Financial Times, 1.6.2020
Richard Fairman
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 noble one.

“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?”

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.

“This is 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.”

Both in 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, but internationally.

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.”

Then he 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.”


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