|by Terri Knudsen
|ARTIST:Jonas Kaufmann, VOICE: Tenor (lyrico spinto), BORN: 1969 in Germany, CURRENTLY IN: “Faust”, Met/HD broadcast
This interview has also been published on www.operalively.com and been
distributed to audiences attending "Faust" in Oslo, Norway.
operatic world is a strange one; you can often be considered the biggest
of them all within the circle of opera lovers and enthusiasts, and yet
if you mention their names to the man in the street, they won't know who
you're talking about. Being a pop/rock star means you can't walk down
the street without getting attention at and yet if you're an opera star
and considered one of the most successful people in your genre in the
world, you're simply adored on the stage and can, in most cases, walk
down the street ten minutes later and nobody would bat an eyelid.
Now, meet Jonas Kaufmann, a tenor internationally recognised as “one
of the most important artists of today”, on top of his game, the best in
the world - but how well do you know him?
Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich,
Germany, in 1969. He grew up listening to his parents' collection of
classical music (ranging from Rachmaninov to Mozart) and attending
operas at Munich's Bavarian State Opera quite early on with his older
sister. In other words, it wasn't necessarily an unnatural development
for him to do a major in music at school, and be a part of various
choruses from primary school onwards. What may have been more of a
surprising turn was his decision to study mathematics after he was
adviced by his parents to do something sensible to fall back on to
support a family. As his father had made a decent living as an actuary,
he decided to attempt following in his foot steps and studied numbers
for a couple of semesters - with mixed enthusiasm. As he realised it
wasn't really for him, he made a decision in 1989 to take the chance and
study singing at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich.
road from there to where he is now has been long, and sometimes bumpy,
but there's no denying that finishing a degree in mathematics probably
won't be necessary to support his family. Just as well, really.
Currently he's back at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York as “Faust” alongside René Pape and Marina
Poplavskaya, an opera which is broadcast to cinemas all over the world
in HD. The production is brought into the 20th century by director Des
McAnuff who decided to set it in between the World Wars, casting Faust
himself as a nuclear physicist who's coming of age and he's unhappy with
his life. So unhappy, in fact, that he decides to poison himself and in
the process curses God and summons the Devil. Or Mephistophele, as he
goes by here. The Devil sticks to what he knows best and willingly
offers Faust everything he wants – in return for his soul when he
eventually goes “down below”.
The role of “Faust” provides a
challenge for the tenor that in the first act is playing an older man
whose voice is heavier and much lower than the younger man that he
becomes, that utters a multitude of high notes.
first question is how does Kaufmann negotiate the challenge of this?
- I feel that in that special case the more challenging thing is the
acting, Kaufmann begins. Of course, vocally it's not easy either, but
I’m not so much afraid of changes in tessitura. After having sung
Siegmund [in Die Walküre], switching from a lower and heavier voice to
phrases with are more light and lyric shouldn’t be a problem.
What's the rehearsal period been like for “Faust”?
- It was five weeks of intense work! Sometimes we had a pretty hard
time, since we had to look for a way to fit into the “atom bomb concept”
of the producer, and do to justice to the opera characters as well as to
Gounod’s music, which was quite a challenge. However, with partners like
Rene Pape as Mephistopheles and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite it
worked out in the end, and with Yannick Nezet-Seguin in the pit we had
“The Faustian Pact”; sacrificing everything,
your soul included, to achieve your dreams. Some would say that the
price of becoming an international star today is just that. In most
cases it means sacrificing time with family and other close relations.
How true do you think this is?
- I wouldn’t
call it “pact with the devil” or “selling your soul”, but as they say in
Italian, “Il prezzo del successo”. The price of success. Of course,
every singer would like to have an international career and a nice
family life as well. Some have got it both, and thank God I’m amongst
them. Despite all the travelling I feel that our family life is mostly a
lucky one, but as you say... this profession takes its toll,
particularly when I’m separated from my family for several weeks at the
time. The more I’m abroad, the more we try to enjoy the time we are
together as much as we can.
You made your MET debut in
2006 with "La Traviata" - what do you remember from your first
experience with this opera house and how does it feel now?
- When I arrived at the Met in 2006, I was a noname there. The
public had come to listen to Angela Gheorghiu in “La Traviata”. The
performances went very well, but I’d never dreamed of such a response
from the audience. When I came out, the bravo shoutings and screamings
were so massive that I literally fell down on my knees, thinking: “Who?
