Margarida Mota-Bull Interviews the German Tenor
Opera is a complex art form: It merges drama with music and one has to perform live, on stage, with a large orchestra and without microphones, in front of an audience that is not always understanding or welcoming. To be a great opera singer, one must be an outstanding musician, possess an extraordinary voice, command an impeccable technique, be capable of holding one’s notes above the sound of the orchestra, control one’s breath, project one’s voice to the far end of an auditorium with well over one thousand people, sing piano or forte (the list goes on!), and, on top of it all – as if these attributes were not enough! – one must be an excellent actor. No wonder then that there are many good opera singers but only a handful of great ones! Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor, who I had the pleasure of interviewing recently and who possesses one of the most exciting voices on the planet, is definitely in the second category and belongs to the elite: The handful of singers who can be described as great.
Kaufmann possesses all the qualities listed above and tops them with exceptional dramatic skills. No other tenor is capable of expressing the overwhelming emotions of the heroes he personifies on stage in such a credible, vivid way. Kaufmann gets under the skin of the character and inside his mind; if you are in the audience, you feel with him his pain, his rage, his ardent love…or whatever he is depicting at any particular moment of his performance! In Kaufmann’s own words: ‘…I’m emotionally involved [with the character] to the point that I’m not Jonas Kaufmann any more but – hopefully! – the character that I have to portray’. And truly, he achieves this every single time that he is on stage!
Add to his considerable dramatic skills, his beautiful tenor voice, which possesses an unusual, slightly dark baritone edge, and his attractive, charismatic stage presence and you have a consummate artist, a complete tenor who, with each performance, can carry you on a roller-coaster of emotions and musical pleasure. It is therefore frightening to think that Kaufmann almost stopped singing altogether and nearly returned to his original Maths studies! In the early stages of his career, he faced extensive difficulties with his voice: ‘…Once,’ he explained, ‘singing the small part of a Knappe (squire) in “Parsifal” I hardly knew that I would make it to the end of the evening! I came to the point where I thought that I should quit the theatre and go back to maths.’ Luckily for us, he was rescued by Michael Rhodes, an American voice teacher, who truly discovered Kaufmann’s “natural voice” and taught him to relax his body while singing. From then on, as he puts it, ‘…my voice got compacter and darker, the hoarseness vanished. Finally, my profession began really being fun!’
Apart from his operatic repertoire, Kaufmann also sings Lieder and these are an integral part of his work. Like no other genre, Lieder merge poetry and music in a unique way; a statement with which Kaufmann agrees: ‘…Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera singing, I think that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing genres!’ and he goes on to add that, ‘[in Lieder] you don’t tell one story, as in opera, but twenty little stories instead, which are always changing in mood, style, language and expression. For me, this is as demanding as it is fascinating!’ and indeed, if one listens to his marvellous recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin one understands the subtle variety of his interpretation.
Jonas Kaufmann is not only a great singer and a serious professional but also an intelligent, pleasant human being, honest and genuine. His account of the big turning point in his career, his debut at the New York Met in Verdi’s La traviata, is charming and from the heart: ‘…It was certainly the most moving and most important applause in my professional life. After it finally died down, it began to dawn on me what success really means, and then I suddenly remembered Frank Sinatra with that famous line: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere! It’s up to you – New York, New York!” And he has definitely made it!
In spite of being a big star in the world of opera, Jonas Kaufmann has maintained an unassuming attitude and a taste for the simple pleasures of life, ‘…there are…many things that make me relax easily…reading, swimming, sailing, cycling, walking in the mountains, having a nice evening with friends, coffee and cake…’ and, like most people, he tries to balance effectively his busy professional life with healthy family time, ‘…it’s hard when you are separated from your family for several weeks but the longer we are separated from each other, the more we enjoy our time together’, he said.
It is perhaps this combination of professionalism and down to earth, honest personality that make him such an appealing artist. Whether he is talking to somebody about his work or whether he is on the opera stage performing in Tosca, Don Carlo, Carmen or Lohengrin, Kaufmann is always pleasant and professional, excelling in anything he sings, penetrating the character and making it his own, pronouncing the words in Italian, French or German as if he were a native of all three countries. Finally, in spite of all this, he finds a moment to dedicate to people like me and answer all my time consuming questions! What can I say? Only three words occur to me: “Bravo, Herr Kaufmann!”
