|MusicWeb, Seen and Heard International
|Margarida Mota-Bull Interviews the German Tenor
Jonas Kaufmann: A Personal Impression!
Opera is a complex art form: It merges drama with music and one has to
perform live, on stage, with a large orchestra and without microphones, in
front of an audience that is not always understanding or welcoming. To be a
great opera singer, one must be an outstanding musician, possess an
extraordinary voice, command an impeccable technique, be capable of holding
one’s notes above the sound of the orchestra, control one’s breath, project
one’s voice to the far end of an auditorium with well over one thousand
people, sing piano or forte (the list goes on!), and, on top of it all – as
if these attributes were not enough! – one must be an excellent actor. No
wonder then that there are many good opera singers but only a handful of
great ones! Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor, who I had the pleasure of
interviewing recently and who possesses one of the most exciting voices on
the planet, is definitely in the second category and belongs to the elite:
The handful of singers who can be described as great.
possesses all the qualities listed above and tops them with exceptional
dramatic skills. No other tenor is capable of expressing the overwhelming
emotions of the heroes he personifies on stage in such a credible, vivid
way. Kaufmann gets under the skin of the character and inside his mind; if
you are in the audience, you feel with him his pain, his rage, his ardent
love…or whatever he is depicting at any particular moment of his
performance! In Kaufmann’s own words: ‘…I’m emotionally involved [with the
character] to the point that I’m not Jonas Kaufmann any more but –
hopefully! – the character that I have to portray’. And truly, he achieves
this every single time that he is on stage!
Add to his considerable
dramatic skills, his beautiful tenor voice, which possesses an unusual,
slightly dark baritone edge, and his attractive, charismatic stage presence
and you have a consummate artist, a complete tenor who, with each
performance, can carry you on a roller-coaster of emotions and musical
pleasure. It is therefore frightening to think that Kaufmann almost stopped
singing altogether and nearly returned to his original Maths studies! In the
early stages of his career, he faced extensive difficulties with his voice:
‘…Once,’ he explained, ‘singing the small part of a Knappe (squire) in
“Parsifal” I hardly knew that I would make it to the end of the evening! I
came to the point where I thought that I should quit the theatre and go back
to maths.’ Luckily for us, he was rescued by Michael Rhodes, an American
voice teacher, who truly discovered Kaufmann’s “natural voice” and taught
him to relax his body while singing. From then on, as he puts it, ‘…my voice
got compacter and darker, the hoarseness vanished. Finally, my profession
began really being fun!’
Apart from his operatic repertoire, Kaufmann
also sings Lieder and these are an integral part of his work. Like no other
genre, Lieder merge poetry and music in a unique way; a statement with which
Kaufmann agrees: ‘…Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera
singing, I think that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing
genres!’ and he goes on to add that, ‘[in Lieder] you don’t tell one story,
as in opera, but twenty little stories instead, which are always changing in
mood, style, language and expression. For me, this is as demanding as it is
fascinating!’ and indeed, if one listens to his marvellous recording of
Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin one understands the subtle variety of his
Jonas Kaufmann is not only a great singer and a
serious professional but also an intelligent, pleasant human being, honest
and genuine. His account of the big turning point in his career, his debut
at the New York Met in Verdi’s La traviata, is charming and from the heart:
‘…It was certainly the most moving and most important applause in my
professional life. After it finally died down, it began to dawn on me what
success really means, and then I suddenly remembered Frank Sinatra with that
famous line: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere! It’s up to
you – New York, New York!” And he has definitely made it!
In spite of
being a big star in the world of opera, Jonas Kaufmann has maintained an
unassuming attitude and a taste for the simple pleasures of life, ‘…there
are…many things that make me relax easily…reading, swimming, sailing,
cycling, walking in the mountains, having a nice evening with friends,
coffee and cake…’ and, like most people, he tries to balance effectively his
busy professional life with healthy family time, ‘…it’s hard when you are
separated from your family for several weeks but the longer we are separated
from each other, the more we enjoy our time together’, he said.
perhaps this combination of professionalism and down to earth, honest
personality that make him such an appealing artist. Whether he is talking to
somebody about his work or whether he is on the opera stage performing in
Tosca, Don Carlo, Carmen or Lohengrin, Kaufmann is always pleasant and
professional, excelling in anything he sings, penetrating the character and
making it his own, pronouncing the words in Italian, French or German as if
he were a native of all three countries. Finally, in spite of all this, he
finds a moment to dedicate to people like me and answer all my time
consuming questions! What can I say? Only three words occur to me: “Bravo,
|Full Interview, via e-mail, with tenor Jonas
Kaufmann by Margarida Mota-Bull – March 2012
MMB: When and why
did you decide to become an opera singer? Apart from the fact that your
parents loved classical music and opera, were there any musicians in your
family or other influences that had a bearing on your decision?
