Times, August 2006
Keeping up with the Jonas
 As leaving presents go, Brian McMaster’s gift to himself as outgoing boss of the Edinburgh International Festival takes some beating. “Honour tradition, but welcome the new” is the message of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger, which is the climax to the 2006 festival — and the tenor singing the hero of the opera, Jonas Kaufmann, definitely represents something new. “I know many colleagues who are doing nothing else but travelling all over the world, singing exactly the same role, in every single theatre,” he says. “But for me that’s not real life.”

Can any opera singer — much less a tenor — have a real life? Kaufmann, who almost seems to have risen to the top of his profession without anyone noticing, is determined to make sure that he does — and to combine it with a singing career that’s distinctly off the beaten track. “I remember once I did a horrible production and I said to the soprano whom I was singing with: ‘Just go home and forget all about it.’ And she said: “You can go home to your children. I don’t have children and I don’t have a husband. This is my life and I don’t have anything outside of opera to fall back on.’ I’m very happy to have both.”

When we meet on a balmy day in Kaufmann’s new home town of Zürich I’m lucky to have squeezed an hour out of his sacrosanct holiday schedule. Before Edinburgh, where Kaufmann will be singing a lieder recital as well as scaling the Everest of Meistersinger, comes three weeks devoted to his wife (also a singer) and three small children. “If I didn’t have that life to ground me,” he says, “then I don’t think I could give the same quality on stage.”

If Kaufmann ever lets the nice-guy image slip then it’s strictly for professional reasons. “Sometimes you have to a be a little bit rude, to be more accepted in opera,” he concedes. “If you’re just normal, and everything is fine for you because you don’t want to cause trouble, then you become part of the furniture and you become someone who doesn’t have to be treated well. But from the moment you play the divo, and you say ‘This won’t happen again because I’m leaving’, then everyone suddenly respects you more. Sometimes it is really necessary, but it doesn’t mean you have to play the same character in your private life.”

Could it be that he’s learnt some tricks from his frequent co-star, the famously temperamental Angela Gheorghiu? “You know, you’re not the first person to ask me,” he laughs. “But I can’t say anything negative about her. Maybe if something is wrong with her assistants or the costume design and she doesn’t accept it then it can be . . . dangerous, let’s say — but everybody knows about that and I think that’s why they treat her in a certain way.”

So successful were Kaufmann and Gheorghiu’s last performances together — in La traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, New York — that New York magazine christened the duo the “Brangelina” of opera. “It’s a little bit weird,” Kaufmann confesses, “because when they were saying that I’m appearing like a rock star on stage I would prefer them to talk first about the voice.”

No debate from me. Kaufmann’s unique sound — dark-tinted, almost baritonal in its timbre — is far more of a USP than either the film-star looks (“yes, the Latin lover type,” sighs Kaufmann) or his ability to get on with Gheorghiu. And then there’s the sheer range of roles in which he deploys it. Most young tenors are shied away from heavyweights such as Wagner, Verdi or Puccini. Kaufmann sings all three, as well as keeping the lighter Mozart roles with which he began his career. “But I don’t want to be called the Wagnerian tenor of the German tenor or the Italian tenor,” he protests. “About 25 years ago this system started whereby everybody was put into a box and you had to specialise. For me the challenge is to use every single part of your voice.”

It took a while for Kaufmann to realise exactly how to do that. Music was a family hobby when he was growing up in Munich (“My grandfather was an extreme Wagnerian,” he recalls), but he never thought that his sterling efforts for the school choir might lead to a career. And even after switching from maths to music at university and nabbing an apprenticeship at Saarbrücken opera house, things still weren’t clicking. “After one year I was completely destroyed I realised I didn’t know how to sing.”

The problem was that his husky tenor was being misunderstood. “Everybody said: ‘No that’s too loud, that’s too much, that’s took dark.’ I was trying to fulfil their ideas of what a young German tenor should sound like. But you can’t put another pair of vocal cords in just to satisfy the ideas of your teachers.” It was a new, American teacher who came to Kaufmann’s aid. “He taught me to relax while singing — and to trust the voice. It sounds simple but it took me a while to get it.”

The straitjacketing of voice types isn’t the only gripe Kaufmann has with the German opera houses. “Everyone’s always talking about those crazy German productions,” he says. “And there are a lot of productions that are way over the top — just being modern for the sake of being modern.” If Kaufmann is slightly bitter then it’s hardly surprising. One particularly wacky production of Mozart’s Die Entführung auf dem Serail had the (notoriously conservative) Salzburg Festival audience baying for Kaufmann’s blood after he told them to leave the show if they didn’t like it. “I was waiting on stage for five minutes on top of a ladder, in tails and a white plastic overall, and the audience were shouting ‘Piss off’. But it was an unacceptable production — the director was on holiday and we were sitting there having to tough it out.”

Moral of the story? “Our business is to entertain, and you shouldn’t forget that.”

Big things are now happening for the eloquent, articulate and throughly grounded Kaufmann. In something of a coup for Covent Garden, he’ll be appearing in its new production of Carmen for his first attempt at the role of Don José. And although he’s tight-lipped on the details, he hints that his first exclusive record deal is now on the cards.

The only question is: does he want it enough? “One of my conditions is that they can’t rob me of my private life,” he says. But Kaufmann also knows that he’s got to keep up with the times. “There’s no future in sticking with the old things and repeating them all the time. Opera needs to modernise, but in a stylish way.” It’s the gospel according to Jonas — and no one embodies it better than him.

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