Full Interview, via e-mail, with tenor Jonas Kaufmann by Margarida Mota-Bull – March 2012
MMB: When and why did you decide to become an opera singer? Apart from the fact that your parents loved classical music and opera, were there any musicians in your family or other influences that had a bearing on your decision?
JK: Besides listening to my father’s records, another influence was my grandfather playing the piano and singing all the Wagner roles, including the women’s voices in falsetto. The first time, I dreamt of becoming an opera singer was after a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Munich. It was just after my sixth birthday; and so whenever I thought about singing opera then, it really was a simple child’s fantasy like becoming a racing driver or a pilot. I don’t know if that Butterfly was a good performance (my sister, who is six years older than me, thought it was not) but for me, it was a crucial experience, a key moment in my life: The first time that I felt the magic of opera. I was deeply moved by the music and singers and totally involved. This was the moment that I thought: Being part of this world must be heaven!
MMB: Interesting! My first opera experience was also Puccini’s Butterfly! Anyway, I read some of the things you say about yourself on your website. For example, you state that you sang in the school choir and that you didn’t even have to stop when your voice changed. Didn’t you experience a break in your voice?
JK:I think it was an almost seamless transition. At least, I don’t remember such a thing as a “break”.
MMB: I also read that, after you completed secondary school, you began to study Maths. Why? And when or how did you realise that becoming a Mathematician was not your thing?
JK:The reason was quite simple: I took my parents’ advice who wanted me to learn something “substantial”, something that I could later use to get a job like my father, who earned a decent income at an insurance company. It was clear to me that professional singing was a very “chancy” business, especially because a singer is dependent on his health, and the slightest cold would render him unfit for work. So, I studied Maths! I held out for a couple of semesters but the certainty that I wasn’t born to be a so-called “desk jockey” made me delineate other plans. So, I tried auditioning for a slot as a vocal student and I was accepted on the spot. It took a huge amount of courage to make the fateful decision and say goodbye to life’s security but, in the summer of 1989, I began training to become an opera and concert singer at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich.
MMB: Your earlier career was not always easy and obviously, you had to work very hard to be where you are now. You mention on your website that, after your first season in Saarbrücken, you began experiencing increasing problems with your voice. What were these problems and how did you overcome them?
JK:The main problem was that I wasn’t really ready for the daily life of an opera singer. I wasn’t able to cope with all those stressful things that a beginner is faced with. Constant hoarseness was part of my everyday life, sometimes during a performance. Once, singing the small part of a Knappe (squire) in Parsifal I hardly knew that I would make it to the end of the evening! I came to the point where I thought that I should quit the theatre and go back to maths. What finally rescued me was meeting Michael Rhodes, an American voice teacher who lives in Trier. I would drive there several times a week. The things he taught me brought about a watershed in my whole life. He was the first person to unearth my “natural voice” and who taught me how to relax my body while singing. My voice got compacter and darker, the hoarseness vanished. Finally, my profession began really being fun!
MMB: You took a brave decision in the summer of 1996 when you declined the offer that the Staatstheather Saarbrücken made you for extending your contract with them. Why did you take such a decision? And what impact did it have on your career, if at all?
JK:It was very risky, yes, but on the other hand what should I have done? They couldn’t promise me those roles that I had asked for…and to be honest, I also need a certain amount of freedom; I don’t like always being on stand-by while others are filling up my calendar to the hilt. Thanks to Christian Lange, I got some good concerts and after that also some stage productions: Romberg’s Student Prince in Heidelberg, Don Giovanni in Bad Lauchstädt, Bibalo’s Glass Menagerie in Trier and Szymanowski’s Krol Roger in Stuttgart. From then on, my career took a good up-swinging curve.
MMB: You then “landed” in Zürich, in a manner of speaking. How important and formative were your years with the Zürich Opera House in terms of your career and your repertoire?
JK:Very important! Zürich was my theatrical home for years; the “mother-ship” from which I started out to the major opera houses of the world.
MMB: I believe that you live in Zürich, with your family. Do you still appear with the Zürich Opera House frequently?
JK:No, actually, for the last couple of years I’ve been again living in Bavaria. Of course, I don’t appear in Zürich as frequently as in those years when it was my theatrical home, but I do appear regularly. I will be back there in May, for two so-called “Kaufmann Galas”, which offer the first two acts of La Bohème, the second act of Carmen and the last of Tosca in staged performances.
