Opera Now, May/June 2020
By Helena Matheopoulos
The real thing
As a singer-actor of the highest order, there’s no-one to touch Jonas Kaufmann. He has redefined the concept of the tenor for the modern age – smart, versatile and ready to explore the boundaries of the voice in terms of its tonal colour, emotional range and dramatic possibilities. In this exclusive interview for Opera Now, he gives the most in-depth account of his artistry to date, providing insights into how he finds the focus to deliver some of the most truthful and intense performances on today’s opera stage

My meeting with Jonas Kaufmann was originally meant to happen in London in March when he was in the UK for performances of Florestan in the Royal Opera’s production of Fidelio. Then came coronavirus and we ended up speaking from a distance, with both of us in isolation at our homes in different countries. But this was no obstacle to the sunny, uber-articulate and amazingly versatile star tenor. His charismatic nature shone through the digital crackle, punctuated by his quick, easy laugh. Obviously I had to start by asking how he was coping with present restrictions and all the many productions that have been cancelled – including Die Walküre in Paris where he was to have sung Siegmund in a production by the controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito. ‘As long as you are in good health it is comparatively easy. For me, it is the first time in twenty years that I have such a long gap because of prevailing circumstances rather than because of being ill. Something like this has never happened in my calendar, or indeed my life. I was always fully booked, so it is an absolutely novel experience. I was expecting it to be difficult and, of course, it will be, especially in our business, the entertainment industry, because it will take a long time before large crowds are able to come together again. Even after shops reopen and people are able to move more, our activity will be one of the last to resume.

‘This is going to be incredibly difficult for many people in artistic professions in many ways, including financial. Not for me, personally, as I am one of the lucky group of a couple of dozen singers who really make money in this job. Many others can barely survive, but still do it without complaining, because this work is a passion and they love it. I doubt whether many of those now sitting at home will be able to resume their artistic careers when they emerge from this crisis. Personally, I will survive. I am OK, I have a young child [from his second wife, stage director Christiane Lutz], the weather is nice… So up to now I won’t say I’m exactly enjoying it, but it could be much, much worse.’

What does he miss most, the actual act of performing or the adrenaline from the audience? ‘Wow, this is a difficult question! I can perform at home and do recordings, but it’s never the same if there is no feedback! Everyone likes to make music even for oneself, but if you are used to having an audience that responds, then its absence makes things difficult. This also happens when opera singers are streaming performances from home, which many do at the moment. Each member of the chorus of Rome Opera recently sang ‘Va pensiero’ [the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco] from their balconies. I was nice to hear it, but those performers couldn’t experience my, or any of the listeners’ spontaneous reaction. I could write or tweet how much I appreciated it, but this is not the same as receiving applause onstage.’

Does positive feedback from the audience help him perform better?  Probably. Audiences can be different from evening to evening, and so can I. It’s never exactly the same. First of all, my performance is different when there is an audience. There are people who find it difficult to perform in public, because they are so nervous that the quality of their performance goes down slightly, and others who are the exact opposite. I definitely belong to the second group.’

Even as a child Kaufmann relished the sensation of performing. ‘I loved it. I always tried to entertain my parents’ friends by singing or telling slapstick jokes, and had a lot of fun doing it. It was a passion!’ His father was in insurance and his mother a kindergarten teacher whose career ended when Jonas was born. ‘I must have been quite a handful because there was no way she could cope with both!’ His parents loved music and played the piano, as did his grandparents. So Jonas and his older sister both learnt to play and were regularly taken to concerts and the opera. After leaving school he studied mathematics at Munich University and enrolled simultaneously in music at the Academy of Music and Theatre. Two years later, it was goodbye maths.

‘It’s always difficult for a young person to decide what to do, as I’m also witnessing now with my daughter [one of three children from his first marriage to mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig], who is at university but cannot decide which profession would involve both passion and job security. It was the same with me and my father, who was probably right in suggesting I should study something that could lead to a real job while studying music for pleasure, without the pressure of having to make a living out of it. But after, two years I realised I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t envisage myself doing any job for the rest of my life that wouldn’t involve performing! That’s why I decided to try for a career in opera and if I failed, at least I would have the satisfaction of having tried.’

