OperaUK, December 2008
Hugh Canning
People: 352

Kaufmann sings Florestan in Paris this month
Among today’s leading lyric tenors, Jonas Kaufmann is most certainly the most versatile. This month he sings Florestan in Johan Simons’s new production of Fidelio for the Opéra National de Paris at the Palais Garnier, ending a year which saw his role debuts as Cavaradossi in the Royal Opera’s Tosca revival, and as the Massenet Des Grieux for Lyric Opera of Chicago. The outstanding German-speaking tenor of his generation—he will turn 40 next year, although he looks much younger—Kaufmann resolutely refuses to be boxed into a German-tenor groove: the coming season climaxes with his first Lohengrin (a new Richard Jones production in Munich), but there is also his first Romeo in Venice. In the seasons ahead he plans to add Werther (in Paris), Siegmund (New York), the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten (Zurich). and both Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur and Enée in Les Troyens (Covent Garden) to his repertoire. Perhaps only Placido Domingo has sung a comparable variety of roles (and many more, of course); but Kaufmann also regularly sings Lieder and the great German concert works.

I first encountered Kaufmann on stage in 1999, as Belmonte in Christoph Loy’s Brussels staging of Die Entführung aus dem Serail— ‘a lovely production,’ Kaufmann recalls, ‘light-hearted but intelligent, and at least you could follow the plot’. I remember being impressed not only by the quality of his then lyric voice, but also by his striking good looks, his eloquent diction and his natural delivery of the spoken dialogue (an unusually long version of the linking text was performed, resulting in a duration of almost four hours). Here was, I thought, the Mozart tenor we had all been waiting for. By the time he made his Royal Opera debut six years later—as Ruggiero opposite Angela Gheorghiu’s Magda in La rondine—he was already phasing out some of his Mozart repertoire in favour of lyrical Italian and French romantic leads and dipping his toes into German dramatic-tenor waters: Florestan, Max in Der Freischütz, Hüon in Oberon, Parsifal and—so far only in concert—Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. His rise has been steady, but not without setbacks, as he explained when I met him at Covent Garden and in Rome earlier this year.

Kaufmann grew up in Munich, where classical music was very much part of his home life, with regular family visits to concerts, operas and the theatre. His parents loved Italy, and frequent holidays there gave him early exposure to the language, which he sings and speaks with hardly a trace of an accent. (His English is also excellent, although with a curious transatlantic flavour).

‘I always wanted to sing, even though I never expected to become a professional and make money out of it, at least until I studied seriously at the Hochschule in Munich. I was a tenor from the moment my voice broke. Starting at 15 or 16, I was always trained as a light, high tenor, so I didn’t discover that there was something more underneath. My voice stopped at F or F sharp, so at least 25 per cent of the normal tenor range was missing. I didn’t have those low notes. That’s partly because I was doing things wrong in the higher tessitura. I did everything with pressure, squeezing out the high notes, to support them, which is absolutely unhealthy for the voice.’

In September 1994 he began his first engagement at the theatre in Saarbrücken. ‘During those two years, I sang about 14 parts, so I was pretty busy. One of the last parts I did there was the Dritte Knappe in Parsifal. I actually lost my voice on stage in this tiny little role with only about ten sentences to sing. I think it was because the other singers were so strong and the music is so overwhelming that I started singing a bit louder than usual and forcing my voice. The conductor was looking at me. My voice was gone. It was a terrible experience.’

Kaufmann realized he would have to seek advice, and the Gurnemanz of that production recommended him to a new teacher, the American baritone Michael Rhodes, then based in Trier, only an hour from Saarbrücken. ‘He told me what I was doing was completely wrong for my voice. “Open your mouth, relax, let the sound come out without manipulating it,” he said. It sounds easy, but it took me a long time to sort it out. When I came back from the summer holidays that year, my first part was Don Ottavio [at the Goethe-Theater in Bad Lauchstädt], and everybody said it was terrible! Even my wife—who was my colleague in Saarbrücken, although at this time she was not yet my wife, nor even my girlfriend—told me recently that every single note was flat and it was horrible! People thought I had really screwed up and that I would probably ruin my voice in a couple of years. I was so far off track that in order to find out where the centre was, I had to go all the way to the other extreme of my voice, cuffing out the high registers and only searching for sound down at the bottom. It sounded not even like a baritone, and you would think that there was no high voice at all.’