Besides listening to my father’s records, another influence was my
grandfather playing the piano and singing all the Wagner roles, including
the women’s voices in falsetto. The first time, I dreamt of becoming an
opera singer was after a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in
Munich. It was just after my sixth birthday; and so whenever I thought about
singing opera then, it really was a simple child’s fantasy like becoming a
racing driver or a pilot. I don’t know if that Butterfly was a good
performance (my sister, who is six years older than me, thought it was not)
but for me, it was a crucial experience, a key moment in my life: The first
time that I felt the magic of opera. I was deeply moved by the music and
singers and totally involved. This was the moment that I thought: Being part
of this world must be heaven!
MMB: Interesting! My first opera
experience was also Puccini’s Butterfly! Anyway, I read some of the things
you say about yourself on your website. For example, you state that you sang
in the school choir and that you didn’t even have to stop when your voice
changed. Didn’t you experience a break in your voice?
JK:I think it
was an almost seamless transition. At least, I don’t remember such a thing
as a “break”.
MMB: I also read that, after you completed secondary
school, you began to study Maths. Why? And when or how did you realise that
becoming a Mathematician was not your thing?
JK:The reason was quite
simple: I took my parents’ advice who wanted me to learn something
“substantial”, something that I could later use to get a job like my father,
who earned a decent income at an insurance company. It was clear to me that
professional singing was a very “chancy” business, especially because a
singer is dependent on his health, and the slightest cold would render him
unfit for work. So, I studied Maths! I held out for a couple of semesters
but the certainty that I wasn’t born to be a so-called “desk jockey” made me
delineate other plans. So, I tried auditioning for a slot as a vocal student
and I was accepted on the spot. It took a huge amount of courage to make the
fateful decision and say goodbye to life’s security but, in the summer of
1989, I began training to become an opera and concert singer at the Academy
of Music and Theatre in Munich.
MMB: Your earlier career was not
always easy and obviously, you had to work very hard to be where you are
now. You mention on your website that, after your first season in
Saarbrücken, you began experiencing increasing problems with your voice.
What were these problems and how did you overcome them?
problem was that I wasn’t really ready for the daily life of an opera
singer. I wasn’t able to cope with all those stressful things that a
beginner is faced with. Constant hoarseness was part of my everyday life,
sometimes during a performance. Once, singing the small part of a Knappe
(squire) in Parsifal I hardly knew that I would make it to the end of the
evening! I came to the point where I thought that I should quit the theatre
and go back to maths. What finally rescued me was meeting Michael Rhodes, an
American voice teacher who lives in Trier. I would drive there several times
a week. The things he taught me brought about a watershed in my whole life.
He was the first person to unearth my “natural voice” and who taught me how
to relax my body while singing. My voice got compacter and darker, the
hoarseness vanished. Finally, my profession began really being fun!
MMB: You took a brave decision in the summer of 1996 when you declined the
offer that the Staatstheather Saarbrücken made you for extending your
contract with them. Why did you take such a decision? And what impact did it
have on your career, if at all?
JK:It was very risky, yes, but on the
other hand what should I have done? They couldn’t promise me those roles
that I had asked for…and to be honest, I also need a certain amount of
freedom; I don’t like always being on stand-by while others are filling up
my calendar to the hilt. Thanks to Christian Lange, I got some good concerts
and after that also some stage productions: Romberg’s Student Prince in
Heidelberg, Don Giovanni in Bad Lauchstädt, Bibalo’s Glass Menagerie in
Trier and Szymanowski’s Krol Roger in Stuttgart. From then on, my career
took a good up-swinging curve.
MMB: You then “landed” in Zürich, in a
manner of speaking. How important and formative were your years with the
Zürich Opera House in terms of your career and your repertoire?
JK:Very important! Zürich was my theatrical home for years; the
“mother-ship” from which I started out to the major opera houses of the
MMB: I believe that you live in Zürich, with your family. Do
you still appear with the Zürich Opera House frequently?
actually, for the last couple of years I’ve been again living in Bavaria. Of
course, I don’t appear in Zürich as frequently as in those years when it was
my theatrical home, but I do appear regularly. I will be back there in May,
for two so-called “Kaufmann Galas”, which offer the first two acts of La
Bohème, the second act of Carmen and the last of Tosca in staged
MMB: For you as a German national, you say that your
debut at the Met in 2006 in Verdi’s La traviata was the “Sängerolymp” (the
Singers’ Olympus). Why? Do you consider that this was your “big break”?