After graduating from the Academy of Music and Theatre, Kaufmann spent two years as a company member of the opera at Saarbrucken, where he cut his teeth as a performer and learnt all the Mozart tenor roles, as well as Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. His first Verdi role was Alfredo in Ruth Berghaus’ production of La Traviata in Stuttgart, eventually graduating to Rigoletto’s Duke of Mantua and Don Carlos at the Zurich Opera, where he spent seven years as a full member and acquired most of his repertoire. After the 2008/9 season, he moved back to his native Munich.

His first Florestan in Fidelio didn’t come about easily, but it was a turning point in Kaufmann’s career. It was at a concert performance in Wiesbaden conducted by Hellmuth Rilling (actually, a Bach specialist). ‘I had already sung Max in Der Freischütz in concert, but Fidelio was key to my realising that I have the voice for the German repertoire. It took Rilling nearly a year to convince me. I said I didn’t want to do it, that it was not my kind of thing. So we went backwards and forwards until finally he said I had to try it with a coach. So I did – and the funny thing is that both of us thought I wouldn’t do it. But I wanted to check what possible damage it might do to the voice. So I sang the whole role right through, then the aria once again, then “O namenlose Freude” and the Finale again and again. And the coach asked: “Are you still not tired?” I said no, the voice seems to have opened up. So she said I had to do it – and I did! Then I left it alone for two years before singing a staged performance in Zurich under Harnoncourt.’

Is Florestan as much of a killer for the voice as it sounds?  'It depends how you do it, whether you know how to. I would never call it an easy role. Although it’s not very long – Lohengrin is much, much longer – it sits uncomfortably for the voice. But by now it doesn’t feel that awkward. If you know your voice and have a good technique, you can do it and, with maturity, give it more sound, although that’s not necessary. In Beethoven’s time they didn’t have heavy orchestras like Wagner’s so that was never the intention. In some moments yes, because Beethoven was a revolutionary, ahead of his time, and he tried to push things a bit. But the way it’s written is completely wrong for the voice. Not just my part but Leonore’s as well, especially in the original version. So, the impression persists that Beethoven had no clue about the voice and how the voice works. That was also my view when I was younger. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe he was playing with the idea that people in very difficult situations shouldn’t sound relaxed but on the edge.

‘The Missa Solemnis is another good example of what I’m trying to say. There is a fugue, “Et vitam venturi saeculi, Amen” when the choir has a very difficult passage. In Beethoven’s time, choirs were not professional, they were amateurs who had no chance of singing that high, all those high Bs. And I tell you, I have done the Missa Solemnis many, many times, with absolutely perfect orchestras and perfect choirs, truly spectacular, with everything sounding so easy… But these were not the performances that touched me most. I was touched much more deeply at performances by semi-professional choirs where they really had to squeeze every bit out with enormous effort. I think that was Beethoven’s intention, because the text expresses doubt – doubt until the very end. If you think of this as an example, there might be other pieces, such as the Ninth Symphony and even Fidelio that could be seen in a different light, meaning that he was fully aware that it is bloody difficult and did it on purpose! Leonore is suffering and so is Florestan, so why shouldn’t we hear that?

‘A lot of it is written on the passaggio, and stretches the voice. It’s not written melodiously, that’s why it’s uncomfortable. The phrases are long and high, and he doesn’t bring you back to a lower register where the voice can relax. In Puccini roles – and Puccini had an absolutely perfect knowledge of the voice – he writes one high phrase as the climax, then brings you down low so you can relax properly before taking you high again. The vocal line is perfect, whereas Beethoven’s definitely isn’t. Take that phrase “Die Liebe, sie wird’s erreichen” in Leonore’s aria: if “erreichen” is sung as written, it’s an endless one-word phrase. Most sopranos repeat the word in order to take a breath in between. The first time I have heard it sung live as it was written was in London, by Lise Davidsen. This was something not only unheard of not in our own day, but in Beethoven’s as well.’

