The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2018
By Joshua Barone
After 4 Years, Jonas Kaufmann Returns to the Met Opera
The tenor has a reputation for cancellations. But he says it’s all a big misunderstanding.
MUNICH — To be an American fan of the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, you have to get used to a little disappointment.

Strikingly handsome, with an inimitable dusky tone, Mr. Kaufmann arrived at the Metropolitan Opera nearly a decade ago and riveted the New York audience in roles like Puccini’s Cavaradossi and Wagner’s Siegmund and Parsifal. But he hasn’t been seen on the Met stage since 2014: He canceled each of his last three planned appearances.

So Met ticket buyers may well be wary of Mr. Kaufmann’s coming run of four performances in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” beginning Oct. 17. (That his anxiously anticipated return is far from sold out, a little more than a week away, would seem to indicate as much.)

But rest assured: He has no intention of canceling. Barring last-minute illness or another emergency, he said, “God forbid that this happens again.”

In fact, he thinks his reputation for abandoning New York is all a big misunderstanding. “It actually started in The New York Times, that I don’t want to travel far or I don’t want to come to the States or the Met,” he said teasingly this summer during a series of interviews at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he will sing the title role in a new production of Verdi’s “Otello” next month. “That was never the case.”

Mr. Kaufmann, 49, was also quick to note he hasn’t canceled a single performance yet in 2018, and that two of his most recent Met cancellations were because he was sick and “no one wants to witness me struggle or even lose my voice.”

His most recent withdrawal at the Met, though — a new production of “Tosca” last season — was for entirely personal reasons. Mr. Kaufmann wants to be abroad less so that he can be home more, here in Bavaria. This wasn’t always the case, but he felt it became necessary after separating from his wife, the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig, in 2014. The divorce, combined with his demanding and peripatetic schedule, was clearly hard on his children: a daughter, now 20, and two sons, 13 and 15.

“With the boys, especially, it is more difficult,” he said. “Even with all the technology we have — Skyping, texting, calling — it’s not the same. I felt the youngest suffer for that, and there was a point where I had to say, ‘No, that can’t be the case.’”

If he has work within continental Europe, or even London, he can come back to Germany on weekends. But to keep a semblance of normalcy in his family life, Mr. Kaufmann said that he no longer wants to travel to the United States for new stagings, which can take six weeks or more to rehearse and perform. He would rather stick to shorter commitments — say, the three weeks he’ll be in New York for “Fanciulla,” a revival he can step into with relative ease.

He still wants to sing at the Met, but only for brief runs and perhaps the Met Orchestra’s annual spring concerts at Carnegie Hall. Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said, “Certainly our wish would be that he would be at the Met as often as possible, but we accept the reality that it’s not the case.”

Mr. Gelb didn’t linger on the headaches caused by Mr. Kaufmann’s repeated cancellations. Indeed, those disappointments won’t deter him from keeping the Met’s schedule malleable enough to allow more New York appearances, however short, for Mr. Kaufmann.

“We’d rather have a little of him than none at all,” Mr. Gelb said. “It doesn’t suit the Met not to be flexible when it comes to trying to attract the greatest singers in the world.”

When Mr. Kaufmann is at home — at a house he built about 45 minutes outside Munich, where he grew up and first heard opera — his life is downright idyllic. He spends his days off sailing in Bavarian lakes, swimming and playing tennis with his children. They go hiking as a family and obsess over soccer. (This summer, Mr. Kaufmann had the World Cup playing both at home and at the Bavarian State Opera, where he set up a projector that played matches alongside rehearsals for “Parsifal.”)

When he’s working, however, life as a father is much more difficult. His children start preparing for school around 6 a.m. — hardly an ideal time for an opera singer to be waking up the morning after a performance. But Mr. Kaufmann said he likes to maintain the rhythms of parenthood as much as possible: “Because if you don’t, you really lose the connection. If you just see your children for quality time later, it’s not the same.”

His daughter likes opera, but the boys mostly steer clear. Last year, he took the children to Australia, where he was singing “Parsifal” in concert. “They had a fantastic sleep,” Mr. Kaufmann said with a laugh, adding that his youngest son told him it was difficult to stay awake because he grew up accustomed to hearing his father’s voice in bedtime lullabies.

While Mr. Kaufmann’s desire to spend more time near home has been a curse for the Met, it’s a blessing for the Bavarian State Opera. Under the shrewd management of Nikolaus Bachler and the magisterial baton of Kirill Petrenko, the house has become something of an operatic utopia, with a starry roster of regulars including the sopranos Diana Damrau and Anja Harteros.

Mr. Bachler said that having Mr. Kaufmann near Munich is like winning the lottery. During this summer’s Munich Opera Festival, the tenor appeared twice, in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” and “Parsifal.” Mr. Bachler said that the two of them have a close relationship; they even grill together at Mr. Kaufmann’s house.

Being in Munich so much also means that Mr. Kaufmann is at ease among the company’s singers. The soprano Golda Schultz, a budding star at the Met and a member of the ensemble at the Bavarian State Opera, said that he comes into rehearsals relaxed, even goofy: “But once he’s onstage, there’s this light that switches on, that seems to radiate from him outward. It’s electric, and it just oozes from every pore of his body.”

“When he’s in the rehearsal room, he’s Jonas,” she added. “When he’s on the stage, he’s Jonas Kaufmann.”

His stage presence — dramatic prowess, passion, sex appeal — has long been a hallmark of Mr. Kaufmann’s artistry. His voice is smoky and nimble, able to fill a hall with both the volume of a Wagnerian heldentenor and an exquisite hovering pianissimo.

“He does magic things with his voice,” said Ms. Damrau, a friend and occasional colleague.

Mr. Kaufmann’s voice has evolved in typical ways: youthful lightness, suitable for Mozart, giving way to depth more fitting for Verdi and Wagner. He said he didn’t feel as though, in his late 40s, his tone has begun to lose its body. In Munich this summer, however, it did sound noticeably smaller than in his appearances at the Met over the past decade. And he showed signs of struggle during a performance of Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” at Carnegie Hall in January.

But he remained confident about “Fanciulla,” and about the daunting task of filling the cavernous Met. “I’ve seen many singers struggle at the Met because they tried to make their voices too big,” he said. “If you have a good instrument, the acoustic is very good.”

While there’s not too much left for him to try in the major tenor repertory, there are still summits he wants to conquer: Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” perhaps, as well as Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.” He ruled out returning to the “Ring” as Siegfried, a daunting role that “can be quite shouty.”

Another challenging Wagner part, Tristan in “Tristan und Isolde,” remains on the horizon. Mr. Kaufmann sang Act II in concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this spring. Having a taste of the opera was “yummy,” he said, and he plans to take on Act III — which includes a punishing solo scene for the tenor — in the near future, as he considers taking on an eventual full production.

He will make two role debuts under Mr. Petrenko’s baton before the conductor leaves the Bavarian State Opera in 2021. (He begins his tenure as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic next season.) But Mr. Kaufmann is actively trying to wind down his schedule, at least temporarily, for a quasi sabbatical.

“There’s too much temptation — getting offers, conductors, pieces, colleagues that are unique and special and thrilling,” he said. “It’s very tough to say no and turn down everything.”

During his reduced schedule, which he said would come in the next few years, he plans to sing only a couple of operas, and a concert tour. He thinks that step will be necessary “to stay fresh.”

“There are so many artists of the past who have done that,” he said. “They just needed to rejuvenate their relationship to their job — to see it as joy and fun and art, and not just hard work.”


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