Gramophone, July 2015
Warwick Thompson
Striving for perfection
He painstakingly edits his own recordings and avoids listening to them afterwards - for tenor Jonas Kaufmann, his new Puccini arias disc is another labour of love, writes Warwick Thompson
When Jonas Kaufmann speaks about his dazzling, all-encompassing disc of Puccini arias, which contains numbers from all of the composer's operas except (for fairly obvious reasons) Suor Angelica, his voice takes on an evangelical tone. `Two years ago, when we had the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries, anybody who was curious could really experience the whole oeuvres of those composers, from first to last,' he says. `And I think that Puccini deserves the same thing. There are numbers in the two early operas Edgar and Le villi which have such
overwhelmingly beautiful music and melodies...they're simply magical. They deserve to be heard.'

As I come to discover during the course of our enjoyable interview, this is a typical statement from the German tenor, combining as good a dose of head as of heart. He is a committed, thoughtful artist with plenty to say, who also happens to have the theatrical instincts of a fairground barker — and it is this wonderful combination of intellectual curiosity and scalp- prickling emotionalism (plus his dark, brooding voice with its clarion upper register) that has brought him to the point at which he is now routinely hailed as the greatest tenor of his generation.

Greatest? In judging any artistic endeavour, the term will always be a rather questionable piece of journalistic hackery, of course. How could one create a league table of, say, Juan Diego Florez, Joseph Calleja and Brian Hymel without feeling that it would be like trying to sift apples and oranges? All are undoubtedly great artists. But even with that caveat, and even though Kaufmann's voice doesn't appeal to everyone — some criticise a lack of mezza voce, or an overly dark timbre — there's something about him that creates an extra frisson. The fact that his voice 'contains multitudes' —he has a graceful and flexible Italianate lyricism, a powerful baritonal lower register, and the heft to scale the rarified slopes of the German
Heldentenor repertoire — makes him an unclassifiable oddity, in the best possible sense. You can't put him in a box, for the simple reason that there's no box big enough.

Professionally, life couldn't be better. He has, despite the very occasional animadversion, pretty much bomb-proof approval ratings from audiences and critics, and he can afford to choose or refuse the projects that come his way. This September, he's been given the plum job of singing at the Last Night of the Proms, and, for anyone who frets about such things, will thus be the first German ever to perform 'Rule, Britannia!' at the event. He has a much- anticipated — to put it mildly — staged role debut coming up in May next year too, when he sings Walther in Die Meistersinger in his home city of Munich. There was another fillip recently when Sir Antonio Pappano, the Music Director of the Royal Opera, named the top three current singers of Italian repertoire: Diana Damrau, Anja Harteros and — naturally —Jonas Kaufmann. (That all three are Germans, Kaufmann puts down to his country's tradition of giving young singers contracts as part of an ensemble, and thus a chance to build their careers solidly and surely.) Pappano's admiration is reciprocated: Kaufmann adores the maestro, and asked him to conduct his new Puccini disc.

On a personal level, things aren't quite so rosy. There was a rocky patch last year when he announced on his website that he was separating from his mezzo-soprano with Margarete Joswig, ending a relationship which had begun in the mid-1990s when the couple were both based at the opera house in Saarbrücken. The union has produced three children too. But
we'll come back to that later.

When I meet Kaufmann, he looks relaxed, upbeat and full of vim. Our interview is at Ludwig Beck, a smart department store in central Munich, where the tenor is due to sign copies of a
new edition of his biography Meinen die wirklich mich? (`Do they really mean me?') written by his friend and manager Thomas Voigt. By the time I arrive, the queue of fans is already pushing at the seams of the CD department.

A store employee waves me through the jostling crowd of opera lovers into a comfortable little antechamber where the singer is waiting. He's friendly, charming, and laid-back, and it's soon clear that he seems happy to be in his own skin. He looks trim in a casual shirt and jeans, and though there's a small sprinkling of salt and pepper in his famously curly locks, his 'silver fox' years are way ahead of him yet (he's 46 on July 10).

We talk first about his new disc. For a singer who is so careful and thoughtful about the progression of his career and about the roles he chooses (often waiting years before reprising a new role after a first outing, just in case it doesn't suit him), I wonder if an album of Puccini arias is a bit, well, vin ordinaire? A bit predictable, perhaps? He concedes some ground. 'It's obvious that at some point when you start having a major success with the roles of a certain composer, that you should concentrate on that. And it's certainly much easier to record an album when you've sung the whole role and not just studied the aria. It really helps you get into the mood much better. But there's something more. Puccini was the most modern of the
really popular composers. He experienced so many of the inventions which have taken place n the modern era, and I think this is why the access to that music is easier for us — maybe more so than for other composers who are equally talented; we're further away from their mentality, their time frame. So the idea was to show an overview of Puccini's work, to start with the very first opera and finish at the very end, to understand how far he had come in his career.'

