Juan Antonio Muñoz H.
für El Mercurio und Emol
There is no major opera theater that does not wish to have him among its artists. He signs contracts for performances and CDs five or more years in advance.

He started with roles for light-lyric tenor and some Mozart roles, went on with Puccini, Verdi and Massenet, and it has now become a usual sight to see him in Beethoven and Wagner roles. Sigmund, Eneas, Othello and Tristan lie around the corner.
Juan Antonio Muñoz H.
From Bayreuth
The Jonas Kaufmann phenomenon has caused a whirlwind in the operatic world. The 41-year old tenor from Munich has become a star which no major theater can do without, who is adored by thousands of fans and has critics at his feet. His is a rare case, for many reasons: possibly his transformation from light-lyric tenor to dramatic tenor is unique in the history of opera. No other great tenor since Franco Corelli has had the noble bearing of Kaufmann. To which we may add rarely seen histrionic gifts and a profound knowledge of the various styles he performs. He is a family man (married to the mezzo, Margarete Joswig, with whom he has three children), practices yoga, is a Protestant Christian and talking to him is just like talking to an old friend.

His latest great triumphs started in December 2009, when he opened the season of the Scala of Milan with a staging of “Carmen” (Bizet) which seemed to focus itself more on the story of Don José than on that of the gipsy girl. He throws the scene totally out of balance without even intending to do so, as his performance is always introverted, more inspired than histrionic. His “Werther” last January in Paris belonged to the same style. There he delivered a devilish fiato and an obscure material which, all the same, did not prevent him from transmitting poignant subtleties. His last act was not only a masterpiece of technical control, but also a display of emotion which almost causes neurovegetative disorders when describing the state of a dying man who sings while expiring, with extreme modesty and shyness. A lesson in moderation which some have compared to that of the legendary Georges Thill in this role. And in August, he performed “Lohengrin” (Wagner) in Bayreuth, where his character triumphed over a controversial staging (Hans Neuenfels filled the stage with human rats), as he bewitched everyone by making of the hero who invokes silence at once a bittersweet, intense, robust and delicate potion.

The breadth of the crescendo, the internal vibration of each uttered word, the multiple pitch, the torrid sensuousness which becomes lyrical purity, the huge voice range and his presence on the stage leads everyone to wonder whether there is anything that Kaufmann is not capable of singing.

An art which is consistent with that of Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966), a tenor whom he admires and who died prematurely three years before Kaufmann was born. There are some who sustain that he is his reincarnation: Tamino (“The Magic Flute”), “Dichterliebe” (Schumann) and “Die Schöne Müllerin” (Schubert) are some of his coincidences in terms of repertoire.


—How did your arrival to music produce itself? Were you encouraged by your family or did it happen spontaneously?

“Everyone loved classical music and opera at home, but nobody was a musician. They all played the piano as a hobby, but not professionally. I always sung at home and also in choirs. I always did that and I can’t remember not doing it. When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I started singing short solos; two or three phrases in a cantata or in an oratorio, but I never thought of it as a profession. It was always a beautiful hobby. When this started to take another shape, my father used to tell me: ‘You are a family man and if you want to have a family of your own, you will also need a more profound work...’ ’’.

—Was he right?

“Yes, indeed. The risk in singing is very great. I notice it, for instance, in the people who studied with me; only a few of them are able at least to survive. It is not a life of luxury. There are many, besides, who after studying singing have had to start all over again to obtain another profession. It is really risky.”

—Is that why you started studying Mathematics?

“Yes. My father worked in an insurance company and he started me off in that direction. But that was not for me, everything was too theoretical and dry. In mathematics you talk about things but you never do anything. During the time I studied I never once saw a figure. It was just theory. I cannot sit still all day, theorizing. While studying Mathematics, I went on with my singing lessons because I needed them.”

—How do you manage now that your face is known to everyone, even to people who know nothing about opera?

“It is something special and a bit difficult because people look at you, make comments and treat you in another way, above all in places where I have sung a lot, like Zürich’’.

—Do you still live there?