Having mentioned Puccini, often considered dangerous for the voice – especially for young voices – I wondered how Kaufmann compares him with Wagner, the other vocally ‘dangerous’ composer? ‘It depends first of all on the conductor. Both composers are killers for being too loud. With Wagner, the challenge is the need to produce a heroic sound without ever losing the line. German texts very often invite you to do just that, to shout and produce a sort of “Sprechgesang” instead of singing legato lines. This is what could be very dangerous. With Puccini the danger lies more in stretching the voice in order to cope with his very long phrases – unlike Wagner’s which are shorter – while the orchestra is doubling the melody, which encourages everyone to give more and more and more sound. Still, his vocal writing feels much more like natural singing than Wagner’s. The tessitura is also a factor. A Puccini tenor is a real tenor. Maybe he has some low notes and sings a bit around the middle, but then he climbs to B-flats and B-naturals and the occasional high C. The Wagnerian tenor, on the other hand, is basically a baritone with a few high notes. This forces you to produce more sounds from the chest register. You have to open up a lot in the middle register in order to produce a lot of sound, and that can cause damage to the voice in a different way. In Puccini you could maybe hurt yourself with too many high notes and high phrases. In Wagner, it’s the lower part that can kill you.’

Kaufmann’s first important Wagnerian role was Lohengrin, which he first sang in Munich in 2009 before scoring a major triumph at the 2010 Bayreuth Festival. He has very definite views, both about the dramatic aspects and the vocally correct way of singing it. ‘Lohengrin is a strange part, I would say, because it has some very beautiful, intimate, tender and cosy moments as well as many, many Italianate elements. Also because it’s higher than most of the other Wagnerian tenor roles and the melody is a little bit more Italianate. I was fascinated listening to some very old recordings where Wagner was sung in Italian and French, and the sound is beautiful. You can easily listen to them and not imagine you are hearing Wagner. And when you come to Lohengrin especially, it feels like an Italian opera. The tenderness of the Italian language in Wagner changes the music completely – it’s amazing! So the vocal line really is very beautiful unless, when singing it in German, you pronounce the words too harshly. The secret is to get away, somehow, with a German that you understand but is more round and dolce than you’re used to. To me this is the key, and this is the way I sing it – the Italian way. I don’t sing it in a way that tries to push and squeeze and make a typical Wagnerian sound. Why would I? In Munich, where I first sang it a year before doing it in Bayreuth, there was no problem. We had lots of fun with all my colleagues.

‘But that was not the case in Bayreuth, at least not initially! There were no problems with Andris [Nelsons – the conductor], he was wonderful. But the Bayreuth team was not amused by hearing German sung without spitting the consonants. They said I should produce a guttural sound. I asked why should I? They replied that this is how it’s supposed to be, because the text is by “The Master”. And I replied, yes, but so is the music! Do you think Wagner would have considered himself as a text writer who also happened to write his own music or as a composer who, on top of everything else, also wrote his own texts? I would say the latter, and therefore the melody is a priority. And it doesn’t make sense if the melody is ruined by spitting out another double “tt” or something. It’s not that I am pronouncing it wrong, just that I’m not overemphasising the consonants. That was the kind of pronunciation we are, or were, used to hearing in all the recordings as well, with the exception of some beautiful old ones. So it was a long fight in Bayreuth, with my German constantly being corrected! But I stuck to my guns, because this point was key for me.’ he result was a triumph that set Kaufmann on the road to superstardom.

‘Of course, since then I have sung Lohengrin a lot, and gradually it becomes easier although it’s never an easy role. It’s a strange part for the tenor because, even though you warm up well before, the first act is not really the beginning of the opera. You have very little to sing here, except at the Finale, when probably no one can hear you! Otherwise it’s a long wait and the second act is similar: you come in fifteen minutes before the end and you have the scene with Telramund, which is not an aria or anything like that. Then comes the last Act. And this is where the opera really begins for you. You have the love duet with Elsa and the second part where they start to fight. Then the accusations begin in front of the army – it’s neverending. This last act is a whole new opera unfolding. So you need to find a way to warm up and be ready before Act I but then keep the energy and voice for what really matters: Act III.

‘Lohengrin is often portrayed as a superhero, an extra-terrestrial with superpowers. But to me, someone who is invincible and invulnerable is not interesting at all! Superman is interesting only because he has a crack, an “Achilles’ heel”, through which his supreme power is weakened. Without that, it would be boring because he would win all the time. Same with Lohengrin. If he is on his mission all the time and lies to everybody because he knows it’s for the greater good, it’s boring. I think he arrives and really falls in love with that girl, Elsa, and really wants to stay with her at least for a year and play at living a normal life before he has to return to the Grail.