Of Puccini's principal tenor roles, Kaufmann has sung on stage Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Des Grieux, Dick Johnson, and Ruggero (La rondine). Still to come are Calaf (`it's certainly on the list') and Pinkerton. A question mark hovers over the latter, however, although he has recorded the part with Angela Gheorghiu as Butterfly. 'It's just not a very attractive role. I'm not speaking about the vocal writing — but you have to understand that Pinkerton is just either very stupid or very arrogant, and you have to deal with it. It's not that I mind playing the evil guy though: it's not so often that the tenor gets to be the bad guy in opera.'

And the young lover Rodolfo? Is he scheduled to make a reappearance? 'The role is certainly not over,'s funny, I was just thinking about another lighter role, Nemorino [in L'elisir
d'amore] the other day too. And I wondered why I'm not doing it anymore. It's still possible for me, and it's a wonderful part. But I have the ability to do so many things, and there's so much else to choose from — and everyone is always asking me about Otello, Tannhäuser, Siegfried.' The tenor in Gianni Schicchi is also a boyish (and rather minor) love interest — would it tempt him on stage? 'No, I assume it's not going to happen. In fact, when we first discussed the disc, I really wasn't sure whether to include this aria, as it's really for a much lighter tenor. But then Thomas [Voigt] sent me a link to a clip of Giuseppe di Stefano [a singer with considerable reserves of spinto power] singing it in 1949 — so I had to do it too. And I learned that it can be done with lots of voice.'

Did anything unexpected crop up during the recording process, I wonder? 'Yes, I found it fascinating that Puccini's early arias are much longer than the later ones. They get shorter and shorter the whole time, almost becoming like pop songs. Maybe it's because Puccini was a very clever businessman, and he knew that a shellac disc could only contain a certain number of minutes. Perhaps he was trying to write something perfect for that medium...who knows?'

The more we talk, the more I sense that it's time Kaufmann did a Puccini disc 'kerching! kerching!' was really the least important factor in the journey of his latest album. 'The thing is, I have to decide my calendar five years in advance. First there are the new opera productions; then the revivals; then the concert tours; then the smaller events, like single concerts or a recital. So I keep a gap for recording, not knowing what the content might be, who the conductor will be, or even which orchestra. But I know I will have these 10 days or so in my diary. And then, depending on who is available, we decide on the programme. In this case, having Pappano and the Santa Cecilia orchestra, I knew we had to do something Italian. Puccini was the obvious choice. And to record it in Rome [at the Parco Musical] was a stroke of luck.'

Kaufmann, an enthusiastic and articulate speaker, reaches a new height of fervour when talking about his friend and colleague Pappano. 'It's a privilege and pleasure to work with him, but also enormous fun. For me this is really making music. He sticks to you like glue, and feels every little detail that you're about to do: he doesn't react a couple of seconds after you've decided to do something. He knows exactly and instinctively where I want to go. It's funny, when I asked him the first time, to conduct my "Verismo" album, he didn't want to: he said, "Actually I won't do that, I don't do solo albums...but oh, that the heck! It's verismo, it's my thing. We have to do it." So we did. And here we are again, this time with Puccini.'

Kaufmann tells me that he avoids listening to recordings when preparing a role, or even when making a recording himself, preferring to 'keep open-minded as long as possible.' Does he like the process of a recording? 'Honestly, no. I think an artist changes constantly: and if you want to keep your quality, it means not holding on to it, but constantly refining it. Always criticising yourself, asking the big questions. And for each performance, I try to be spontaneous, to develop it in the moment. And therefore it will be different each time.' So what's the compromise? How does he square the recording circle? 'I listen to the tracks a million times during the editing process, and partly edit them myself. Because I think only you as an artist can say what you're pleased with the most: it's not rationally measurable. Sometimes it disturbs to enormously if I'm not rhythmically correct, or a little bit sharp, or a little bit flat — and sometimes I love it! Because it's on purpose, it's part of my interpretation — and who else can decide that? So the editing becomes a hell of a lot of work. But after that, I never listen to it again.' Never? 'Well, if it came on the radio, I wouldn't men it off. But I'd never think to pick up one of my CDs and listen to it. What would I find? Would I be pleased? What would I do?

