The Times, February 27 2020
by Richard Morrison
Jonas Kaufmann discusses Domingo, the rules of intimacy and returning to Covent Garden in Fidelio
He can probably cope with being called the world’s greatest tenor. What, though, of his other customary epithet? If ever there was a bad time to be “the sexiest man in opera”, it is now. Jonas Kaufmann has arrived in London to star in the Royal Opera’s new production of Beethoven’s Fidelio just as the words “sex” and “opera” are again linked in accusatory headlines across the globe.

With Harvey Weinstein convicted and the Me Too movement ascendant, attention has turned once more to the future of Plácido Domingo. His unparalleled 60-year career as a singer and opera-house director looks like ending in humiliating tatters, torn apart by allegations of sexual misconduct stretching back decades and voiced by more than 20 women.

This week 79-year-old Domingo apologised for “the hurt” he had caused, after the American Guild of Musical Artists declared he had “engaged in inappropriate activity, ranging from flirtation to sexual advances, in and outside of the workplace”. However, it’s the findings, as yet unpublished, of another investigation — by Los Angeles Opera, which Domingo led for 15 years — that will probably determine whether he sings, as scheduled, at the Royal Opera this summer. Meanwhile, the Royal Opera has had to sack another leading tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, for “inappropriate” behaviour.

What does Kaufmann make of all that? Is it advisable, or even possible, to be a “sexy man” in the new, ultra-cautious atmosphere pervading the opera world?

“Everything has changed and it’s causing many problems,” Kaufmann replies, snatching a sit-down between rehearsals at Covent Garden. “And not just about how you handle intimacy. People are even getting anxious about noise levels. I’ve just done the Fidelio sitzprobe [where the singers first rehearse with the orchestra] and we were told to face away from the players so their ears wouldn’t get damaged by noise. I found it quite odd. I would have thought that if you signed a contract to play in an opera orchestra you would be aware that there is singing involved.”

Nice try, Jonas, but don’t change the subject. What about the steps being taken to prevent sexual harassment, with “intimacy counsellors” and mandatory “behaviour training” reputedly being introduced all over the theatre world?

“It’s an absurd situation anyway in opera,” Kaufmann replies, “because you can find yourself jumping into a show at the last minute because someone gets sick, and end up in the arms of a soprano you have never met before. The natural distance strangers usually keep between each other doesn’t exist on stage, especially when you have to act convincingly that you are in love and have this incredibly powerful music going on.”

And does that lead to, well, let’s call it misunderstanding? “Yes, it sometimes happens that people confuse the feelings they are acting on stage with real feelings,” Kaufmann says.

Has that happened to him? “I was and am very careful,” he says. “I would never kiss a singer on the mouth before checking we are both comfortable about it, and how we fake it. You should always agree limits, in both directions.”

In both directions? Meaning male singers also have to deal with unwanted advances? “It happens,” Kaufmann says. “Years ago I was in a production where the soprano — let’s not mention names — was all over me. It was too much. It struck me that this is how it feels when you want to say, ‘Get your hands off me,’ but can’t because of politeness or whatever. It was an insight, but of course I realise that in most situations it’s the female who is being targeted. And usually she is in the less powerful situation, so she feels she has to go along with it.”

Has protocol changed in rehearsal rooms as a result of Me Too? “Yes,” Kaufmann says. “No longer can a director say to a soprano, ‘I want you to go and snog him for the next five minutes.’ You have to suggest something very vague, like, ‘It should look like intimacy, so what would you both feel comfortable doing?’ The trouble is that 95 per cent of all operas are about love and sex. That makes the rehearsal process very complicated.”

Does Kaufmann feel any sympathy for Domingo? “For me he is an idol and I would never judge him, even though pointing fingers is quite in vogue now,” Kaufmann says. “I am pretty sure that Plácido himself didn’t think that what he did was forcing anyone. On the other hand, were those old guys really so convinced that the only reason women went to bed with them was physical attraction? Did they not look in the mirror? Also, I wish Plácido had sensed which way the wind was blowing and backed out of the limelight much earlier. Maybe all this would never have come up.”

Why does Kaufmann think Domingo didn’t retire? “I think because in his early years he sometimes had gaps in his schedule and had difficulty finding his voice again after four weeks of not singing. He said it was so threatening for him, the feeling that his voice would never come back, that he decided to sing nonstop. That’s what he’s done ever since. Plus, many people fear retirement. Suddenly there is this big hole in your life. That I understand.”

Last year Kaufmann turned 50. He doesn’t look it, although he feigns outrage when I tell him he looks gym-fit. “I have never seen the inside of a gym in my life!”

