About the House, ROH,  August 2010
Heidi Waleson

Jonas Kaufmann

In demand

Soon to be heard as the dashing Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur, JONAS KAUFMANN is the tenor of choice for opera houses from London to New York... which is where Heidi Waleson catches up with him

ONE NIGHT IN LATE APRIL, AFTER JONAS Kaufmann capped his incendiary performance as Don José by murdering his Carmen, Kate Aldrich, in a frenzy of stabs, the Metropolitan Opera audience leaped to its feet to give him a standing ovation.

He had a similarly magnetic effect on audiences at the Royal Opera House in 2006 when he sang Don José in Francesca Zambello’s new production of Carmen. ‘The dark-eyed Jonas Kaufmann, who’s stepped straight out of a Caravaggio, brings subtle intelligence and dignity to the role. For once, you believe in his charms,’ wrote Fiona Maddocks in the London Evening Standard. As for his Don Carlo for The Royal Opera in 2009: ‘Jonas Kaufmann attempts something I have never heard before in a Don Carlo, a fundamentally introverted, poetic soul, capable of heroic heft when needed. His mezza voce in the closing bars of the final duet were spellbinding,’ said Hugh Canning in the Sunday Times.

It’s no wonder that Kaufmann’s international career has exploded in the last half-dozen years. He is the whole package: an expressive, powerful voice with baritonal hues and gleaming top notes, acting skills and stage presence, and, for a bonus, smouldering good looks. Kaufmann made his Covent Garden debut opposite Angela Gheorghiu in the 2004 revival of La rondine and he will once again be Gheorghiu’s leading man here in the new David McVicar production of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.

At the end of a long day of meetings and autographing in New York, Kaufmann needed some coffee, but he was affable and unguarded, as lively and expressive face to face — in excellent English — as he is onstage. The Met’s Carmen, directed by Richard Eyre, was premiered on New Year’s Eve with other singers, but Kaufmann and Kate Aldrich brought a different energy and some new staging ideas to it. After the Seguihilla, for example, Kaufmann’s José couldn’t keep his hands off Carmen; then there was the stabbing at the end. ‘Richard was very open,’ Kaufmann says. ‘Directors love the idea that there’s some personality of each singer in the production, because if you just imitate something that seemed natural to someone else, you will never achieve reality onstage.“
Kaufmann always searches for deeper roots in his characters. He is looking forward to Adriana for its ‘gorgeous music — it‘s a verismo opera that’s elegant,’ and to humanizing Maurizio, the Count of Saxony, and lover of the actress Adriana. ‘He’s a historical figure, and a heroic guy,’ Kaufmann says, ‘It’s funny — when he starts describing her, all he can find are military things to compare her to, like “my flag”, which I don’t think is a really charming compliment! But OK, it makes him sympathetic and human, and it’s important to find that quality for heroic characters. Look at Lohengrin — he’s a superhero type who comes in, fulfils the mission, and runs away. That’s really boring. You have to find a way to establish that he longs for a normal, regular life, having a wife, a family. Then the third act is more tragic.

The tenor has now appeared in numerous opera houses with Angela Gheorghiu (including a number of Traviatas) and the two have onstage chemistry. ‘Angela is, in a very positive way, spontaneous and unpredictable,’ Kaufmann says. ‘She likes to surprise you in performance. I like that very much, because then you really start playing kind of a game on stage, and it creates this connection. I am always looking for people who are open-minded, and thinking of things other than just holding the high note.

KAUFMANN GREW UP AND STUDIED IN Munich. After some years in regional German theatres (including Saarbrucken, where he met his wife, mezzo Margarete Joswig; they now have three children), he found an artistic home in 2000 at the Zurich Opera where he was able to try out everything from Monteverdi’s Nero to Parsifal. Soon major opera houses were inviting him to tackle roles like Alfredo, Cavaradossi, Werther, Don Carlo, Florestan and Lohengrin, most often to rapturous reviews. ‘A Lohengrin for the ages,’ enthused Opera News about his debut in the role at the Bavarian State Opera in July 2009. ‘Kaufmann’s Act III was a lesson in Wagnerian vocalism, his vocal palette ranging from lyric to dramatic, his top notes thrilling, his youthful enthusiasm ever-present, his communicative talent spellbinding... Forget the good old days! Kaufmann can stand comparison with the very best.’ This summer. he sings Lohengrin for his Bayreuth debut.

Some might worry that this variety of repertory might lead to a loss of focus, or even vocal damage, but Kaufmann insists not. ‘it keeps my voice fresh and healthy to mix these all up, because you are forced to control it. You can never run your voice on auto mode, because it is always something new and different. And all those different repertories profit from each other. When you are singing a Wagner part, you are not shouting through the entire evening, but doing it the way Wagner would have wanted, with beautiful belcanto phrases and some voix mixte that you have from the French repertory. Then in the French, you sometimes have these really heroic outbreaks, and if you have sung Wagner, you know how to turn on the turbo, and give something extra without hurting yourself.’ He adds, ‘I’ve been told many times, “why would you start singing something like Siegmund when you still have a high C?’ I hope I will have a high C for too long to be able to wait!’ Kaufmann even wants to sing Tristan some day. He is holding off on Otello, however. ‘For me, it feels like Pandora’s box. Once you open it, everyone wants you to sing it, and they may forget about all the other parts!’

You should never feel any pressure. You do it for yourself, for your joy, for your entertainment. That way you are able to do challenging things’

The variety, and the need to learn new roles all the time, Kaufmann says, keeps him interested, just as playing off a strong onstage partner does. It also keeps him happy. ‘You should never feel any pressure,’ he says. “You do it for yourself for your joy, for your entertainment. You go out there, and know it’s going to be great. That way, you are able to do challenging things.’ In January, after three days of rehearsal for his first ever Werther, in Paris, he came down with swine flu and was out for two weeks. He returned, still with no voice, for the dress rehearsal, so that he could do a run-through, see the stage, hear the orchestra and work with the conductor — all for the first time. He sang the opening — albeit with some coughing. There was a live telecast. In retrospect, he says, ‘This was probably not the most relaxed way to try out a part you’ve never sung before — a French opera with an all-French cast, in Paris at the Bastille, with a live transmission. But it’s fine, as long as you don’t panic. And I don’t.’ Did he ever? Kaufmann says he learnt to conquer stage terrors back when he was 16, shaking all over while singing solos for his high-school classmates. Now, he says, ‘since I know how to sing, I’m always relaxed.’

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