Financial Review, Feb 17 2017
| by Laura Tingle
Jonas Kaufmann: Taking risks with the world's greatest tenor
Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs are some of the most haunting and beloved
pieces of music in the classical repertoire. Since they were debuted by
Kirsten Flagstad in 1950, all the great sopranos of their age – Schwarzkopf,
Janowitz, Norman to name a few – have put their memorable stamp on them.
And this week in London it was to be Jonas Kaufmann's turn.
a minute…Jonas Kaufmann? But he's a tenor! He's, he's…a man!
is today described as the world's greatest tenor. It's an honorific that has
given the German singer the latitude to try things others might not get away
For Kaufmann, 47, taking risks has always been part of his
approach. From the time he completely refashioned the way he sang early in
his career to unshackle the deep, almost-baritone tones of a truly
remarkable voice, to spanning a wider repertoire than perhaps any other
singer in the world.
That doesn't make the burden of the risks any
lighter. Late last year, Kaufmann – who returns to Australia in August as
Opera Australia's big drawcard for 2017 – suddenly discovered there was a
burst blood vessel on his vocal chords. It's something that strikes down
many singers and the medical advice was that it would eventually repair
itself. But no one could say how long that would take.
ended up being four months. When you are the 'world's greatest tenor', that
means a lot of cancelled dates, a lot of disappointed fans – many of whom
travel worldwide to hear you, a lot of rescheduling for opera houses and
venues that have booked you years in advance. When you are as famous and
lauded as Kaufmann, you are nothing short of an industry unto yourself.
Last month Kaufmann made a triumphant comeback in a season playing
Wagner's tortured grail knight Lohengrin at the Opera de Paris to ecstatic
and relieved reviews. (Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton is doing the
Then, more disaster. The singer was struck down
with bronchitis before he got to the Four Last Songs and had to cancel. The
world will have to wait. But they will come. He anticipates that he will
eventually record them.
We meet backstage at the Opera Bastille the
day after his last Lohengrin performance. Kaufmann is turning his mind to
London and a residency at the Barbican singing everything from Schumann and
Britten to excerpts from Wagner's Die Walkure. And the keenly anticipated
Four Last Songs.
Kaufmann – whose looks have long seen him also
described as the world's hottest tenor – arrives with his trademark
shambolic curls akimbo, full of energy, and utterly devoid of the attitude
you might presume to find in such a rock star of the operatic world. He
loves to talk, he confesses, and he laughs a lot.
thoughtfully in questions and often digresses, asking himself questions and
answering along the way. It is entertaining and fascinating so I let him
interview himself for quite a lot of our allotted time, occasionally
intervening to direct traffic.
His four months off have been the
longest since his career took off in the 1990s. The enforced break was
"It was very surprising because it just
came out of the blue and it was very persistent and nobody knew exactly how
long it would take", Kaufmann says of the pesky blood vessel."
could have been only three weeks but you never know and you cannot see
exactly ... I don't want to go into details ... but whether this blood
vessel is very small or not such a small one and depending on that ... it
takes time for it to close again and retreat and blah blah blah.
"Well ... it turned out it takes longer!", he says, laughing.
positives, if there were any, included "the fact that I've seen my children
much more than in the past couple of years".
Unlike occasions when he has had to stop for just
a few weeks, Kaufmann says this was "so crucial and threatening and I was
not in control and I didn't know ... Well of course, I did believe all the
words the doctors told me that it would ultimately be fine. But still after
such a long time you have some doubts".
It wasn't so much an
opportunity to reflect on his workload – this, he says, is an ongoing
conversation about trying to balance the demands on him with the desire to
actually have a life – "but this time it was really more concerns like...
the psychological side…even though physically everything is fine, you come
on stage…you haven't performed for so many months, it's weird.
turned out to be no problem whatsoever but I didn't know that until the
opening night of Lohengrin."
Lohengrin is not the most challenging
role in the tenor repertoire, but saying that downplays the sheer
physicality of playing a role that veers from the ultrasoft to the heroic
Wagnerian full belt during the course of a four-hour performance, not to
mention the acting complexity of making human one of Wagner's fairytale
Kaufmann admits returning to the stage was daunting but,
strangely, another professional near-death experience encouraged him.
"I remember Werther in 2010 and that's what helped me actually a lot,"
he says, as perhaps the most memorable of "several occasions where I only
just made it".
All the high-risk factors were already in place: a
German tenor singing in French, before a Paris audience, in a new
"To do it here in Paris was already a risk for a
non-French speaker...only a French cast beside myself so that was already
quite some pressure and then I got sick."
Two days into rehearsal,
Kaufmann awoke on New Year's Day 2010 with an "enormous fever". The doctor
told a sceptical patient it would take two weeks to recover. And it did.
