Financial Times, 1.6.2020
Opera singer Jonas Kaufmann on the fundamental need for art
The world’s top tenor says European art-lovers must unite and put
pressure on political leaders
In late April, tenor Jonas Kaufmann started a petition with his baritone
colleague Ludovic Tézier in support of those working in the performing arts.
With concert halls and opera-houses closed, and air travel at a standstill,
international singers are well placed to survey the devastation that the
coronavirus pandemic has caused.
The petition calls for “a Europe
which [meets its] duty to preserve the most beautiful legacy of its own
civilisation: art.” It quotes a wartime rallying cry attributed to Churchill
in defence of the arts — “Then what would we be fighting for?” — and though
there is no evidence he ever used those words, the sentiment at least is a
“We wanted to gather European culture-lovers together and
put pressure on political leaders,” says Kaufmann. “What is Germany, for
example, other than language, culture, art, architecture, music and ...
well, also football? This is the essence of our society. If you destroy
that, what is left? Of course, when people are dying, there are more crucial
issues, but other parts of the economy which are no more important are
getting support. If we cut back on culture now, when will there be money for
It must be frustrating to be the world’s most sought-after
operatic tenor and suddenly have no performances. Instead of jetting across
Europe for operas by Wagner and Korngold, as planned in his diary, Kaufmann
finds himself at home in Munich with time for an interview by phone.
If he is feeling low in spirits, he certainly is not showing it. Now 50 and
at the peak of his career, he sounds irrepressibly buoyant. Standing up for
the arts and for fellow musicians who have been deprived of their income
seems to have fired him up.
In the space left by cancellations at
opera houses, Kaufmann has sung for the charitable fund Saengerhilfe and
taken part in the Bavarian State Opera’s Monday evening online concert
series, raising money for musicians.
He also has a new recording to
help fill the gap. In 2017, Kaufmann made his debut in the title role of
Verdi’s Shakespearean opera Otello, one of the ultimate challenges for a
tenor with the ambition and voice to take it on. Staged at the Royal Opera
House, it was the opera world’s event of the year. Now Sony Classical’s new
recording, made in Rome, pairs Kaufmann with familiar colleagues, the
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and conductor Antonio
Pappano. “He takes everything for real, always at full throttle,” says the
tenor. “I praise him wherever I go.”
Kaufmann explains that he has
been “pregnant with” the role for a long time. “It was scary, because the
role is a Pandora’s box,” he says, summarising Otello’s many extremes of
emotion. “The seed of doubt never stops through to the end and it creates
jealousy, anger, even hatred in every line. That is a challenge for the
singer, because this pressure needs to be psychological, not physical. You
don’t want to destroy your vocal cords.”
The role has such a
reputation as a peak of the operatic repertoire that many regard it with
awe. The great singers who have succeeded in it — such as Plácido Domingo —
often find it is the role that defines them for posterity.
an opera that you want to make perfect,” says Kaufmann. “You want it to be
like the ideal you visualise in your head, but that is the wrong way to
approach it. Both physically and mentally, it has to be the combination of
everything that you personally think and feel. At first, I tried to make my
voice sound dark, like a warrior, but that wasn’t me. I struggled a bit in
rehearsals, but in the course of the performances I felt I arrived at my own
interpretation, and by now I was ready for the recording.”
London and Munich, there was one criticism of Kaufmann’s Otello that stuck.
This was that his voice was not big enough — a criticism that he half
acknowledges by citing the arguments against, especially that singers in the
composer’s day had less hefty voices. “When Verdi wrote Otello, there was
nothing comparable to this. Over time, different types of voices have [come
forward] and unfortunately we have got rid of a lot of beauty. The same
thing has happened in the German repertoire, including Wagner, where early
tenors were anything but heroic.”
He describes his own voice
succinctly — “I have a German passport and an Italian sound” — and this
touches on an interesting issue. Although there have been German singers who
tackled Otello in the past, they generally sang it in German translation and
only in Germany. Now, Kaufmann is the number one choice, not just at home,
More than that, he is one of a generation of
German singers who are looking dominant across the operatic globe. All are
the top of their game — Diana Damrau, Anja Harteros, Christian Gerhaher,
René Pape, and others — and are in demand for everything: Italian and French
operas as much as German.
Why is Germany suddenly so all-powerful?
Kaufmann pauses for breath. A definitive answer eludes him. He toys with the
idea that the country’s extensive infrastructure of music conservatories and
smaller opera houses is the answer, but adds that there is plenty of
international competition there. Then he wonders if some regions of Germany
are particularly supportive — but no, the singers named come from all parts
of the country.
A stronger reason, he says, is the solid support and
funding for the arts in Germany. “The theatre infrastructure in Germany has
been reliable for some time now, whereas in Spain or Italy cancellations can
happen at the last moment, and that probably plays a part.”
hits upon a striking point. “Without diminishing us as Germans, there is a
lack of competition coming from elsewhere,” he says. “Look back 30 years and
the list of Italian singers was endless, but not now. The Germans have taken
over where there were openings. I have discussed this with teachers in
Italy, and it may be that young singers are being pushed too far, though
that can’t be the only reason”.
The thought takes him back to the
urgency of the situation the musical world is facing. “If we don’t have
support, why would young people choose to become musicians?” he says.
“People must show that culture and art are essential. If young people think
society will not support them if times are bad, I am worried that there will
be no singers. The future is being decided now.”