Opera News, September 2016
by Fred Cohn
Backstory: Jonas Kaufmann
A 1998 OPERA NEWS REVIEW of Szymanowski’s Król Roger in Stuttgart offered praise for the “honeyed tenor” of “handsome Jonas Kaufmann.” The magazine featured Kaufmann as its February 2006 “Sound Bite”; first put him on its cover in May 2008; and in 2010 gave him an opera news Award. By the time of the November 2011 cover story, “Relaxed Power,” the world was Kaufmann’s oyster. Oussama Zahr’s article chronicles the tenor’s triumphs in Europe and the U.S.—Werther at the Bastille, a sold-out recital at the Bavarian State Opera, the Carmen and Tosca performances that consolidated his Met stardom—and offers the promise of more to come.

Kaufmann’s fame and reputation have, if anything, intensified since then, but he has found it less necessary to keep up the breakneck pace. When we speak, he is a few weeks short of announcing his withdrawal from the Met’s new Manon Lescaut. The strain of maintaining his superstar career is very much on his mind.

“What has changed since that article is that now I’m not so super-keen on reaching each and every target,” Kaufmann says. “I’ve realized how much my life has become dependent on my career. The career should be built around the life.

“As much as I love what I do, I’ve been doing too much. If I take more than a week off, I realize the amount of tiredness I’ve built up, because I’m not getting the flashback, the energy, from the music itself. When you know how to do it, and you like doing it, it’s hard to step aside and look at the flow. Life is happening left and right, but you don’t see that, because you’re constantly on the treadmill. I’ve got an absolute dream job, but it’s not the only thing I want to be able to look back on.”

Kaufmann professes himself especially trapped by the five-years-in-advance scheduling of the world’s major opera houses. “It’s like now you buy a toy, then you let it sit in the package for five years before you can unwrap it,” he says. He has started to build gaps into his calendar—not just for R&R but to make it possible to take on projects that he would ordinarily have to turn down. “It will allow me to do projects spontaneously—to work on a social project, or shoot a movie,” he says. “Or even a regular opera project, if somebody cancels and I’ve always wanted to do the part.”

It’s not that Kaufmann has lost his ambition: he still forges ahead with new roles, including Hoffmann at the Bastille in November and Otello at Covent Garden in 2017, with Tristan penciled in for the future. But his former sense of nervous anticipation has given way to something a bit more detached. “I’m partly spoiled by the success of the career,” he says. “It makes you more calm. You know the next step is coming anyway, so you don’t worry.”

Still, the world-conqueror of 2011 resurfaces when he talks about one particular dream project—the title role in Vincent D’Indy’s 1897 Fervaal. “Every French musician tells me I have to do it,” he says. “It’s a Wagnerian work with endless singing. I have the score at home, and it’s huge—it makes Parsifal look like Mickey Mouse. You have to keep something like that in your pocket, or there’ll be nothing left to discover.”

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