“No, I was there for 7 years and now I have returned to Bavaria. From the next season on, I will no longer be doing things in Zürich, a place which was very important for me as there I was able to test out titles that have been key titles in my career. It is a small theater where everything works perfectly. But now my schedule is so full and concentrated in a few places —the MET, London, the Scala, Paris, Vienna and München, essentially— that I decided to reestablish myself back in my country.’’


—You were born in München and, strangely enough, that is where, since a short while ago, you steadfastly appear.

“It keeps happening in Germany that first you have to make yourself known outside the country to be summoned by our major theaters. It is true that during 15 years I did little in München, but from now on many of my plans have changed. Since 2009 and in the future I will often sing there. I will make each year a new production and retrieve another one. Everyone tells me that, from a tax point of view, it is madness to return to Germany! But I love my country, its people … in short, I am German. Besides, I have many things scheduled in Berlin, Bayreuth and Salzburg…”.

—Are your children always with you?

“Yes and no. Now they are with me because it is summer, but when they are at school I cannot take them with me everywhere I go. They are three, furthermore, and it is not easy. It is also hard to schedule performances which do not require being away from home a long time. But I have not made these children in order not to be with them. Family has always been very important to me and also having an internal stability, a foundation so as not to become wild with success. It gets harder and harder to remain oneself, to keep on being the same without changing because something around one is changing.”

—It is easy to take the other road …

“Very much so. It is easy, but finally the problem is, in my opinion, that everything gets spoiled. Because the singing quality also depends on calmness, deepness and stability, of feeling content with yourself. Once you get out of yourself to live something else, it is very hard to get back. You no longer find the way.”


—How does one live through such a radical change of voice as yours? You started singing some Mozart roles and others like Flavio (“Norma”) and Cassio (“Othello”), and now we have you singing “Lohengrin”, “Werther” and we may already think of you as Othello and, why not, as Tristan.

“It is true. In 1995 I started to change my technique completely. Until then I had sung as a very light tenor. It wasn’t even a lyrical tenor, it was really very, very light...

—Luigi Alva...?

“Yes, yes, it was in that direction. And I had great problems. I started to realize that my voice wasn’t able to stand that lightness. It was very strange. I had problems and when I spoke with my colleagues, they told me: ‘You are very young. Don’t stop, keep on singing very light...’. I completely lost my starting point. Then I found a teacher who set me on a completely different road. It was very important for me to discover my real possibilities; he showed me an unknown route. All my colleagues of those days thought that this would be the end, that my voice had been ruined, that it was too dark... but I have been able to control that voice, which was at first very hard to do. I could not take the line, the curves, everything was a bit calante or very slow. One has to get used to it. It is different driving a Topolino than a 40-ton truck...’’.

— Did you have to discover that there was another voice or did your body become aware of it?

“My voice grew and became darker. It was the voice itself that showed me the way, but it was only when I discovered what to do with my body that I was able to set free that voice. I did not intend becoming a tenor with body, a baritone... When I started singing, I was always in the high notes, the in-between notes did not exist, but, all the same, I had less than a two octave range … and now I have three!”

—Who was that teacher?

“He is Michael Rhodes, an American baritone from Brooklyn, who studied with Giuseppe de Luca, a great Italian baritone from Caruso’s time, who has a splendid technique. De Luca immigrated to the States during the war and he was the teacher of my teacher.”

—Have you developed any method to approach any given character?

“It is always different. There are characters for which the opera is your only source of information so that you must concentrate all your attention on the libretto and have to read very well what is written in it to create a more credible character as regards the emotional part. There are cases in which there are many sources, as Lohengrin, for instance, who is in so many legends. One can read a lot and realize that the different sources point to different things that will enrich the character. But one also has to be careful about this because you may head in a different direction from that of the libretto which has to be taken into account. The story of Lohengrin in the legends is a different story: he marries Elsa and has children with her before making the famous question. Thank God that Wagner cut all that... Imagine what that would be like with the whole family and the opera lasting 10 hours! (Laughs). When you sing ‘Don Carlo’, you must know the real story and read Schiller’s work where you can appreciate the character much better. In the case of ‘Carmen’, Merimee’s story is quite different. Carmen is different, but so is he. Don José is a character who has already gone wrong once before and not the young, quiet and good man everybody thinks he is. He wants to be good because this is his second chance, his second life after the crime he has already committed. He has escaped from the criminal life he led before by going to the military. This is something which makes much more credible the change you notice in Bizet. There are many examples like this. It is easier to discover interesting angles of a character if you know all the different sources. I like to understand the human being that is in the role.”