‘This is why he is so disappointed in Act III, because she ruins it all. She poses the question we all know she has to pose. Because you can’t marry someone without asking where they come from or what their name is! It’s a challenge that no woman – and probably no man – can rise to. So it’s absolutely normal that she asks the question. And this is where he realises the mistake he has made. He blames himself for being stupid enough to fall in love and for believing that the girl will have to understand that it’s crucial for him not to be asked for his name. It’s his mistake and that’s why he reacts so harshly against her. You can only see this at the end, when the swan returns to take him back. Then he is so tender and almost crying, because this means the absolute END. That’s what interested me most: the vulnerability in the character and the logic in Elsa’s reaction – for which she is always blamed. ‘I always search for a connection to real life. I am irritated by hearing often enough that there is no reality in opera and no need to pay attention to the interpretation of the plot or the character because “this is only opera!” This is nonsense! Because if our portrayals are not as close to reality as possible, people will not identify and suff er along with us. They will just see yet another fairy tale. But the moment we make our characters human and their problems as real as those familiar to our audiences, that’s when they fall in love or start to cry – in short that’s the moment they connect with us and the story.’

Kaufmann’s other outstanding Wagnerian portrayal is Parsifal, which he first sang in Zurich and thereafter in Francois Girard’s production at the Metropolitan Opera where his superb acting put him on par with the greatest stage or screen actors – an opinion, by the way, shared by almost all directors he has worked with from Richard Eyre to Olivier Py. He responds to every musical phrase with subtle changes in his eye movements and the muscles in his face. He explains that Parsifal is ‘very difficult to play, because it is very hard to play the fool without really being foolish. And at the beginning of the opera, Parsifal genuinely knows nothing about who he is, has no wisdom whatsoever and has to come across as completely blank. Only Kundry’s kiss in the second act awakens the man in him. And it’s beyond imagination that in this kiss, which takes about fifteen seconds – that’s what Wagner gives us – all the wisdom in the world storms into his head and suddenly he knows and realises everything in a few split seconds, which must be an overwhelming, horrifying experience. [Kaufmann’s expression at this point said it it all]. ‘And from this moment on he is so determined, so clear about what he has to do that Kundry’s attempts to bring him around are in vain, as are all the obstacles he encounters on his way back to the Knights of the Grail.

‘Act III is really difficult because of the religious, spiritual dimension of his return, after years of searching, to the place where it all began, where he fi nds everything so changed that he doesn’t even recognise Gurnemanz. Only after a while does he realise that he is in the right place. And this is a wonderful moment, especially the Good Friday Music – incredible, so incredible that it almost makes you want to cry yourself while you listen and are in the midst of it. Parsifal notices the beauty in nature for the first time because during his long search, his single-mindedness prevented him from looking left or right. All that counted was his mission, bringing the Holy Spear back to the Brotherhood. And now that he is here, he opens his eyes for the first time to the beauty of nature, the miracle of God’s creation. And singing about this is absolutely wonderful, completely mindblowing.

‘So it’s very important to emanate and communicate the right atmosphere throughout. Vocally there are maybe only a handful of phrases which are in the rehearsal room, where you sing your phrases back to back. But on stage you have to give the right amount of energy and the right weight and emotion to each of these sentences, while in between it’s just acting and mimicking. This is a challenge and why I am always very tired, utterly exhausted, after singing Parsifal. Because I have to stand around for so long. At the end of the Met performances which were magical, somehow, I saw people crying. And the prompter, sitting in her box was also crying, crying, crying, because she was so touched by it! We all had a pretty thin skin at that point…’

Does he find it difficult to unwind after a performance of Parsifal? ‘No. There are not many roles where I have difficulty coming back to the real world. Otello is one of them. Don José is not easy, either, because you have just killed Carmen and it’s very emotional. But with Otello, those last minutes are so intense and the feeling that you’ve murdered Desdemona for no reason is so real that it’s difficult to stand away and say, OK we’re done. It takes at least three minutes before I feel almost normal
again. It punches me particularly hard, Otello… it’s a hell of a part. Compared with Wagner, it’s not that long but it’s terribly intense… and it is crucial that you pace yourself, your energy, so you don’t overdo it. Because the music strongly invites, indeed demands you do to do just that, to push and go ever further, beyond the point where it’s still healthy. This is what makes this role so difficult.’

