca and Traviata at La Scala, Lohengrin at Bayreuth. Tristan, of course, is on everyone’s mind—it may or may not be the major role debut he refers to for the 2015–16 season. There are still the Verdi spinto parts to try—Trovatore and Ballo and Forza and someday Otello—as well as Die Meistersinger, Fanciulla del West, Andrea Chénier, Manon Lescaut, Les Troyens. Moving slowly and carefully, there are many years to go.

Kaufmann is keenly aware of, and even mournful about, the changes in opera in recent decades. “I believe we lost our fantasy in the past 30 years,” he said. “We became so visual. Now we need to see something very strong in order to let our fantasy work. It’s no longer enough to just walk on, stay there, sing beautifully, don’t look at the partner or touch, and sing a love duet. Audiences don’t buy that anymore. You have to get closer and closer to reality now, up to a certain point. I hope and I think we are there because we are singers. We sometimes see productions where you get the sense that opera is theater with the accompaniment of music. It’s not.”

He is, in this way, truly one of the singers of our time, the representative of this transitional, sometimes awkward moment for the art form. Like us, he values the pure, gleaming vocalism that once satisfied audiences as an end in itself. And like us, he understands that that is no longer sufficient. He may prefer the vivid realism of Francesca Zambello’s Carmen, but he brings to even that highly conceptual Munich Lohengrin a telegenic, seemingly total commitment. Circa 2011, even Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year has to be open to anything and everything.

It is that openness and flexibility, achieved while always being palpably and brilliantly himself, that may end up Kaufmann’s legacy. Posting the Munich Lohengrin clip on the opera Web site, the critic James Jorden wrote, simply, “This is a great, great artist.” •

Zachary Woolfe writes about classical music and opera for the New York Times and is the opera critic of the New York Observer.

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