The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2014
By Zachary Woolfe
For a Sage Tenor, It's All in the Timing
Jonas Kaufmann Chooses His Met Roles Carefully

“I don’t have more than this one life,” the tenor Jonas Kaufmann said in a recent conversation at the Metropolitan Opera. “I don’t have more to offer. And I’ve still got a family that I, from time to time, need to see. And that’s a problem.”

The intricacy of balancing his operatic and personal lives — sensibly expanding his repertory in the midst of an overstuffed schedule — is undoubtedly a problem for Mr. Kaufmann. But it may be just as much of one for the opera house administrators who have come to depend on him as a box-office draw, and for the international audiences that in remarkably short order — less than a decade, really — have embraced him as the most important, versatile tenor of his generation.

His curly hair grayer than it was just a couple of years ago, Mr. Kaufmann, 44, has returned to the Met to perform the title role in Massenet’s “Werther,” which he sang at the Paris Opera in 2010 and the Vienna State Opera in 2011. Directed by Richard Eyre, conducted by Alain Altinoglu and featuring his Paris and Vienna co-star, the mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, it opens on Feb. 18, the latest in what has become an annual tradition of Kaufmann-anchored new productions at the company.

The previous three highlighted the range of this gifted artist as well as the difficulty of picking parts that will suit a singer at a given moment — particularly since opera companies cast many major roles up to five years in advance. So the baritonal depths of Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” came across as too heavy for Mr. Kaufmann in 2011; while the notes were certainly possible for him, his voice’s center of gravity lay higher. But later that year, the title role in Gounod’s “Faust” seemed too light for a sound that has grown more darkly hooded in the past decade.

“It’s very difficult to decide what you’re willing to commit to in five or six years’ time,” he said. “Because it’s very difficult to really know what your voice is in five years’ time or what you want to do then, because that’s one of the main things you need to keep in this business: Keep the attraction, keep the joy.”

He came closest to a happy medium in the title role of François Girard’s elegant production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” last year. But no German roles were included on a brief list of some of Mr. Kaufmann’s coming parts at the Met, provided by a company spokesman: Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen” and Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca,” both of which he has sung there before, and Des Grieux in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” which he is adding to his repertory in June at the Royal Opera House in London.

Building on his recent Met seasons, the list of roles continues to provide a mixture of languages and styles. It has long been a priority of Mr. Kaufmann and his management that he not be pigeonholed. He continues to be active in lieder as well as in opera. Two days after “Werther” opens, he makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut with a program of Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. His next album, coming on the heels of Verdi and Wagner discs, is a recording of Schubert’s “Winterreise.”

But that small selection of future roles provided by the Met inevitably contains omissions. (Where’s the Verdi?) Some have speculated that the extreme stylization of the Met’s Robert Wilson production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” — a gorgeously colored show but hard on its performers — made him reluctant to sing the opera’s conflicted hero in New York, but Mr. Kaufmann denied that in our conversation.

Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate that we cannot plan to hear it at the Met, because that role is Mr. Kaufmann’s desert-island must-have. The part benefits from the burnished darkness that is now basic to his sound. He has to work audibly to gain a clarion quality at the top of his voice, which comes across as rivetingly muscled rather than irritatingly strained.

A certain quality of remoteness in his onstage presence, which has sometimes felt like detachment, is also ideal for the otherworldly Lohengrin. (The same quality makes tantalizing Mr. Kaufmann’s suggestion in the interview that he wants to sing the enigmatic Pelléas in Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” someday.)

You don’t have to take my word for it: On YouTube, there is extraordinary footage of Mr. Kaufmann singing Lohengrin’s final monologue, “In fernem Land,” during his very first performance of the role in Munich in the summer of 2009.

Nothing stings for me personally more than the lack of his Lohengrin here. But also missing from the Met’s list are the new parts in which Mr. Kaufmann has recently triumphed in Europe: Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” Don Alvaro in the same composer’s “La Forza del Destino” and Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” the last of which he has expressed particular interest in doing in New York.

“I’ve talked to Peter Gelb just today about it,” he said, referring to the Met’s general manager. “I said: ‘This is made for the Met. When does it come back here?’ Because it’s such a beauty if it’s well done.”

One source of the problem — and once again, it’s as much a problem for opera house administrators and audiences as for Mr. Kaufmann — is that he has long made a practice of avoiding a commitment to a second production of a role before he has sung it for the first time. (Lohengrin was a notable exception.)

Of Manrico, Alvaro and Dick, for instance, he said that none is yet scheduled for another house. In the contemporary opera industry, that means he may well be waiting for several years before being able to sing them again, even though he found all three congenial.

“There’s always a little bit of a risk that you realize that this is maybe a shoe that is still too big for you,” he said. But his success in the heroic, difficult “Forza” part has convinced him that he is ready for one of the touchstones of the tenor repertory: the vocally and dramatically strenuous title role in Verdi’s masterpiece, “Otello,” which is now officially on the horizon, although where is unclear.

“Now that I’ve sung ‘Forza,’ ” he said, “everybody says: ‘So why are you waiting for this Otello? You’re ready, you’re right.’ Well, all right, I didn’t know until I did the ‘Forza’ the first time. Now I know, and now the others know, and now I’m waiting for the first Otello to come, and I have scheduled it already, and it comes in two or two and a half years.”

But that decision only brings with it more of the same: “Shall I now go the risk and take another production of ‘Otello’? Do I really want to wait? If I do it in two and a half years, the next ‘Otello’ could then be in only seven and a half years? Maybe I’m now ready to take the risk and say, ‘O.K., I know I can do it.’ ”

This self-questioning is a constant with Mr. Kaufmann, who is candid and self-aware. Speaking to him, even for just an hour, I felt closer to the conflicting currents of being an opera star in the 21st century than I have had in interviewing almost any other artist.

The opposite tugs on his loyalties, from risk and caution, work and family (his wife, the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig, and their three children live in Munich), are palpable: “Is it worth giving up so much free time for this or is it not?” Even when he’s not asking a question, his language is perpetually couched in the conditional: “I could do this, but then...”

His relentless introspection has made Mr. Kaufmann exceptionally cautious not just about what he takes on, but also about when he chooses not to sing. One of the frustrations of being a fan of Mr. Kaufmann’s is the reputation he has earned, not without reason, as a chronic canceler, a situation I’ve experienced at home in New York and when I traveled to see him in Vienna. Two days after our conversation at the Met, Mr. Kaufmann begged off a concert in Montreal scheduled the following day, citing “a nasty flu that prevents me from singing.”

He said in the interview: “I always see it in long terms. And I know that if you do too many mistakes — meaning singing when you shouldn’t — then you have to pay that bill at the end of your career.” He added, “I really think you can harm your instrument. A tiny bit, but these tiny bits, after 20 years, you’re going to know.”

The frequency of Mr. Kaufmann’s cancellations may have its roots in the anxieties that gripped him early in his career. When he graduated from a conservatory in Munich in 1994, he joined the opera company in Saarbrücken, Germany. There, artificially lightening his tone, he had what he has described as a vocal crisis.

“I felt onstage I was always frightened,” he said in the interview. “I was always panicking that the voice would just stop, because I wasn’t in control of that instrument.” Even though the roles were not impossible ones, he said, this was “one reason why I always got sick.”

When Mr. Kaufmann discusses his career arc, he describes how his voice settled and darkened as he relaxed. But his caution — excessive, some might call it — stuck with him, the edge that comes from knowing that your gifts were not always yours and will someday pass from you. Coupled with his distinctive smoky sound, that melancholy provides the extra measure of depth that makes him not a good artist, but an indispensable one.

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