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.

Wait a minute…Jonas Kaufmann? But he's a tenor! He's, he's…a man!

Kaufmann 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 with.

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.

The answer 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 February dates.)

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.

He engages 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 understandably unnerving.

"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."

"It 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.

The positives, if there were any, included "the fact that I've seen my children much more than in the past couple of years".

Return 'daunting'

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.

"It 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 characters.

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 production.

"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 ultimately."

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.

From 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".

"You 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 all.

"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.

"The last song Im's maybe a couple describing their last days on Earth ...they prepare for death. The ones before – well the first song Fruhling

"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."

Strauss challenge

Kaufmann has 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 Earth)

"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 (laughs)".

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 career.

"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)"

In August, the "bronzed" voice, the musicianship, the risk taking will all be on display at the Sydney Opera House.

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