"I came back into the theatre for the first time at the dress rehearsal
and I had no voice", he says.
"I hadn't sung. So I was marking
through the dress rehearsal only to get the sensation of the stage, to hear
the orchestra for the first time and everything. And the first time I sang
full voice was opening night!
"So it was really, really risky. I was
sitting with the score in my bed on those days between dress rehearsal and
opening night because I thought 'God I'm not going to remember that',
because you don't have a prompter here and all that...and it will happen
that you will forget the lines...But it worked out and it was no problem
This memory came to him as he prepared to return to the
stage in January for Lohengrin.
Sense of relief
"I said to myself 'what's going to happen?'
"I've done Lohengrin.
This is not the easiest part, it is maybe not the perfect start, true, true,
but I know the production, I know the piece. The only thing I need is to
keep calm. And it happened. It worked! (laughs)"
The sense of relief
at the end of opening night was clear when, after rapturous curtain calls,
Kaufmann dragged his support team (including partner Christiane Lutz,
herself an opera director) on to the stage to take a bow.
Lohengrin in Paris to concerts a week later in London, and the question of
what made him think of doing the Four Last Songs, music so utterly regarded
as part of the soprano repertoire?
He had met a musicologist who had
seen the original score. "He told me 'you know, surprisingly it doesn't say
'for soprano' it says 'for high voice' which means you could sing it too'."
This was just at the time when Kaufmann had just recorded the Wesendonck
Lieder – "which is also known as being a typical female cycle".
see there are cycles like Frauenliebe und leben or whatever where the text
is so obviously written for a woman that it wouldn't make much sense for me
to do it just because I can.
"But the Wesendonck for instance, not at
"And the same thing is actually true with the Four Last Songs.
There's no hint whatsoever of who is talking…it's difficult to even say 'is
it a person that is talking?' when you read the text carefully.
last song Im Abendrot...it's maybe a couple describing their last days on
Earth ...they prepare for death. The ones before – well the first song
"It's strange ... it reminds me ... I think of Walkure: the
Wintersturme personifies the Winter, and the Spring comes and pushes away
the Winter. He had been hidden in the cold and now it's melted away so it
sort of sweeps him out. Similarly here there is this description of
springtime and 'everything has been so great and I've been hiding myself in
the darkest caves to wait for this moment'."
"There is one particular
strange phrase 'Du kennest mich wieder [roughly 'you know me again]. Like
'What? The Spring recognises you? Who are you?' I mean... again you can
discuss at length what it all means. One thing is for sure it doesn't mean
it's a woman."
stretched another boundary in the new CD due for release in April in which
he has recorded both parts of Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song of the
"My voice is so dark and most of the baritones who sing that,
because it has some high notes in it, are bright baritones". The result was,
he says, they ended up sounding the same "and that's why I did that".
The way he thinks about the music he sings, and how he approaches
performance, reflects the recognised musicianship in his approach.
The challenging thing in the Four Last Songs, for example, is "the phrasing
... I hope I can be able to sing it, as written, as Strauss intended".
"I love Strauss. I've done so many Strauss recitals with his songs and
he writes these super-duper long phrases for a reason and at the same time
he was a reasonable, pragmatic conductor so I think we can find a way and a
tempo where this is possible."
"Unfortunately, most of the time, you
see, in recordings, you add extra lines. You add extra words in order to be
able to breathe in between …which is okay and sometimes it makes sense and
sometimes it doesn't make sense. So this maybe is my challenge to do it
Versatility brings flexibility
There is much more in Kaufmann's calendar this year before he arrives in
Sydney for a concert version of Wagner's Parsifal, including a keenly
awaited debut in the title role of Verdi's Othello – arguably the most
demanding dramatic role for a tenor in Italian – at Covent Garden.
Kaufmann's versatility is much remarked upon because it is unique in
spanning across so many composers, languages and tonal ranges. It makes for
a crowded schedule – but he has a surprising take on its impact on his
"The versatility in the repertoire helps me to keep the
flexibility in the voice."
But simply finding time to fit in his
existing repertoire, while at the same time expanding it, is difficult.
"There are so many parts that I have done already – like this Parsifal –
that I don't do often enough and I ask myself sometimes, 'just because I am
capable of doing these things, do I really have to do them all?' Because it
would be such an easy out to just do what you've done so far. But there are
those challenges that also keep me alive and keep me fresh and focused.
"If I would only repeat I probably would become lazy, so I think it's a
good thing for me."
The new challenges, he says, are a bit like the
Olympics for sportspeople
"You have so many events over the years but
every sportsman looks for the next Olympics! (laughs). Everything that is
between is nice to have, but it's not exactly the same ... and so it is with
us with those major parts. We think in those dimensions (laughs)"
August, the "bronzed" voice, the musicianship, the risk taking will all be
on display at the Sydney Opera House.