Me??” That was what you call the “classical break-through”; the
performance which changes your life. Today, almost six years later, it’s
more like a feeling of “coming home” to that wonderful generous
audience. “They really love you”, some colleagues told me a few weeks
ago, after I had given a solo recital at the Met. I did no arias, but
rather a programme with songs of Mahler, Strauss, Liszt and Duparc, and
the audience went wild as if I had sung some of the Verismo hits! I
mean, this is really something special, completely different from any
other opera house I know.
THE VOICE – FRIEND AND FOE
On his website, Kaufmann talks about vocal trouble he had quite
early on in his singing career, that he managed to nip in the bud. A lot
of singers will find themselves in a situation where the voice doesn't
do what it used to (or what you'd wish it would do), and some very
unlucky ones lose the ability to sing for years because of it. I'm
interested to know how he dealt with his troubles and what advice he
would give to others in the same situation.
- This is too a big a
subject to put it in a short answer, but my advice is if you feel that
something is going wrong vocally, try to change it as soon as you can.
Luckily I found the right teacher when I was in serious trouble. This
was the point where I even thought of quitting. Then, Thank God, I met
Michael Rhodes. Without him, I would have gone back to mathematics!
Could you see yourself teaching others?
don’t know. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure. I’ve already done it, but
it’s such a delicate thing and such a big responsibility. Most
importantly: If you are travelling a lot, you can’t look after your
pupils as constant as a teacher should do.
How do you
take care of the voice now, and how do you deal with the subtle changes
in the voice that naturally comes in different stages of life?
- I do warming up exercises, yoga and try to keep my body as fit and
healthy as I can. For me, the most healthy thing I can do for my voice
is doing the right mixture of repertoire. Singing Italian, German and
French roles within the same period helps a lot to keep the voice
flexible. The subtle changes with age and daily life are a big plus – if
you can deal with them technically. The voice gets more mature, gains
some strength and volume, maybe the sound becomes more dark and rich.
For a tenor, this is a big advantage, but of course you should always be
very careful not to sing those heavy parts too early.
Speaking of which; Of the roles that you'll be likely to do in the
future, which do you look forward to the most?
But of course I have to wait another two or three years for that!
LEARNING AND COMPARING
repertoire is a big part of being an opera singer, and everyone has
their way of doing it that suits them. I've spoken to those who have
photographic memory and can learn new rep in a few days by flicking
through the score, whereas others (I'd say most!) take longer. This is
one of the questions that I ask every performer, to get an insight into
how their process is.
- Thankfully I’m quite quick in learning,
so it won’t take that long. Of course, you need a quiet place for that,
as you can’t do it properly while travelling. The process of learning is
much more than getting all those black dots on your memory stick in
time. It also includes reading books and articles, listening to records
and watching DVDs in order to get familiar with the work, its style and
performing tradition. After that, I will work with a repetiteur on the
As opera is an artform where there's a lot of
“recycling” of material, and you have umpteenth vocalists doing the same
roles all over the world, it's very easy to start comparing and putting
one up against the other.
What do you think of this
- I don’t like comparisons in terms of rating and
ranking: The best Otello, the best Siegmund and so on, but I do like to
compare different voices, different styles and different interpretations
from different eras. For example, it’s very interesting to compare the
Verismo style in recordings from the 1930s with those from the 1950s.
Aren’t we lucky that we’ve got so many different versions on record – or
on YouTube – with such a big range of individual personalities? As
different as those singers are sources of inspiration. Take Fritz
Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda, Franco Corelli and Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi
Björling and Placido Domingo, Maria Callas and Claudia Muzio. What’s the
use of rating the dubious “best”? It’s a blessing that we can listen to
all of them.
September there were a few nervous jitters when there was an
announcement made that Jonas was going under the knife to remove lymph
nodes from his chest, only days after doing a performance commemorating
the 100th anniversary of Jussi Björling's birth in Sweden. The news came
after an official statement made in August 2011, where he announced a
cancellation of “Carmen” in Japan:
“The fact is that I need to
have an operation to remove a node in my thoracic area. I do not wish
anyone to become alarmed reading this, but my physicians have ordered me
to have the surgery as soon as possible. This will take place after my
appearance in Stockholm on September 2. I am pretty sure that the
results of the histological examination will come up "benign" but as I
said, this procedure could not be further delayed.” - Jonas Kaufmann -
I trust you're fit and well after your surgery?
- Yes I am, thank you! The surgery went smoothly and within a few
weeks I had fully recovered.
Jonas Kaufmann can be seen
at cinemas across the world in “Faust” in Live HD, broadcast directly
from the Metropolitan Opera, New York.