MMB: For you as a German national, you say that your debut at the Met in 2006 in Verdi’s La traviata was the “Sängerolymp” (the Singers’ Olympus). Why? Do you consider that this was your “big break”? Thinking back to that moment what exactly did you feel the first time that you bowed at the Met?
JK:Yes, it was the big break, the turning point. When the audience at the première rose to their feet applauding, my heart slipped down into my stomach, so to say, and my knees buckled under – so much so that I suddenly found myself kneeling and had to force my body to stand up again! This may sound “kitschy” but that’s exactly how I felt. It was certainly the most moving and most important applause in my professional life. After it finally died down, it began to dawn on me what success really means, and then I suddenly remembered Frank Sinatra with that famous line: “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere! It’s up to you – New York, New York!”
MMB: It is indeed a good line and I don’t think your feelings were “kitschy” at all. Next, I would like to talk a little about your recordings. So, following the success of your first Decca album “Romantic Arias” (review), in 2009 you released “Sehnsucht” (review), which appeared to me a very personal work, meaning a return to your roots. Was this your intention?
JK:I wouldn’t say “back to my roots” was the intention. I just wanted to present another side of my singing. So, after the debut at the Met with La Traviata and the “Romantic Arias” CD, an album with mostly Italian and French arias, I focused on German opera.
MMB: Still in 2009, you also released, in collaboration with Helmut Deutsch, a truly beautiful work: Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. Why among Schubert’s song cycles, did you choose this particular one?
JK:A few weeks before we did the recording, I turned forty and I wanted to record this cycle before it was too late. Along with Schumann’s Dichterliebe this is the Lieder cycle that most clearly calls for a young voice, as well as for a young soul. It’s about a young man who has his first painful experience in love. To make his “innocence” sound believable, the singer shouldn’t sound too mature.
MMB: I know that Lieder are an integral part of your repertoire. Perhaps, like no other genre, Lieder merge poetry and music in a unique way. Would you agree with this statement? Why?
JK:Yes, I do agree. Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera singing, I think that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing genres! It demands a more delicate touch than any other vocal discipline, more colours, more nuance, more dynamic control, more subtle handling of the music and text. Besides, you are exposed all the time. It’s just you and your pianist. It is the two of you who are responsible for the whole event; you can’t blame any other person if something is going wrong. On the one hand, you are absolutely free from all those things, which you depend on when singing opera; you don’t need to make any compromise; you can always be true to yourself. On the other, you must keep the whole thing together and maintain high standards from beginning to end. Additionally, you don’t tell one story, as in opera, but twenty little stories instead, which are always changing in mood, style, language and expression. For me, this is as demanding as it is fascinating.
MMB: And for us too, if I may add! Moving now to operatic roles. I’ve seen and heard you live, first as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen; then, as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca and later as Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur; all three at the Royal Opera House in London. What I found most striking was not just your voice and technique, which are simply outstanding, but your ability to live the characters. You became each one of them. How do you achieve it? Did you have dramatic training? Does it drain you emotionally? Does it cost you a lot of energy?
JK:Sure, it does cost me a lot of energy but on the other hand you also receive a lot of energy back when you are on stage. The music, the support of the orchestra and of your singing partners, the response of the audience…all these summed up make you feel that you’re part of a big power house. I’m emotionally involved to the point that I’m not Jonas Kaufmann any more but – hopefully! – the character that I have to portray. However, it shouldn’t go so far that you lose control about your singing and your acting! There is a famous statement by Herbert von Karajan: “Controlled ecstasy”! Which means that, even in the deepest emotional involvement, a part of you should always be in control of what you are doing. One thing is for sure: If you let yourself go and start crying on stage, you can be certain that this won’t move your audience; simply because it’s private; not professional. And, after all, it’s not you who should sweat and cry and laugh but the audience!
MMB: Your voice has often been compared to that of the great Fritz Wunderlich who died tragically young. You yourself commented (in ARD’s “Titel Thesen Temperamente”, in 2008) that Wunderlich sang each time as if it was his last. Is this a source of inspiration for you? Do you try to do the same when you get into a character?
JK:Listening to Wunderlich’s recordings is always a big inspiration for me. But that intensity of his singing, as if each time was his last, that is really unique, and you should never ever try to do the same. One thing is for sure: The moment when you will be able to enthral an audience, just once, in the way that Wunderlich did, must be amazing!
MMB: Some singers do not enjoy being compared to other great singers of the past, as each artist has its own individuality and style. How do you feel about it in relation for example to Wunderlich or Corelli (with whom you have also been compared)?
