The Guardian, 10 Dec 2021
Stuart Jeffries
Jonas Kaufmann: ‘If this goes on much further we will soon have to close theatres’
The greatest tenor of his generation talks cancel culture, booing fans, and problematic roles

‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas,” whispers Jonas Kaufmann into my ears. “Make my wish come true / All I want for Christmas is you.” I don’t know whether to laugh or hit shuffle. It’s three hours before my interview with the world’s most celebrated singer, a man with a voice as golden as Pavarotti’s but with Hollywood looks, and I’m preparing by listening to a Kaufmann mixtape.

The 52-year-old’s peerless voice still in my ears, I stroll through Naples towards Teatro di San Carlo – the world’s oldest continuously active opera house, and where last night he sang Verdi’s Otello. His is a voice built for Italian opera: “I have a German passport,” he once said, “but an Italian voice.” The New Yorker critic Alex Ross described it as having a baritonal strength in the lower register, cleanly struck high notes (including a top C in Otello), a tenderly shimmering mid-range – all laced together in a luxurious legato.

But what I’m listening to is a switchback ride from schmaltz to sublime. Sublime? Morgenlich Leuchtend from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Schmaltz? The 49 songs of his newly expanded crossover yuletide album, which some will love finding in their stockings, though not the critic who said all he wanted for Christmas was a flux capacitor to send Kaufmann back in time to before he recorded it.

At the Gran Caffe Gambrinus opposite Naples’ 18th-century opera house, a genial German in jeans and jumxper greets me. He claims to have put on weight during lockdown, but Kaufmann looks fit and well, strutting like victorious Otello to a table, and ordering a late breakfast in idiomatic Italian. Neither waiters nor customers seem to recognise him – perhaps they’re feigning indifference to the presence of the German who sings their canon better than the natives.

We are meeting because Kaufmann had been due to come to London next week to perform Christmas with Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Albert Hall, but, a fortnight after our meeting, and only a few days before the scheduled concert, increased Covid travel restrictions force its postponement. “I hope to see you for the new date, and wish you all a very happy Christmas”, writes Kaufmann in a message posted online. The last time he was on that stage was when he became the first German to sing Rule, Britannia! at the Last Night of the Proms in 2015 (he waving union jack boxers, fans hurling knickers on to the stage in return).

Does he see the contradiction between being the Tom Jones of tenors and a serious artist? “Oh no,” he laughs boomingly enough to make me worry for nearby crockery. “I’m enjoying myself too much to worry about all that. I’ve grown in self-confidence over the years. If you’re afraid of such things, you’ve no business being on stage. If I didn’t like performing in public, why would I do it so much?”

That said, on the first night of his performance in Otello at the Teatro di San Carlo the previous week, there were boos. “They weren’t booing me,” he clarifies. “I talked to many people afterwards who complained mostly because Otello is not black. And that was the director’s idea.” Let me get this right: they were booing the director because you’re white? Kaufmann nods.

What business does a white German have playing Otello, though? “I know it’s a very hot political topic,” says Kaufmann, unfazed by the question. “I personally see more racism in the idea to forbid people to pretend to be another in our modern society. Because nobody is mocking. Nobody is wearing blackface as they did 50 years ago.

“It’s very difficult to see where should we stop and what should we do. If this goes on much further we will soon have to close theatres.”

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but certainly Otello, like much of the canon from which Kaufmann has made his illustrious career, is a minefield of racist and sexist attitudes. “Oh my God, yes! You should have to put warnings everywhere. I’m killing my wife! I mean, come on – is this appropriate for children to watch? But I think even children understand it’s a fairytale and very terrible things can happen in fairytales.”

One solution is to detoxify operas by changing their narrative frame. Amélie Neirmeyer attempted as much in her 2019 Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello in which Kaufmann also sang the role. In it, Desdemona survives. “Many people loved it because it was, as it were, a psychoanalytical session with Desdemona recalling what happened.”

Kaufmann sips his coffee, and adds: “It is very difficult to combine the music of Verdi with this idea.” Was the libretto amended to accommodate the plot twist? “ No. She stands up while she sings her last phrases and secretly escapes.”

Kaufmann learned early in his career that classical music has a problem with sexual power dynamics off the stage as well as on it. He experienced unwanted sexual advances from a concert promoter. “It was made very clear to me that if I went with this man to a sauna, I would be given a solo recital in one of the big concert halls in my home town, Munich. I was a student in my final year of conservatory. I don’t know if it would have happened if I had gone for the offer.” He laughs ruefully. “But I still see myself in the seat of that Mercedes S class sweating and thinking: ‘What shall I do?’”

From Verdi’s tortured title character, Kaufmann next takes on a no less troubling outsider, Britten’s Peter Grimes. He will sing the role for the first time in Vienna’s Staatsoper in January. Very few tenors have the range to go from 19th-century Italian opera to the 20th-century jewel in the English operatic canon. Acclaimed Argentinian tenor José Cura, I tell Kaufmann, once said he was scared of singing Grimes because the score is so tricky and demanding. “I don’t find it so. What I do find difficult is understanding the character. Is he guilty of these crimes? Honestly, I don’t know.” Later, in 2022 – he won’t tell me where or when – he will expand his repertoire further by singing Wagner’s Tannhäuser for the first time.

Kaufmann has no desire, however, to take on the risk of singing in new operas. “Most of these compositions are done once and forgotten. There are some exceptions, but the complexity of modern music is just too much for most audiences to go home with a smile or even with a melody. A new opera hits you in your face and it might be very impressive, but the endorphins that you have sometimes when you hear a beautiful aria? They’re not there for sure. That makes it difficult for these pieces to join the repertory.”

What if someone wrote a new opera with your voice in mind? He tells me of a fellow singer for whom this happened. “The result was disastrous. It almost broke their voice. No, I’d better stick to my good old Verdis and Puccinis. I’m still not fed up with that.”

And he believes that audiences, too, are far from fed up. “The fascinating thing about opera is that is a bit old fashioned, a bit mysterious, a bit different,” he says. It should take a leaf from the Game of Thrones’ playbook. “Series such as this are so successful not because they are modern but because they create a different world in such a fantastic and perfect way that you dive into it and you start to forget it is fake. This is opera!

“Having said that we all know that opera can’t stand still. We are not bearers of a museum piece. It has to be alive.”

Christmas with the Kaufmanns promises to be as traditional as his take on operas. At the age of eight, he won a prize at a local newspaper for his description of a lavish family Christmas. Now with his second wife, the opera director Christiane Lutz, and their young son, as well as his three children from his first marriage, he hopes to celebrate a family Christmas. “My older boy has been very sick and therefore not vaccinated and can’t travel, so maybe we will be in Germany.” Despite that constraint, he is happy that Germany and also Austria – where he has a home – are clamping down on the unvaccinated. “So many people seem to think of not being vaccinated as to do with freedom. My logic is different. If you live in a city you don’t walk around naked because it would harm somebody, or traumatise a child. Because it’s selfish. The same is true with vaccination and mask wearing. Would you put others in danger by not being vaccinated or wearing a mask? It’s for the community.”

Kaufmann’s Christmas season was meant to kick off at the Albert Hall, but speaking to me before the concert’s cancellation, he had already half-anticipated the bad news. “The logistics of the orchestra and me getting PCR tests in time are very tricky indeed.” And this was before the latest government rulings required a negative pre-departure Covid test in order to enter the country. “ I really hope to be there. There are so many English-language carols and Christmas songs I want to sing in London.”

Alas. Fingers crossed that next year Kaufmann will get another chance to spend his Christmas – in the nicest possible way – showered in festive undies in London.

 back top