In spring 1996, after disagreements with the management about repertoire, Kaufmann decided not to renew his contract in Saarbrücken. ‘I was hoping for the new Mozart roles I needed to learn and some of the lighter bel canto repertoire, but they only offered me some crappy little parts, so I went freelance. I had been lucky in the spring of 1996 to do an audition to sing the title role in The Student Prince in Heidelberg during the summer. They do it every year—mostly for American tourists, I think—in the open air in the castle, and it’s really romantic. We had so much fun, as much fun as the people we were playing!’ A YouTube clip from that production shows a fresh-faced, boyish Kaufmann, not yet an accomplished actor but displaying a wonderfully ringing lyric tenor and oodles of charm. Later the same year he sang in his first premiere, Antonio Bibalo’s Die Glasmenagerie in Trier. This gained him international coverage, including a mention in this magazine, Thomas Luys describing him as a ‘young, highly talented tenor’ who ‘took first place among the fine role-portrayals by the ensemble’.

With no contract, Kaufmann set about auditioning for the leading Mozart roles he had been denied in Saarbrücken. When he sang Tamino’s aria for the management in Würzburg they immediately offered him a two-year contract, but his experience in Saarbrücken put him off the idea. ‘I asked if they would take me just for The Magic Flute. The Intendant didn’t want to, but because the director heard me—”I need this guy to sing Tamino,” he said—they asked if I would be free to sing just this production. Of course, I said I was. I did six weeks of rehearsals, but I sang only the opening night, because the Intendant didn’t want to pay my fee for more than one performance. I was one of three tenors singing Tamino, and later, when the others were sick, they asked me to come back, but I said no. They had their chance to offer me more shows, but they didn’t take it. A pity, as I liked the production.’

Würzburg’s loss was Stuttgart’s gain, as Pamela Rosenberg, then Stuttgart’s opera director, snapped him up for the 1997-8 season. “‘Have you done Barbiere?” she asked. I said, “No” —“OK, you have the next revival of Barbiere. Have you done Traviata?” “No. no, how could I?”—”OK, you’ve got Traviata.” I was thinking, “Whaaat?” My first new production was a small part in Szymanowski’s King Roger, as the patriarch Edrisi. I was very old in it, with my hair whited-up. Jaquino came soon after. I also got to sing my Mozart roles: Ferrando, Tamino and Belmonte.’

Soon, word began to spread of the outstanding young tenor, whose acting skills were beginning to catch up with his vocal talent and natural stage presence. In 1997 he was one of the young singers hand-picked by Giorgio Strehler for his Piccola Scala production of Cosi fan tutte, which the director never lived to complete. It was seen in Milan in 1998, and the following year he made his debut at La Scala as Jaquino. Important international debuts soon came flooding in: Salzburg (a student in Doktor Faust) and Brussels (Belmonte) in 1999, concerts in Edinburgh, and his first operatic appearances in Switzerland in 2000. In 2001, I saw (but didn’t hear) him as Wilhelm Meister in Nicholas Joel’s Toulouse production of Mignon opposite Susan Graham (he was suffering from a bad cold and he acted while Benjamin Butterfield sang), and he made his US debut as Cassio for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

His first stage performances here in the UK came relatively late—four years after his sensational Edinburgh appearances, by which time he was almost a fixture at the festival. As well as Lieder—I remember a memorable Dichterliebe at the Queen’s Hall, and Usher Hall late-nights of Die schöne Müllerin and the Schoenberg chamber reduction of Das Lied von der Erde—he also sang three roles in concert: Max in Der Freischütz, Flamand in Capriccio and Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. The trajectory of Kaufmann’s career suggests a latter-day Wunderlich—one of the tenors he most most admires — although Kaufmann has already outlived his great compatriot by three years, and has tackled roles that fate prevented Wunderlich from singing.

