The Herald, September 01 2006
There's lots of change from a tenor
Jonas Kaufmann, the German 'rock star' of opera who's set to take the Edinburgh stage by storm, is a man who refuses to be pinned down.
 It's an unusually warm, though typically windy Edinburgh summer's day, and in the square in front of the Sheraton Hotel the star German tenor of the moment is discussing his career over a coffee.
Actually though, Jonas Kaufmann isn't playing the star - there's no sign of a scarf or demands to move inside away from the persistent breeze that ripples through the square, and conversation is frequently punctuated by the appearance of his big, infectious laugh.

Kaufmann has been in Edinburgh for a couple of days, giving a recital in the Queen's Hall the previous morning and is now about to start rehearsals for the closing concert of the Festival; a concert performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg that is outgoing festival director Brian McMaster's parting gift to himself.
Looking at Kaufmann's jet-setting schedule, it's surprising that he's found time to spend a week in Edinburgh. But then, the Edinburgh Festival has been good to Kaufmann, effectively launching his career in this country - and taking the lead tenor role of Walther in Wagner's Meistersinger is something of a personal favour for its outgoing director.

These days, Kaufmann is in demand in the most prestigious opera houses in the world. Already a familiar figure in the major European houses, he has recently taken the New York Met by storm, where he made his debut earlier this year as Alfredo in La Traviata alongside Angela Gheorghiu, a pairing that had American critics in raptures for their looks as well as their vocal talents. Mention of the New York critic who wrote of his rock-star looks elicits another huge laugh. "I don't think the world really needs a rock-star tenor."
Still, given Kaufmann's "Latin-lover" looks, the tanned skin and dark, curly hair that belies his German origins and goes against the stereotype of the short, rotund tenor (an image that holds more than a grain of truth) it's surprising that he hasn't been snapped up by one of the big-name record labels and marketed as the next sexy singing sensation. Instead, at 36 and with his career already well established, he's just released his first solo recording, on the resolutely un-starry Harmonia Mundi label, a disc of Strauss lieder that has had critics reaching for the superlatives, one describing Kaufmann's performance as "sexy, passionate singing, delivered with thrilling ease".

Actually, Kaufmann later admits, overtures have been made by record companies in the past - and there is, he hints, currently a contract, as yet unsigned, waiting at home - but he's not interested in being pigeonholed as an Italianate tenor, or even a German one, something record companies have been keen to do. Such typecasting is indeed something he has been remarkably successful at avoiding. His voice, with its extremely distinctive dark, rich timbre at any rate rather defies categorisation. It has proved to be remarkably versatile.
Kaufmann has sung more than 50 roles to date, ranging across the spectrum from Mozart to Wagner and from the most popular works in the repertoire (Alfredo in Traviata) to the most obscure (the eponymous hero of Schubert's Fierrabras).

Learning music comes easily, he says, so he's often asked to do unusual things because people know he'll master the part quickly. Which is no bad thing; he gets bored very easily and says he's now suffering when he looks at next season's schedule and sees the number of Traviatas he has lined up.
First there's a return visit to the Met, then Zurich, followed by Paris and La Scala, Milan. The Paris Traviata is perhaps the one he's most looking forward to; in a new production by controversial Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, it promises to be a million miles from the Met's opulently traditional affair designed by Franco Zeffirelli.

"Sometimes it's really relaxing to do one of these pure, old-style productions," says Kaufmann, "but I don't think I could stand doing it all the time. When I saw pictures of the Met's Traviata, I didn't think I wanted to do it, though it turned out that it was actually nice just to concentrate on the voice for once. It wouldn't be possible to do that in Germany because they're really into crazy productions there."

Conservatism aside, the main drawback to working at the Met, or anywhere else in the US, is being away from his family, his wife (also a singer) and their three young children, for long periods of time. The family home is in Zurich, where Kaufmann has a contract with the opera house to sing about 20 performances a year.
Despite Kaufmann's current preoccupation with La Traviata, he's still finding time to fit new roles into his repertoire. First, there's his eagerly awaited Don Jose in Covent Garden's new production of Carmen, then there's the title role of Verdi's Don Carlo in Zurich.

Lensky in Eugene Onegin, a role he says he's desperate to do, is also in the pipeline and there are still many more he has in his sights; Massenet's Werther, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, he even mentions Britten's Peter Grimes. Then there's the one role he covets above all; Verdi's Otello, though not for another few years yet. "By the time I'm 45, I'll be ready," he says. "I'm not waiting any longer."

But back to his forthcoming first performance of Walther in Die Meistersinger, perhaps the most demanding role Kaufmann has tackled to date. It's always best, he says, to try a role that's on the upper edges of your ability in the concert hall first, "so you can just really concentrate on the voice and have the score in front of you. Afterwards you can then say, 'fine, I can start doing staged productions now', or 'let's leave that for another couple of years and pick it up again later when it'll be much easier'."

Sound advice, though not something he followed when he sang Parsifal for the first time earlier this year in a fully-staged production in Zurich. That wasn't an equal challenge to the one he now faces.
"Parsifal has about a third of what Walther has to sing and it is musically completely different," he says. "Bits of Parsifal can be done in a lied voice, which I did because I think it's much more beautiful to use different vocal colours. Walther though, you really just have to sing, and as for that prize-lied, well, it just seems to go on for ever."

 back top