The Sydney Morning Herald, August 1, 2014
Richard Jinman
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann seeking passion, not perfection
Jonas Kaufmann is sitting opposite me at a table on the terrace of London’s Royal Opera House. The roofs of Covent Garden are spread out beneath us and in the distance the capital’s spires, steeples and domes are lit up by July sunshine. The 45-year-old German tenor takes a sip of black tea and pushes a hand through the mop of greying curls his fans like to call Byronic. He is wearing silver-framed Ray Bans, a Rolex and rock-star stubble. His jeans are expensively deconstructed and a beautifully tailored beige jacket hangs open over his grey T-shirt. I’ve just asked him how he resists becoming a monster, a question that seems apposite given the steady diet of standing ovations and superlative reviews to which he has been subjected in recent years.

Kaufmann, to use a term he would probably despise, is the total package. He has a stupendous voice – arguably the greatest tenor of his generation – that is rich and powerful in the lower register, but able to hit high notes, too. It allows him to sing the lighter tenor roles of Puccini and Verdi, but also summon the sturm und drang demanded by Wagner. He is darkly handsome, of course, and has the acting chops necessary to make a Don Jose or a Don Carlos seem like a real person experiencing real emotions. Oh, and he is also fluent in four languages. If a team of scientists was asked to devise the perfect tenor for the 21st century, the result would look … well, you get the idea.

Kaufmann ponders the monster of the opera idea for an instant. “Yah,” he says, removing his sunglasses to reveal a pair of piercing eyes the colour of teak. “I’m pretty grounded, don’t worry.”

He is in London to perform in a new production of Puccini’s operatic tragedy Manon Lescaut. Covent Garden’s musical director, Antonio Pappano calls it “the most difficult and challenging role for the tenor that Puccini ever wrote”. But Kaufmann has nailed it. Emphatically. “His thrilling performance satisfies both musically and theatrically,” gushed the London Evening Standard. Kaufmann has Pavarotti’s “gleaming tone”, Carreras’ “good looks” and Domingo’s “dramatic presence”.

The subject of all this adulation has the good grace to look slightly embarrassed. He does get bad reviews, he insists. He has been told he cannot sing softly, that he can only shout and has to choose his repertoire accordingly. One English critic hailed his voice, but said his Italian was not up to scratch. “That’s funny, because I’m so fluent in Italian – even better than English,” he bristles. “No Italian would ever guess I wasn’t Italian.” He checks himself. “It’s fine. There are things that I’m not satisfied with. The moment 100 per cent of people say what I’m doing is great, I’ll be doing something wrong, because I’m not seeking perfection, I’m seeking passion. That’s something you can criticise, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Some people seem destined for stardom from an early age. Kaufmann, by his own admission, was not one of them. His family fled East Germany in the 1960s and he grew up in a Munich apartment block full of fellow exiles. His musical tastes were shaped by his father’s record collection – a rack of vinyl devoted to Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov – and a grandfather who played Wagner on the piano, singing both the male and female parts. Kaufmann sang in school choirs, but did not get serious about music until his late teens, when he was talked into doing a major in music and joined the chorus at Munich’s Gartnerplatztheater opera house. Deciding that a career in music was “pretty chancy” he opted to study mathematics at university. Luckily for opera lovers he had a change of heart after two semesters, hung up his slide rule and enrolled at Munich’s Academy of Music and Theatre. That should have been the launch pad for today’s stellar career, but it wasn’t. Kaufmann began to have terrible problems with his voice. He was constantly hoarse and suffered crippling stage fright. “Sometimes I didn’t know if I would make it to the end of the evening,” he says. One terrifying night, he didn’t. He found himself on stage with a few lines still to sing, unable to make a sound. He watched helplessly as the conductor implored him to sing and the orchestra repeated his cue.

A solution eventually arrived in the shape of Michael Rhodes, an American voice coach living in Germany. Rhodes told Kaufman to forget everything he had been taught and rebuilt his voice from scratch by focusing on its natural qualities. “My voice got compacter and darker, the hoarseness vanished, and it also got easier for me to work with my instrument,” says Kaufmann. Rhodes cured his student’s stage fright by making him completely secure about his technique. “He [Rhodes] would say, ‘If someone wakes you up at 3am and says, ‘Sing this note’, you just sing it. You don’t have to think about it. Eventually, it feels as natural as talking.”