Thinking back to that moment what exactly did you feel the first time that
you bowed at the Met?
JK:Yes, it was the big break, the turning
point. When the audience at the première rose to their feet applauding, my
heart slipped down into my stomach, so to say, and my knees buckled under –
so much so that I suddenly found myself kneeling and had to force my body to
stand up again! This may sound “kitschy” but that’s exactly how I felt. It
was certainly the most moving and most important applause in my professional
life. After it finally died down, it began to dawn on me what success really
means, and then I suddenly remembered Frank Sinatra with that famous line:
“If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere! It’s up to you – New
York, New York!”
MMB: It is indeed a good line and I don’t think your
feelings were “kitschy” at all. Next, I would like to talk a little about
your recordings. So, following the success of your first Decca album
“Romantic Arias” (review), in 2009 you released “Sehnsucht” (review), which
appeared to me a very personal work, meaning a return to your roots. Was
this your intention?
JK:I wouldn’t say “back to my roots” was the
intention. I just wanted to present another side of my singing. So, after
the debut at the Met with La Traviata and the “Romantic Arias” CD, an album
with mostly Italian and French arias, I focused on German opera.
Still in 2009, you also released, in collaboration with Helmut Deutsch, a
truly beautiful work: Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. Why among Schubert’s
song cycles, did you choose this particular one?
JK:A few weeks
before we did the recording, I turned forty and I wanted to record this
cycle before it was too late. Along with Schumann’s Dichterliebe this is the
Lieder cycle that most clearly calls for a young voice, as well as for a
young soul. It’s about a young man who has his first painful experience in
love. To make his “innocence” sound believable, the singer shouldn’t sound
MMB: I know that Lieder are an integral part of your
repertoire. Perhaps, like no other genre, Lieder merge poetry and music in a
unique way. Would you agree with this statement? Why?
JK:Yes, I do
agree. Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera singing, I think
that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing genres! It demands a
more delicate touch than any other vocal discipline, more colours, more
nuance, more dynamic control, more subtle handling of the music and text.
Besides, you are exposed all the time. It’s just you and your pianist. It is
the two of you who are responsible for the whole event; you can’t blame any
other person if something is going wrong. On the one hand, you are
absolutely free from all those things, which you depend on when singing
opera; you don’t need to make any compromise; you can always be true to
yourself. On the other, you must keep the whole thing together and maintain
high standards from beginning to end. Additionally, you don’t tell one
story, as in opera, but twenty little stories instead, which are always
changing in mood, style, language and expression. For me, this is as
demanding as it is fascinating.
MMB: And for us too, if I may add!
Moving now to operatic roles. I’ve seen and heard you live, first as Don
José in Bizet’s Carmen; then, as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca and later as
Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur; all three at the Royal Opera House
in London. What I found most striking was not just your voice and technique,
which are simply outstanding, but your ability to live the characters. You
became each one of them. How do you achieve it? Did you have dramatic
training? Does it drain you emotionally? Does it cost you a lot of energy?
JK:Sure, it does cost me a lot of energy but on the other hand you also
receive a lot of energy back when you are on stage. The music, the support
of the orchestra and of your singing partners, the response of the
audience…all these summed up make you feel that you’re part of a big power
house. I’m emotionally involved to the point that I’m not Jonas Kaufmann any
more but – hopefully! – the character that I have to portray. However, it
shouldn’t go so far that you lose control about your singing and your
acting! There is a famous statement by Herbert von Karajan: “Controlled
ecstasy”! Which means that, even in the deepest emotional involvement, a
part of you should always be in control of what you are doing. One thing is
for sure: If you let yourself go and start crying on stage, you can be
certain that this won’t move your audience; simply because it’s private; not
professional. And, after all, it’s not you who should sweat and cry and
laugh but the audience!
MMB: Your voice has often been compared to
that of the great Fritz Wunderlich who died tragically young. You yourself
commented (in ARD’s “Titel Thesen Temperamente”, in 2008) that Wunderlich
sang each time as if it was his last. Is this a source of inspiration for
you? Do you try to do the same when you get into a character?
JK:Listening to Wunderlich’s recordings is always a big inspiration for me.
But that intensity of his singing, as if each time was his last, that is
really unique, and you should never ever try to do the same. One thing is
for sure: The moment when you will be able to enthral an audience, just
once, in the way that Wunderlich did, must be amazing!
singers do not enjoy being compared to other great singers of the past, as
each artist has its own individuality and style. How do you feel about it in
relation for example to Wunderlich or Corelli (with whom you have also been
JK:I take it as a big compliment.
