EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
The 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?
This interview has also been distributed to audiences attending "Faust" in Oslo, Norway.
INTRODUCING JONAS KAUFMANN
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.
The 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.
So my 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 wonderful support!
“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?
- I 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?
- Otello. But of course I have to wait another two or three years for that!
LEARNING AND COMPARING
Learning new 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 musical details.
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 trend?
- 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.
Lastly; in 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.