Kaufmann’s big international break came in 2006, when he sang opposite the feted soprano Angela Gheorghiu in a production of Verdi’s La Traviata at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Since then, big engagements have come thick and fast. In February, his performance of Massenet’s Werther at the Met “provoked one of the greatest ovations in recent memory”, according to Bloomberg. Two months later, his interpretation of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise at the Royal Opera House, revealed a “performer at the peak of his artistry”, according to The Telegraph.

In August, Kaufmann will perform his first concerts in Australia, one of 11 countries he will visit before the end of the year. The program, a selection of arias from operas including Werther, Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, is carefully designed to demonstrate his versatility. He knows he has many Australian fans; they tell him they travel to Milan and New York just to hear him sing. He fully intended to perform in Sydney years ago, but says reports about the blazing summer heat put him off. “It’s so hot, right? Forty degrees? But it’s dry, right? Easier than Brazil.”

His life might appear impossibly glamorous, but he pays a price for his peripatetic lifestyle. He cannot remember the last time he woke up and realised he had nothing to do, except go shopping or take a walk in a park. It has been suggested relentless touring also contributed to the collapse of his marriage to the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig. They were together for almost 20 years and have three children aged eight, 11 and 15. Kaufmann announced their separation on his website in April, but is reluctant to discuss the matter further. “We still like each other very much and we want everything to settle in peace,” he says, looking troubled for the first time. “Of course it’s sad … none of us is happy that it went that way.”

Kaufmann is too self-aware to complain about the pressures of his career, but he does have issues with the demands placed on top singers. He is already contracted for performances in 2020 and says the way star performers are forced to commit to productions years in advance is bad for both singers and opera. There are several reasons: firstly, singers’ voices are constantly changing and they cannot know what roles will suit them three or four years in the future; and, secondly, it is hard, if not impossible, to maintain the excitement you felt about a production when you signed up for it three years ago.

“It’s ridiculous. Does a gallery owner go to a painter and say to him, you need to pick the colours you’ll be using for your work in four years' time? I don’t want to start a revolution, but it would be interesting to see what happened if all the great opera stars said we’re not signing a contract for a performance that’s more than a year away. It would help the theatres see things from an artistic perspective, rather than a marketing perspective.”

His attitude is born of bitter experience. Kaufmann says he has been in “less than 10” productions he considers to be truly great. “That’s quite frustrating,” he says in way that suggests it is very frustrating indeed. “I did a production years ago with an English director [he refuses to name names] that got booed every night and after every single act. That is really hard ... The director is only there for the opening night and then he’s off and the cast has to deal with it [the audience reaction].”

Nowadays, Kaufmann is not afraid to use his super-star status to make sure he is involved intimately in the creative process. He assesses the director, the conductor and the designer of each production and carefully weighs up the odds of a success. He insists he knows not to go too far. “I would never say, ‘I will only do traditional productions’, for example. That would be wrong – an abuse of power.”

The reason all this matters is that the key to a great performance is a singer who is enjoying what they are doing. “If you are passionate about what you are doing, the audience can read that passion and that joy. That can’t be faked. I’m sure it can’t.”

Traditional opera is not the only thing that fires Kaufman’s passion. He recently acted in The Giacomo Variations, a movie adaptation of a play about the great Italian lover, Casanova. John Malkovich played the legendary pants man and Kaufman played one of his rivals. Pistols were drawn at dawn. “It was just one scene, because I didn’t have time to do more.” Was he star struck by meeting Malkovich? “No. No. He’s such a funny guy.”

Another passion project is the album of German songs from the 1920s and 1930s he has recorded for release later this year. Kaufmann is fully aware any departure from traditional opera repertoire is risky, but refuses to apologise. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, my god, operetta! Why are you doing operetta? Well, it’s still great singing and it was a lot of fun.”

The truth is, opera fans have nothing to fear: no one believes in the transformative power of the operatic aria more than Jonas Kaufmann. “Name me five pop songs from the past 20 years that can make people cry, even if they’ve never heard them before,” he says. “You will fail. Opera can do this because it is so passionate and overwhelming. It is on an entirely different level of emotion.”

Jonas Kaufmann performs at the Sydney Opera House on August 10 and 17.

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