MMB: In 2010, you
released your CD “Verismo Arias” (review), which as the name obviously
indicates, comprises a recital of Italian composers from the period in
Italian opera called Verismo. What do these composers mean to you and how
important do you think their works were in terms of the development of opera
as an art form for the 20th and 21st Centuries?
JK:If you were a
tenor, wouldn’t you dream of one day singing the big “hits” from the Verismo
era, thrilling pieces like Canio’s “Ridi, Pagliaccio” or Turiddu’s farewell
to his mother from Cavalleria rusticana?
MMB: Yes, I think I probably
JK: I remember when I was a student, listening to the records
of Domingo, Corelli, Björling and many others, and thinking to myself: “Man!
It must be awesome to be able to sing that stuff!” And it is! Musically as
well as emotionally. Apart from my desire to sing those “warhorses”, I think
that the Verismo repertoire deserves more respect from musicologists as well
as from conductors and singers. It’s not true that all those works are
“shabby shockers”, as some people claim – and sadly, some artists made them
sound like that – there are many truly great works in this repertoire, which
are very important to the development of opera in the 20th century. When
Tony Pappano and I put together the programme, we agreed that the album
should include some arias and scenes that are not so well known, in spite of
their musical quality, as for example, arias from the “other Bohème” by
Ruggiero Leoncavallo and the totally forgotten opera I Lituani by Amilcare
Ponchielli. My personal favourite, on this album, is a largely unknown
piece, the lament of Romeo over the dead Juliet from the operatic version by
Riccardo Zandonai. “Ombra di nube”, another little known piece, by Licinio
Refice may not be an aria at all but rather an art song. I actually found
the recording by the Verismo diva Claudia Muzio so heart‑stirring that I
absolutely had to record the piece.
MMB: Recently, you’ve sung
Gounod’s Faust at the Met and in Vienna. What do you feel about Gounod’s
music and the character of Faust in particular?
JK:If you don’t
compare Gounod’s opera with Goethe’s drama; then, you can really enjoy the
music, which is wonderful for the most part, even great in some moments.
Just think of the repeated “Je t’aime” when Faust meets Marguerite for the
first time, or the love duet and the final trio. Despite his wonderful music
Faust isn’t the most likeable of all romantic lovers. He isn’t that bad
either but not as likeable as the music suggests. And here is the difficult
thing: As a singer you have to make Faust more sympathetic to the audience
than he really is; you have to make them believe that he is more a victim
than an offender; a victim of Mephisto and of his own desire of being
MMB: You have three children. So, you are obviously a
family man. How do you manage a healthy family life with the demands of
travelling and your profession as an opera singer?
professional and family life in balance is every singer’s dream. Thank God,
I’m lucky to get both well balanced and quite often. Of course, it’s hard
when you are separated from your family for several weeks but the longer we
are separated from each other, the more we enjoy our time together.
MMB: You co-wrote with Thomas Voigt a book about yourself, entitled “Meinen
die wirklich mich?” Interestingly, you say that it is not an autobiography
or memoirs but the portrait of an artist (i.e. you). Why was it important
for you to state the difference? And why did you want to do a portrait
rather than a biography or your memoirs?
JK:The book was really
written by Thomas Voigt; so, it’s a portrait, not an autobiography. My part
was to answer his questions. It was never my plan to write an autobiography
at the age of forty! It is simply too early for a “résumé” of a professional
life. However, we were forced to think about a book after a journalist urged
me to write my autobiography with him. When I refused, he said: “If you
won’t write it with me, I’ll write it all by myself”. He had already started
investigating; so, we had to do something. Looking back, I’m happy that I
did that book with Thomas, and I really prefer the mixture of dialogue and
comments to an autobiographical narration.
MMB: Finally, how do you
relax? Do you listen to music as well or is it only your job and therefore
it would not help you relax?
JK:Depends on the music, the performers
and the situation. If I listen to my favourite records and artists
privately, it’s big fun. When preparing a new role, it’s more analytical
listening of course, i.e. more professional work than fun. And if I sit in
the opera house, I can’t help but breathing with the singers, keeping
fingers crossed at high notes or other crucial parts of the role! That means
of course that I’m more tense than relaxed. There are however many things
that make me relax easily. For example, reading, swimming, sailing, cycling,
walking in the mountains, having a nice evening with friends, coffee and
cake…There’s quite a lot besides singing that I really enjoy.
We’ve arrived at the end. Mr Kaufmann, thank you very much for your time and
for answering my many questions.