The Guardian, 5 April 2012
Nick Shave
Jonas Kaufmann: the great pretender
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann has everything: the looks, the voice and the ambition. Now he's coming to London to spread what he calls 'the opera virus
With his matinee idol looks, unruly dark curls and come-to-bed eyes, he's won the hearts of legions of fans across the world. But now the 42-year-old opera star Jonas Kaufmann – who also happens to possess one of the finest tenor voices of our time – would like to set the record straight: he is not just a handsome face. "As much as you want to give every hair of yourself to this profession, there has to be a difference between you as a performer on stage and you as a private person, and very often now, it happens that those two things are combined, or misinterpreted," he says. "People are getting confused about what is reality and what is opera."

His admirers send him letters, he says. "They say things like: 'I was the girl in the fifth row with the glasses and you were only singing for me, and what are we going to do now?' It's amazing and sometimes frightening that you have the power and potential to, manipulate people in such a way." But doesn't he take these comments as a compliment? "Yes, but sometimes I wonder what do they think that I am: am I really this evil guy, this sex monster like the Duke in Rigoletto, or the stupid guy, or whatever my role is? Of course not, I'm just pretending because that's what my job is."

The Munich-born tenor has an extraordinary voice that can produce deep, burnished, baritonal tones in its lowest registers, and yet also control the high Cs of Faust and La Bohème. Kaufmann first came to worldwide attention in the late 90s in Giorgio Strehler's Così fan tutte at the Piccolo Teatro Milan, making his debut at Covent Garden alongside Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini's La Rondine in 2004, and at the Metropolitan Opera, again with Gheorghiu, as La Traviata's Alfredo two years later, joining opera's coterie of young photogenic superstars.

In June, Kaufmann joins two of opera's other most photogenic stars for what promises to be a glamorous gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He, Erwin Schrott and Schrott's wife Anna Netrebko will sing arias by Verdi, Puccini and Mozart in an event that recalls the stadium concerts of the Three Tenors. "People are … desperate [to] keep this business and artform alive," he says. "In concerts, you have to give somehow your business card to audiences as an invitation to opera – an appetiser which creates the need for more." His Nessun Dorma – if he had to choose one – would be "Giulietta! Son io", in which Romeo vividly mourns the death of Giulietta in Zandonai's Giulietta e Romeo, but the challenge, he says, of concerts such as these, when the arias have been removed from their context, is to instantly get inside each role. "But I always say opera is a virus: you look for places and opportunities to spread it around, so that people get infected and come back and actually see the real thing in the opera house."

Signs of high demand for "the real thing" surround us in the ornate Tea Salon – all baroque gold and vast polished mirrors – at the Vienna State Opera where we meet. It's two days after Kaufmann's sellout opening performance in the title role of Gounod's Faust, and he's less concerned about ticket sales than about the production itself. Rumours of a Faustian curse have been circulating since the original production first opened in 2008, when its director, Nicholas Joël, was forced to take time out from rehearsals after suffering from a stroke. Sparsely staged, its revival is not attributed to any one director, but "after an idea" by Joël and Stéphane Roche. "How can I put it as positively as possible?" says Kaufmann. "For my personal taste, it's sometimes too reduced, since there's not really much going on onstage. In certain moments you feel the need to actually add something because it can't be we're just standing around for five minutes."

Ironically, it was a disastrous early performance in which Kaufmann lost his voice on stage that prompted turning point. "I still had a few sentences to sing, it wasn't that much, but I couldn't talk, and I couldn't make any noise," he says. "The conductor watched, me like: 'Are you crazy? Can't you see me giving you the cue? Why don't you sing?'" Realising his technique was to blame, he took lessons with US voice-teacher Michael Rhodes and rebuilt his voice from scratch, laying the foundations for his subsequent journey from Mozartian lyric tenor to spinto roles – Don José, Cavaradossi, and Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur – and to Wagner: the Lohengrin with which he made his Bayreuth debut in 2010, Siegmund, and Parsifal which he sings at the Met next year. "Tristan has still to wait,"

But he takes on Enée – vocally one of the heaviest roles in the French repertoire – in David McVicar's production of Berlioz's epic Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House in June. Though Enée's character is largely symbolic – he is the hero who confronts destiny, and upon whose shoulders the future of the fleeing Trojans rests – his music is full of vocal tests: the fast, high declamations of his opening entry give way to lower, spinto passages; some scenes require a big sound ("Inutiles Regrets"), others more gentle lyricism, such as in the sublime Shakespearean love duet between Enée and Didon, Queen of Carthage. "It's one of those things where you know you're pushing your limits further into a certain direction," he says. "here are already requests for further productions of this piece, but taking on a part for the first time it's never a good idea to assume that everything will fit just fine, it's always better to [sing only a handful of performances] and prepare for the worst."

Though he has had no insights yet into what shape McVicar's production will take, Kaufmann trusts the director's vision. "He's very open to ideas and finding a compromise," he says. "But he is also knows the music inside out, and [can] help and guide you."

While also preparing for the larger Verdi roles over the next few years – Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino – and Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Kaufmann wants to spend more time with his family – with his wife, who is also a singer, and three children. A health scare last year, in which he was suddenly admitted to hospital to remove a growth from his chest that turned out to be benign, has helped him rethink his priorities, he says. "You just realise that life is very precious and you really have to reconsider all the time: is it really the right path, do you really want to do that all the time, is there something you would cut back on? Because if you really honestly want to satisfy everybody, you need three lives and no private life, and that's not what I have and that's not what I want."

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