Nevertheless, I point out that 50 was the age at which the great British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker announced her retirement from the stage. “That is definitely too early,” Kaufmann exclaims, but then goes on to list all the things that can go wrong with singers after they turn 50.

“From now on, energy and stamina go down,” he says. “And age makes it difficult to learn difficult new roles. We can all think of examples of older singers where the voice was impeccable, but he or she just couldn’t remember the words.”

So, priorities for the final chapters of his career? To judge from his schedule — which contains concerts in which he sings different acts of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde — he is edging towards doing his first Tristan on stage. “Yes, that’s the plan,” he confirms. “Slowly build up to it, even though everyone told me that after doing Die tote Stadt [Erich Korngold’s incredibly challenging opera, which Kaufmann sang in Munich last year], Tristan ought to be a piece of cake. It’s not!”

Why has he left it late? “Well, I accept that my voice can’t sound like it did 20 years ago, but my aim has always been to sound older because of my age, not because of abuse. And unfortunately Tristan is a role you fear might do permanent damage. That’s why I have pushed it farther and farther down the calendar. It’s going to come, though. I’m not ready yet, but I will be.”

And the other Wagner tenor roles he hasn’t yet tackled? “Tannhäuser is also in the pipeline,” he says. “Then there’s Siegfried. I want to do it, but I’m not sure I ever will. Would it involve too many sacrifices? Can I combine it with all the Italian repertoire and song recitals I love doing?”

What about when the top notes finally disappear? Would he follow Domingo’s example, musically at least, and start on the baritone roles? “No question, my voice would work as a baritone,” Kaufmann says. “The question is whether I would want to do it, whether people would pay to hear it, and whether I was stopping some young, talented baritones from getting roles just because old Kaufmann wanted to show off for a bit longer.”

He now has extra reason to think carefully about how he uses his time. Divorced from his first wife, with whom he has three children (“we all still live in Munich, a couple of blocks from each other”), he has married again and has another son, born last March. His second wife, Christiane Lutz, is an opera director. So how do they handle domestic duties?

“The good thing about directors is that they do a lot of their thinking [at home] before they start,” Kaufmann says. Really? Can you always tell? “You said that, not me,” he says with a grin. “So apart from the five or six weeks of rehearsal when Christiane has to be away, the thinking can be done anywhere. And she certainly thinks. She likes to find a solution for every moment in the opera before she starts rehearsal.”

Is that so rare? “It’s not so common for directors who come to opera from film or spoken theatre,” Kaufmann says. “They seem to find it strange to sit at home by themselves with a score or recording and visualise everything. They need input from the cast. That can be great because it creates a very open process where you can end up with something you would never have imagined. Unfortunately, you can also end up with nothing.”

Would Kaufmann want to be directed by his wife? “You mean on stage?” he says with a giggle. “In one way I would love to, but I would never push it. I’m not a big fan of those package deals you see a lot in opera, where if you hire one half of a couple you have to take the other half as well.”

His director on the Royal Opera’s new Fidelio is Tobias Kratzer, who gained fame, or notoriety, for a provocative production of Tannhäuser at Bayreuth last summer. Kaufmann won’t reveal much about the new staging except to say that what he’s being asked to do in Florestan’s first great aria — usually sung in the semi-darkness of a grim prison cell — is “like nothing I have ever done before”. Coming from a tenor who has sung Florestan in several of the most bizarre productions in modern times, that’s saying something.

What has surprised him, he reveals, are some of the speeds at which the Royal Opera’s music director, Antonio Pappano, wants to take the music. “There are certain tempi that I think are ideal for me, yet here comes Tony — whom I really adore and think is one of the greatest conductors — and surprises me completely with tempi I never thought about doing. It made me think about myself. I have always claimed that I’m versatile and willing to try stuff from scratch, yet here am I going, ‘No, no, shouldn’t it be like this?’ It reminded me that mine is not the only possible interpretation.”

Still, Kaufmann has good reason to feel proprietorial about Fidelio. The National Library in Vienna recently asked him to become the “guardian” of Beethoven’s own piano score of the opera, replete with the composer’s handwritten changes. “The library sometimes asks celebrities to adopt a book in this way and ensure its existence is better known,” he explains. “What surprised me was seeing how many second thoughts Beethoven had. In the finale, for instance, the chorus was originally interrupted by an extra recitative for the minister. You think, ‘Boy, lucky he cut that because it would have been a complete anticlimax.’ ”

Doesn’t Kaufmann regret that, as Florestan, he misses out on all of Act I? “Yes because there is so much great music there,” he replies. “Still, it can be funny. When I did Fidelio in Salzburg some friends told me that in the interval they overheard angry people saying, ‘Wasn’t Kaufmann supposed to be singing tonight?’ ”


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