—The “Carmen” which opened La Scala in 2009 seemed to be telling the story of Don José rather than that of Carmen.

“Yes, and it is the same with Merimée. It is José who tells all that the night before his execution. He confesses all that has happened, why it happened and tells Carmen’s story. But it is really about his life. In Bizet you also notice that the one who really changes is Don José. It is he who really develops. Carmen is a fixed character.”


—You have a very wide repertoire, which goes from Monteverdi to Wagner and Strauss, the Italians, the French, as also the world of the Lied. It is remarkable that among your first CDs you have one completely dedicated to Richard Strauss and another one with Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” cycle.

“I love the Lied and want to record as much as I can of it. I liked the idea of starting with the ones I believe need a young voice, and above all, a young mind. I’m already 41! Both ‘Dichterliebe’ (Schumann) and ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ (Schubert) have young, inexperienced ‘characters’. It’s the only way in which being in love with a woman to which you haven’t even spoken to may work. Maybe they haven’t even touched their hands once but she has already become for him the love of his life. This does not work if you have already suffered two or three times and understood what love really means. ‘Winterreise’ (Schubert) is a very different matter, but here also the character is not an older man. He is a human being who nonetheless has a life of his own. It is not so much a matter of age but of suffering.”

—And what happens with these works in the record market?

“In the case of the Lied we don’t even have to take into account whether it is better or worse to record more popular things: the CD market has become a mess. And the Lied does no longer exist at this point, so it’s the same whether you record a well-known cycle or another that is not so well-known. What is important here is the artistic point of view. What I intend doing is to study a program thoroughly, record it and then make tours during which the record can be sold. I would love to prepare a new program of Lieder each year, but I’m not always able to do it because I have a very complicated schedule.”

—You recently sang, under the conduction of Claudio Abbado, a totally unknown cantata by Brahms, “Rinaldo”.

“The truth is that I myself also did not know it. Claudio told me about it when we were recording the CD with opera arias. He wanted at all costs to include an aria of ‘Rinaldo’ in the album, but I told him that if we opened up this repertoire, we would also have to record, for instance, something from ‘The Creation’ (Haydn) and things of that kind, so we only included opera arias in that CD and we decided to do together the whole cantata in a concert. It is very interesting, with a text by Goethe about the story of Rinaldo and Armida, but only narrated by Rinaldo’’.


—How do you deal with the issue of acquiring contracts for the next five years or more?

“It is complicated. One must program a schedule a long time in advance. At first, this was very difficult for me and even nowadays it is not an easy matter. One cannot foresee the future. You can’t know whether your voice will be capable of doing this or the other. You can’t know whether your voice will cease to develop itself or if it will make further progress... But that is how the opera business works nowadays.”

—And how do you solve the dilemma?

“The most important thing is the combination: what we place immediately before or after a very difficult role, how much time you will have left between one performance and the next one... Do we place something that is in the same vein or something lighter to release the voice and make it more flexible? Only time will tell if I was wrong or not. Up to now this has worked very well. At the beginning, it was very difficult to convince the theaters about this. I always try to have a mixed repertoire because, personally, I don’t like to only dedicate myself to one thing and also because I believe that it is not good for my voice to sing year-round the same repertoire. For instance, after ‘Lohengrin’ I perform ‘Carmen’ in München, then ‘Tosca’ in December, ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ in London, then ‘Werther” in Vienna... ’’

“It was of great help in “Lohengrin” to have sung before an Italian repertoire, which has the flexibility, the legato, the long phrasing. German repertoire is different because it has one consonant after the other, but one has to know that it is in the vowels that the language is understood. ‘Lohengrin’ is Wagner’s most Italian opera, he used to say so himself. Wagner always liked Italian opera and, particularly Italian technique. In his letters he wrote that he wanted for this character the combination of a beautiful legato with the phrases in German text. And it works! This is very interesting for me.”