Is Otello the most difficult of all his roles? It certainly has that reputation among casting directors. He laughs. ‘Only one of the most difficult. I wouldn’t say the most difficult of all, because there is Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, which is probably the highest and at the same time one of the most heroic Puccini roles: loud, extremely emotional and very high – a pretty lethal combination. And obviously Tristan which starts comparably easy, then has an endless love duet in Act II, and whose Act III really is a killer! You have that strange intensity of his hallucination where you can’t hold back, you cannot fake it, it has to be absolutely real. So I can’t give Otello ten points when Tristan (so far I did only Act II in concert), is looming ahead.’ Kaufmann is scheduled to make his stage debut as Tristan in summer 2021 at the Bavarian State Opera.

French repertoire is another of Kaufmann’s strengths. He has delivered superb portrayals of Don José, Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon and the title role in Werther, especially in Richard Eyre’s sensational production at the Met. Does he enjoy singing French operas, and can he define the characteristics of the French style of singing and explain how it differs from the Italian?

‘Every style is diff erent, but French opera has a bit of everything. In the Italian repertoire you have one kind of voice throughout a given work, from beginning to end. In the French repertoire, the voice changes depending on the situation the characters are in. You have very lyric, very light, typically French moments and then you also have some extremely heroic moments. When you think of Massenet’s Manon, you have “The Dream” and then you have “Ah, fuyez”, and that very intense duet. Werther also has loud moments, and then you have the Death Scene which is so tender and completely different from anything before. It’s always a challenge but also a great joy to sing in French, a language which allows you to sing with a very fine line. You have to pay attention to the vowels, especially the opening up of the vowels, which is very important in French singing. The language itself is very colourful and rich, which makes it really fun to sing and bring out all these little details, which strangely enough fit perfectly into those German stories and those thoughtful, introverted characters.’

Any particularly favourite roles? ‘You can’t trap me into answering that!’ he laughs. ‘Maybe I have an inner blacklist of two or three parts – and I won’t tell you which, either – that I don’t want to do again. But the list of favourites is endless! Each time I do a new one, or an old one I haven’t done for some time, it feels like this is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with! Then around the corner comes the next love, and then another and another…’

What does Jonas Kaufmann think of the role of the director in opera (bearing in mind that he has to be diplomatic since he’s married to one)? ‘It has become the most important role in opera although it was
non-existent at its beginnings, because we are still performing the same titles. If we were doing world premieres of new works people would come just because they won’t have seen or heard them before. The production itself would not be so important. But as far as the standard repertoire is concerned, it is important to have a new look at works we have seen so very many times. We need, somehow to make them interesting for audiences. But I wish I could do more or all productions only with people who know the business. Because unfortunately in some cases you are faced with artists – many of whom are great figures with respect to their own art forms – who suddenly want to have a go at opera! And the question is, why should we be their guinea pigs? It’s absurd. And very annoying. But managements seem to think that this is a way to make opera more attractive to wider audiences: by having household names with pulling power.’

Are there any directors from whom Kaufmann has learnt a lot and who have brought deep insights to his interpretations? ‘Yes, but I won’t mention any living ones because this would automatically diminish the rest. The fi rst one I can think of is Giorgio Strehler, with whom I did a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and my God, was he fascinating! This was really something special! Sadly, though, this was only chance I had to work with him, because he died during the rehearsal period. It was so interesting because he had the deepest respect for the piece and was actually afraid of it because for him it was “too real, too close to life”. He added that he didn’t know where to set it, because it is our story. The most interesting thing to me was that he inspired and encouraged us to recreate our roles from scratch at each and every performance. He said that the version we had settled on–- a cross between his vision and ours -–should be no more than just the basis for our interpretation. But it should never be repeated over and over again, the same every time, because it would then end up as “an empty shell”.

‘It’s so important to be as realistic as possible. And the only chance of achieving this is by creating, within yourself, these characters over and over again, not by relying on the music and the production and thinking you can just stand there and sing beautifully and everything will be OK. That is not the case and never will be, because people notice the difference between beauty and passion. This was one of the key things I learnt from Strehler. And it keeps coming back, through all these years every time I do a new production. It has become my Credo.’

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