JK:I take it as a big compliment.
MMB: In 2010, you released your CD “Verismo Arias” (review), which as the name obviously indicates, comprises a recital of Italian composers from the period in Italian opera called Verismo. What do these composers mean to you and how important do you think their works were in terms of the development of opera as an art form for the 20th and 21st Centuries?
JK:If you were a tenor, wouldn’t you dream of one day singing the big “hits” from the Verismo era, thrilling pieces like Canio’s “Ridi, Pagliaccio” or Turiddu’s farewell to his mother from Cavalleria rusticana?
MMB: Yes, I think I probably would.
JK: I remember when I was a student, listening to the records of Domingo, Corelli, Björling and many others, and thinking to myself: “Man! It must be awesome to be able to sing that stuff!” And it is! Musically as well as emotionally. Apart from my desire to sing those “warhorses”, I think that the Verismo repertoire deserves more respect from musicologists as well as from conductors and singers. It’s not true that all those works are “shabby shockers”, as some people claim – and sadly, some artists made them sound like that – there are many truly great works in this repertoire, which are very important to the development of opera in the 20th century. When Tony Pappano and I put together the programme, we agreed that the album should include some arias and scenes that are not so well known, in spite of their musical quality, as for example, arias from the “other Bohème” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo and the totally forgotten opera I Lituani by Amilcare Ponchielli. My personal favourite, on this album, is a largely unknown piece, the lament of Romeo over the dead Juliet from the operatic version by Riccardo Zandonai. “Ombra di nube”, another little known piece, by Licinio Refice may not be an aria at all but rather an art song. I actually found the recording by the Verismo diva Claudia Muzio so heart‑stirring that I absolutely had to record the piece.
MMB: Recently, you’ve sung Gounod’s Faust at the Met and in Vienna. What do you feel about Gounod’s music and the character of Faust in particular?
JK:If you don’t compare Gounod’s opera with Goethe’s drama; then, you can really enjoy the music, which is wonderful for the most part, even great in some moments. Just think of the repeated “Je t’aime” when Faust meets Marguerite for the first time, or the love duet and the final trio. Despite his wonderful music Faust isn’t the most likeable of all romantic lovers. He isn’t that bad either but not as likeable as the music suggests. And here is the difficult thing: As a singer you have to make Faust more sympathetic to the audience than he really is; you have to make them believe that he is more a victim than an offender; a victim of Mephisto and of his own desire of being forever young.
MMB: You have three children. So, you are obviously a family man. How do you manage a healthy family life with the demands of travelling and your profession as an opera singer?
JK:Keeping professional and family life in balance is every singer’s dream. Thank God, I’m lucky to get both well balanced and quite often. Of course, it’s hard when you are separated from your family for several weeks but the longer we are separated from each other, the more we enjoy our time together.
MMB: You co-wrote with Thomas Voigt a book about yourself, entitled “Meinen die wirklich mich?” Interestingly, you say that it is not an autobiography or memoirs but the portrait of an artist (i.e. you). Why was it important for you to state the difference? And why did you want to do a portrait rather than a biography or your memoirs?
JK:The book was really written by Thomas Voigt; so, it’s a portrait, not an autobiography. My part was to answer his questions. It was never my plan to write an autobiography at the age of forty! It is simply too early for a “résumé” of a professional life. However, we were forced to think about a book after a journalist urged me to write my autobiography with him. When I refused, he said: “If you won’t write it with me, I’ll write it all by myself”. He had already started investigating; so, we had to do something. Looking back, I’m happy that I did that book with Thomas, and I really prefer the mixture of dialogue and comments to an autobiographical narration.
MMB: Finally, how do you relax? Do you listen to music as well or is it only your job and therefore it would not help you relax?
JK:Depends on the music, the performers and the situation. If I listen to my favourite records and artists privately, it’s big fun. When preparing a new role, it’s more analytical listening of course, i.e. more professional work than fun. And if I sit in the opera house, I can’t help but breathing with the singers, keeping fingers crossed at high notes or other crucial parts of the role! That means of course that I’m more tense than relaxed. There are however many things that make me relax easily. For example, reading, swimming, sailing, cycling, walking in the mountains, having a nice evening with friends, coffee and cake…There’s quite a lot besides singing that I really enjoy.
MMB: We’ve arrived at the end. Mr Kaufmann, thank you very much for your time and for answering my many questions.