It's the first time in our conversation that Kaufmann seems uncertain of himself. But, tellingly, his uncertainty doesn't seem to trouble him unnecessarily, or disturb his underlying air of self-confidence. This auto-stability can be traced partly to his supportive family background. He is the son of parents who had fled East Germany before the building of the Berlin Wall, and who then settled in Munich. His father worked for an insurance firm, and his mother was a nursery school teacher. Both were passionate about music, and the family would regularly sit down to listen to records of Mahler, Shostakovich, Bruckner and Rachmaninov. The young Jonas saw his first opera, Madama Butterfly, at seven, and fell in love with the art form. He also sang in choirs all through his school years, and loved the joy of performance. But fearing the financial insecurity of a singer's life, when the time came to choose a subject for university he plumped for maths. He lasted just two terms, before the irresistible lure of lyric performance made him switch to vocal studies. To support himself during this time, he worked as a chauffeur for BMW, driving one of its luxurious 7 Series sedans. (The one drawback of the job, he notes, was that he had to keep his hair short.)

After university he spent two years on contract at the State Theatre in Saarbrücken, before his incipient, but obvious, talents began to be noticed elsewhere too. But then he began to notice vocal problems. His voice tired easily, and was constantly hoarse, and he feared for its reliability in performance. Fortunately he met Michael Rhodes, an American baritone living in
Germany, who persuaded him to stop trying to sound like the bright, silvery Germanic tenor that he thought he should be, and to let out the much more idiosyncratic — but utterly natural — dark, rich, baritonal tenor that he was. The tiredness and hoarseness vanished, and the power increased. Kaufmann has bravely written and spoken about this process quite
frequently. I say 'bravely' because, in the world of opera, singers often fear that any taint of vocal unreliability will stop them being cast tutto presto. For a performer to be open about such an area of vulnerability is certainly to be applauded.

After this vocal rebirth, hugely successful debuts began to follow at Munich, the Met, Covent Garden, Vienna, Salzburg and other major houses. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There have been professional bumps along the way, naturally. An illness caused some cancellations in August last year. And there have been controversial productions — including Hans Neuenfels's 'spaceship' Manon Lescaut in Munich, which Anna Netrebko stormed out of just weeks before opening night last November (Kristine Opolais partnered Kaufmann as a last-minute replacement instead). How does he deal with a situation where he might himself disagree with a director's concept? 'I try to keep calm, discuss it with the director and my colleagues and try to find a solution. I don't suffer unprofessionalism or ignorance gladly, but I'm not the type who creates big trouble and walks out. If you walk out, you can't change anything, you can't contribute something to make things better. But you can, if you stay.'

His marriage, unfortunately, suffered a different fate, and the option of staying together was not possible. Both parties have agreed not to talk about details, but I ask him in general terms about the pressures a peripatetic career can have on one's family. 'What can I say?' he replies. 'It's not easy being on tour most of the time and having a family life. What can you
do in those moments where you feel very lonely and miss your family badly? Talking to them and seeing them via Skype may help sometimes, but often it makes things worse, because you see on screen what you could have had if you'd stayed at home. On the other hand, you appreciate the enormous value of those days you can spend with your family.'

On a recent illuminating edition of Desert Island Discs, Kaufmann revealed that he has a handyman streak, and always travels with a screwdriver. I ask him, somewhat cheekily, to tell me the most recent thing he's fixed, and am touched by the reply. 'It was a shelf in the room of one of my kids,' he says.

One of the next engagements for which he will be separated from his offspring is the Last Night of Proms, at which he'll be singing some of the arias on his disc. But Kaufmann — who has appeared only once before at the Proms, in a 2004 performance of Beethoven's Symphony No 9 — is nevertheless looking forward to it tremendously. 'It's amazing. It really rocks,' he says, referring to the spectacle of the Last Night. 'I remember when I first saw it on television on holiday in Norway — I was about 13 or 14. And I thought, "What is that?" It was like a pop concert, with so many people clamouring and cheering —but was it a comedy? I couldn't get it. I was totally blown away. This sort of event is so important for us at a time when everybody is struggling, when we're always reading that classical music is about to die. It's great to support something like that.'

It certainly helps, of course, if such an event can bag a Jonas Kaufmann to aid the clamour and cheering.


 back top