The Age, May 16, 2022
|By Nick Miller
He’s the hottest tenor in the world – but he’s worried about opera’s future
It has to be one of the most dramatic entrances in opera. For half an hour,
the story sets up the arrival of a mysterious knight in shining armour, said
to be on his way to save the honour of a wrongly accused woman. Then,
finally, as the musical swells as only a Wagner score can swell, he arrives:
on the back of a boat drawn by a swan, no less. And wins the day. And gets
Jonas Kaufmann, who’s playing the title role in Opera
Australia’s new production of Lohengrin, makes a rather more understated
entrance at the stage door of the State Theatre. He’s been out shopping for
clothes, attempting to come to terms with Melbourne’s fickle autumn climate,
and was a bit put out when Hugo Boss was out of his favourite jumpers and
the assistants suggested he try Uniqlo.
But he comes trailing clouds
of glory nonetheless. Kaufmann, 52, is one of the world’s hottest tenors –
if not the hottest – and not just in looks. Last year The New Yorker dubbed
him “the most bankable male star in opera today”. He’s singing and
performing across the world, at the greatest opera houses. He even put out a
Christmas album with a jaunty version of Jingle Bells.
His name, like
his glorious, effortless voice, fills concert halls. He’s the knight in
shining armour for the accountants of companies struggling with pandemic
But he’s worried, nonetheless. He can’t be everywhere, and
the pandemic has been an “existential crisis” for opera, he says.
Europe, “even the biggest houses, the strongest, the Vienna State Opera,
Munich State Opera, Berlin, you name it. They all struggle in selling
tickets and they play productions in front of a half empty hall. And that
cannot go on for a very long time.”
He’s profoundly grateful to be
mostly insulated from it.
“I was in an exceptional position, first of
all because I did make a hell of a lot of money in this business, much more
than 99 per cent of the people in the business,” says Kaufmann. “And second,
as soon as there was an opportunity, a possibility, they would always try to
get the ‘dirty dozen’ from the top, to make it as loud as possible, when
there was something going on. So I got plenty of business offers after four,
five months into the pandemic.
“But it was a crisis moment, because
when this all came to a halt, will the audience remember how important it
used to be, for them to come back? And unfortunately part of this turned out
to be true.”
Kaufmann wears his fame lightly: he’s a genial guy, and
he cares deeply about the art that has been so good to him – but more
importantly, about its audience.
“We have to do something,” he says.
“In the past, the golden times before the pandemic, we didn’t pay attention
to entertain people. It was more [about aiming] to be as outstanding, as
extravagant, as on-the-edge as possible within this art form. And I said
back then, and I say it now again, I think it’s necessary that there has to
be an understanding that we do it for the people.
“It is necessary
that you come up with a package where everyone feels pleased and
So it’s an interesting choice to come to Australia for
Lohengrin. Not only is the four-plus hours running time a challenge for
audiences, but the production – created in 2018 by French director Olivier
Py for La Monnaie in Brussels – is a complex layer of symbols and references
that wrestle with the composer’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic obsessions.
Kaufmann says the key is not to “turn the story upside down” for the
sake of it, but “to find as many layers as possible without destroying the
surface”. And, of course, the music is “really, really gorgeous,” Kaufmann
He loves the soft moments, when his superhero suddenly becomes
vulnerable. He loves the “gigantic introduction music”, the contrasts. A
duet between Ortrud and Elsa “that just blows your mind, it’s so beautiful”.
He hopes, and trusts, that opera will weather the storm. It shouldn’t be
an unaffordable luxury, he says, but as cheap as a movie ticket: “it is a
live act, and anything can happen. It’s something incomparable.”