—Your option is for an open repertoire. There are other singers who only perform a handful of roles throughout their lives.

“Five or seven roles throughout your whole life …! Some have managed it wonderfully well and their voice has been in a perfect state almost to the end. (Alfredo) Kraus, for instance, had always a young voice. It is fantastic, but I find it boring to do always the same things. Not only to sing the same music but also playing the same roles. At the end, everything stays set, without any evolution. It is true that it is not always easy to be in new roles, memorizing such a lot of words, but it is what I prefer. If I make a production and leave it for a year or a year and a half and then return to it, it is like finding once more a friend that I haven’t seen for a long time and to whom I have a lot of things to tell. If you see your friend every day, after a while you no longer have anything left to talk about, because you have already talked about everything. Instead, in this other way, there is always something new to discover: look what I found here! This also happens in music and with the personality of a character.”


—Can the character free himself from the singer up to the point that one of them goes on a road that you never even imagined?

“I always try to start from zero and to create the character each time I appear on stage. It has happened that I have reached the point when I can make a character act in a very different way from that which I initially had in mind or which is very different from a first production. I let myself be led by the emotion and the spontaneity of that moment, and in this way the musical performance itself also becomes fresh and credible, which is the most important issue. Thus I discover the joy of singing on each occasion. It is something which, and forgive me for saying so, I really do for myself.”

—The control over the voice does not also end up by controlling the emotions that one wants to convey?

“Once you have attained total control over your voice, you are free and able to involve yourself emotionally in the interpretation, really feeling it.”

—Is there a character which represents a dream for you?

“Yes, I am very interested in this Othello... Also in Hoffmann and “Peter Grimes”. And Tristan! An impressive character. The third act is a fantastic psychological study. It is very long... but only the third act. The first act is nothing. The second act has that extraordinary duet which may be sung in quite a lyrical way. But then comes the third act... phew.... almost an hour alone!”

—They will surely come …

“One has to wait and see how the voice makes progress. In 2011 I will be Siegmund in ‘Die Walküre’, which is very demanding in its low tones; it is a role that is almost for a baritenor. Very interesting from a theatrical point of view. There is still some time left for Siegfried, Tristan and Tannhäuser.”


—Your experience with the French repertoire has been excellent in roles such as Romeo (Gounod), Don José (Bizet) and Werther (Massenet). Werther, particularly, is a very complex role, both as regards the voice and the dramatic part …

“I prepared myself for a long time before singing it. Generally speaking, French operas allow one to play with emotions and colors, and the vocal personality is not univocal. In Werther there is a mixture between the typically French tenor, Mozart’s clear tenor, and sometimes, the dramatic tenor. It is very demanding because you have to control both the voice and the emotions.”

—In a certain sense, Werther requires crying while singing.

“Yes, and crying on stage is one of the most difficult things to do. It is possible for an actor, but if a singer cries, he is no longer able to sing. This forces one to look for a color and an emission for the crying, so that it insinuates itself. Once you have discovered this, you sing over that color.”

—Always maintaining the beauty of the singing?

“It does not seem so bad to me to lose for some moments the beauty of the sound in order to create more credible emotions.’’

—What happens when a régisseur asks for things with which you do not agree?

“That happens every day! (Laughs) But, generally speaking, I know that if I take things in hand, if I prepare things adequately, I am well underway. If a singer arrives without knowing almost anything about a character, without any ideas about what to do, a régisseur who is also incapable of explaining well what he wants to do, starts doing strange things. But if I am well prepared and say at once what I think and what I propose, everything changes. One may see afterwards which idea is taken up, but one is already able to work on a safer foundation. My way of doing things is to propose something and to show it right away and it works in 90 % of the cases. There are also more particular productions where the interest does not lie so much in performing the story but rather in doing something totally different, and that is really difficult. If I do not agree with it, I try to show my point of view in a subtle way but I don’t run away and make a scandal. The best thing to do is to be well prepared to respond.”

—What are for you the characteristics of an ideal régisseur?