Kaufmann’s opera recordings are, sadly, few, most of them taken from live performances, but they include rarities such as Marschner’s Der Vampyr and Carl Loewe’s Die Drei Wünsche. Additionally, several of his Zürich roles, and his extraordinary Don José from Covent Garden in 2006, have been preserved on DVD. (For those who may have missed Kaufmann in his early, more lyric repertoire, there are precious YouTube clips of his Milan Ferrando and a concert in which he sings Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis’.) Earlier this year Decca issued a portrait album in which Kaufmann ranged broadly across his German, Italian and French repertoire, with particularly fine accounts of Faust’s ‘Salut! Demeure’ from Gounod’s opera and ‘Nature immense’ from Berlioz’s Damnation. A meltingly lovely Prize Song whets the appetite for his first stage performances of Stolzing, when he eventually tackles it (there are no immediate plans, but Lohengrin in both Munich and Bayreuth loom, next summer and in 2010 respectively).

In summer 2008 Kaufmann made his first commercial opera recording, a rare foray into the studios for EMI, as Pinkerton to Angela Gheorghiu’s Madama Butterfly, the latest in Antonio Pappano’s continuing (one hopes) series of the Puccini operas. The idea to cast Kaufmann rather than Gheorghiu’s husband and regular recording partner Roberto Alagna (who has since defected to DG) was the soprano’s. ‘It was first talked about around the time of my Covent Garden debut in La rondine with Angela. This Butterfly recording is an Angela project, and it was she who made it happen. Not many companies are making studio recordings of opera. Very often now, it’s live from the theatre or a combination of concerts and patch sessions. Much as I love working in the studio, especially with Tony, it’s more difficult to work up as much adrenalin as you do on stage.’

But presumably, this is an opera he won’t sing in the theatre? ‘Well, that depends. From the musical point of view, it’s gorgeous. But the character is, er, not easy to fulfil. It’s not because Pinkerton is unsympathetic, but I always try to search inside my own character for traits that are similar at least to the one I have to play on stage. So far, I didn’t find any!’, he says, with a loud guffaw. At the sessions in the Sala Sinopoli of the Parca della Musica in Rome, Kaufmann’s dark, grainy tenor exulted in the love duet with Gheorghiu’s delicate yet sensual Butterfly. His Italian, learned as a child on those frequent family holidays, sounded idiomatic even next to the native members of the supporting cast and chorus. He clearly loves singing Italian music and he admits to being a fan of Franco Corelli. ‘Yes, but I try not to listen to him too much—enough perhaps to get a sense of the style of singing Italian repertoire, but without the extended high notes he liked to sing.’ He would surely be optimum casting for Puccini’s Des Grieux today. ‘I’d love to try it, but not many houses are doing it.’

As Kaufmann’s star ascends, that may all change. He has yet to play Hoffmann, another role he was born to sing, but doubtless that will come in the near future, presumably in Zürich, where he remains loyal to the opera house. He should have made his role debut as Werther at Covent Garden last season, but the rescheduling of a Zürich production of Carmen scuppered that. ‘Maybe it would have been possible to say, “I won’t do it. Tough!”, but Zürich have supported me at times when many other theatres had no idea who I was, and so I wanted to show them that I feel connected to this theatre. On the other hand, the change of the dates left a small gap in my schedule which enabled me to come to Covent Garden for my debut as Cavaradossi.’

In future, Zürich will have to join the queue with Covent Garden, the Met, Chicago, Vienna. Berlin and, latterly, his home town of Munich. ‘I would love to go back to live in Munich, which is where I come from, but it wasn’t really possible until quite recently. For Peter Jonas, I was almost non-existent. I only made my official debut—apart from jumping in for other singers — in 2007, as Tamino. And after that they said, “Ja, but now we need to do something—can you do a new production next season?”, and I said, “You have to be kidding!” Of course, I was fully booked. As soon as Nikolaus Bachler was announced as the new Intendant, I contacted him and said, “Listen, if you want me to sing in this house, I would be very happy to, but you will have to book me now.” And that’s what he did.’

For the present, and while his daughter is in school, he intends to stay put in Zurich. Yes. I think so. I mean, things can change, and already I have difficulty finding time in the schedule to fulfil the precise terms of my contract, because there is so much I need to do, and everybody invites me now. You have to share the cake! It’s becoming a hit of a challenge to fit everything in.’ Last season, Covent Garden was lucky to get two slices of the Kaufmann cake—his Alfredo and Cavaradossi—but this season his London fans will have to travel to Paris, Venice, Zürich or Munich to see him. That or wait for his Don Carlos in the revival of Nicholas Hytner’s staging in just under a year, with baited breath.
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