“The ideal régisseur is one who has a clear idea about a character and the story in which he is inserted. But not a physical idea. The physical aspects must be created by the performer. This is the only way in which they are natural and credible. In short, a régisseur who sees what I propose and responds to it: yes, I like that; I don’t like that other thing; I want a bit more of this... In short, an arbitrator who observes and cleans up what we, the singers, are offering him.”

—Is silence, internally speaking, important for you?

“Yes, on some occasions. I seek to find that inner calm. It is not a total silence, however. When I study, when I have to memorize things, if I do it in total silence, I forget it almost at once. I have so many things to think about at that moment that total vacuum is not good for me. Instead, if the children are near, if the TV is on, it works at once. It goes straight to my memory. My wife tells me: “Turn off the radio. Do the children bother you...?’ No, no, why should they bother me? I do it this way. That is how music and words start working inside me. I start talking internally and discovering things amid all the noise. My mind starts working better, memorizing. When I sing something for which I do not always have to be on stage, I go to the dressing room to study another role. When I sang ‘Fierabras’, by Schubert, where I only sing in the first and third act, I spent the whole second act preparing ‘Parsifal’. People asked me: ‘What are you doing? Why are you not preparing yourself for the next act? Are you out of your mind?’ But I had already prepared myself! In this way, I make the most of my time. Of course, it all depends. Sometimes it is very difficult! As in ‘Lohengrin’, for instance: although the second act is almost totally free for me, I am not able to study anything else because you need total concentration in the third act. It is long and the phrases are also complex so that one easily loses oneself. When I sing ‘Tosca’ instead, I sing a lot but when I am not on stage, I can memorize a Lied or anything else.”


—Is there any character which you feel closer to your heart?

“It’s hard to say. I always love the character I am performing at the time; I fall in love with it....! I think that it is a beautiful thing that something like that happens: all my energy, happiness and desires are dedicated to what I am doing that day. It is true that there are characters that are out of this world, like Werther, which I sang for the first time in January of this year. He is a being that is outside life itself. And what about Don Carlo… it is beautiful both as singing and as a character. Cavaradossi (“Tosca’’) as a character is not so interesting … But the music is a marvel!”.

—You have highlighted in your performances the vulnerability of male characters such as Lohengrin, Cavaradossi, Don José. Is it an option of yours which also proceeds from the music itself?

“The composer writes phrases where it is understood that the character is a human being with doubts and weaknesses. I love to discover things like that because it provides a much more interesting character. It is common in Lohengrin to find very heroic interpretations: I say this and you do it and don`t make any questions; I love you and that’s it... I’m not interested in that sort of thing and neither is the audience. A character like that is not only unpleasant, but is also boring and has little credibility. What moves me is the human being within that character. And it can be found because there are doubts in Lohengrin. The same thing happens with Cavaradossi: he thinks that he has everything in his hands but in the third act, he realizes that everything is going wrong; there is suffering to be shown in that, a loss to be made. In Lohengrin everything is in A major, the clearest of tones, the most heroic one, but when he appears on stage, he does not do it like a hero, saying: ‘Look, here I am’… On the contrary, he is moved himself by what is going on. It is a miracle for him, too, and in the first place, he thanks the swan who has brought him there … ‘Thanks, my dear swan, for having brought me here ….’ He is, therefore, not a common hero. He is finally sad, depressed, and does not know what to do. He knows that everything will be lost. Furthermore, he has fallen in love with a woman. In this production we have tried to show that he doesn’t know what to do with this woman. He is a man who is able to commit mistakes and to feel.”

—At the end of a performance, is it difficult for you to return to your own self or do you go back home as if nothing had happened?

“I quickly get inside the skin of a character and step outside it also easily. It is very helpful in this matter knowing that there is something outside that is waiting for me. If all my life were just opera and being on stage, it would be very difficult. Success or failure also changes with this in mind. If the performance has not been a success, maybe through no fault of my own, I go home to my real life and don’t think about other things. I can perfectly survive without applauses. However, the adrenaline sometimes keeps me two or three hours awake after a performance. I cannot fall asleep at once because I am wound up.”

—You have also sung oratorios. Can one sing Bach keeping a distance from affections?

“With the Evangelist of Bach Passions, I do not think that one has to take a distance to sing a phrase as long and painful as: ‘and wept bitterly’. I don’t think Bach wrote it without feeling emotions. On the contrary. If we speak about his orchestral music or a work such as ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and also his motets, his cantatas, his Passions… Everything is written with emotion. They are, naturally, delicate emotions. The same happens with Monteverdi. At first, the great orchestral apparatus seems to be missing but each fragment is more intense than the other one. Each piece is made with a fantastic simplicity and minimalism. I have performed ‘Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria’ and Nero from ‘The coronation of Poppea’. I like Monteverdi a lot. For me, he is almost the best there is.”

—You and your wife (mezzo Margarete Joswig) are both singers. What do your children say about these parents who make music all day long?

“It may be boring that we sing too much … For them, music may be an enemy because making music means that their parents are not at home. But they love and feel music and love going with us to the concerts. The youngest one is full of energy and cannot sit still... The oldest one does not feel much respect towards music... And the middle one is always moved by it, he looks at the orchestra, observes and listens to everything. They all play instruments and sing; the oldest one even sings very well... She has some high notes...”.

—The new Callas?

“I hope not...’’.

—The family issue is worse for women.

“Yes, because there is always this decision to be made between family and career. The combination with the family is very hard. Then one thing and another. The hormonal changes causing problems to the voice and having to try a new technique, a new way in which to use the voice. It is really not easy for women. But we need them! We cannot sing ‘Billy Budd’ (Britten) every night” (laughs).


Recommendations to listen and watch

Youtube.com allows you to see Jonas Kaufmann in "La Traviata", almost dying together with Violetta (Christine Schäfer); rendering inevitable the murder of Carmen performed by Anna Caterina Antonacci (London), and interpreting “Cantique de Nöel”, by Adam, in the Dresden Frauenkirche. Those who have the "Bel sogno" CD, performed by Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, may listen to Kaufmann as Alfredo. Apart from his "Romantic arias" (Decca, 2008), which include “Pourquoi me réveiller” from “Werther” (Massenet), one has to listen to his singing of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under the conduction of Claudio Abbado (Decca, 2009). He is not to be missed in "In fernem Land" and "Mein lieber Schwann", from "Lohengrin" (Wagner). And he is also unforgettable in the CD for which he obtained the Gramophon Award: Lieder by Richard Strauss (Harmonia Mundi, 2006), where he shows spirit and refinement in "Morgen", "Die Nacht" and "Sehnsucht". In 2009, EMI launched “Madama Butterfly” (Puccini), with Kaufmann as Pinkerton and Angela Gheorghiu as Cio Cio San. This year Decca presented his youthful and intimate vision of the cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” (Schubert) and the DVD of his first “Lohengrin” in München. The launching of “Vicino a te”, an album dedicated to “verismo” pieces, including arias from “I Pagliacci” (Leoncavallo) and “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Mascagni) and the fragment which is one of Kaufmann’s favorites: “Giulietta! Son io!”, from “Giulietta e Romeo”, by Zandonai, is expected at the end of September.

At the start of the 2010 Bayreuth Festival, Kaufmann presented a book about his life: “Meinen die wirklich mich?”, written by the editor in chief of “Opernwelt”, Thomas Voigt.

During the next few months he will be adding to his repertoire “Adriana Lecouvreur” (in Berlin and London) and perform once more “Werther” (Vienna, in January). The New York MET is expecting him in April and May for his first Siegmund in “Die Walküre” (Wagner), and from 2011-2012 onwards, he will become Bacchus (“Ariadne auf Naxos”, by Strauss) and Eneas (“The Trojans”, by Berlioz). During the following seasons he will be seen as the lead character in operas such as “Andrea Chénier” (Giordano), “Il Trovatore” (Verdi), “I Pagliacci” (Leoncavallo), “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Mascagni) and “Manon Lescaut” (Puccini).

Official website: http://www.jonaskaufmann.com
Unofficial website (with more and better information): http://www.jkaufmann.info

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