The Times, 15 November 2010
Neil Fisher
Why Jonas Kaufmann can do no wrong
The hottest tenor of the moment knows how to manage demanding divas as well as his own career
It’s been a long time coming, but classical music’s biggest manhunt — the exhaustive, two-decade search for the elusive fourth tenor — is over. And the result is: missing in action.

The candidates variously hyped as the next Pavarotti, Domingo or Carreras have crashed and burnt. Bundled together, their various mishaps could profitably be sold to more solicitous baritones as a manual for how not to cut it in opera: flounced off-stage midway through a performance; blew out his voice after too many unsuitable roles; fell out with directors; fell out with conductors; made one too many tacky pop albums. Some of them even managed to hit the bull’s-eye: they did them all.

“It’s really difficult,” admits the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in his careful, sing-song English, flopping down on a sofa at the Royal Opera House. He’s speaking after a day of rehearsals in Francesco Cilèa’s 1902 opera Adriana Lecouvreur, mounted for the first time in more than 100 years at Covent Garden as a vehicle for him and the formidably capricious Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. “Not reaching the top — but staying there. You can have some short cuts, try to push yourself through, and, sometimes a coincidence helps you jump higher up, but in the end it’s a good idea to do it step by step.”

Right now it seems as if Kaufmann can do little wrong. He is currently riding the crest of a wave of adulation, stretching from the operatic Everests of the Bayreuth Festival, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, down to the picky Wigmore Hall, where last month he stunned a capacity crowd — they were turning away more — by scaling down his husky tenor, adept in both heroic German and lyrical Italian repertory, for Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin.

After we meet he will saunter back on set to gaze moodily amid the velvet drapes of the Adriana set for The Times photoshoot. “Yes, the Latin lover type,” is his slightly pained, can-we-talk- about-something-else-now reaction to his film-star good looks.

It’s certainly a formidable package (of the three tenor comparisons, the most common is with the equally dark-toned Domingo). But Kaufmann doesn’t so much surrender to his billing as take charge of selling it with Germanic efficiency. Divas can be gently mocked. Gheorghiu, I tell him, takes delight in announcing that she discovered the 41-year-old singer herself. “Well, she ‘discovered’ me in . . . it must have been 2002 or 2003. But I wasn’t unemployed before,” he wryly responds. “We first sang together in London in Puccini’s La rondine, and we understood immediately what to do, and, for the audience, how to put oil on the fire — so you really understand that there’s something going on. Also, we’re not doing too much together. That would probably turn into a problem after a while.”

You could see Adriana, whose eponymous heroine, romanced by the enigmatic Maurizio, ultimately succumbs, Dynasty-like, to a poisoned bouquet sent by her love rival, as one of opera’s fripperies. Kaufmann has other ideas. “It’s not done very often and I don’t know why, because the plot is definitely less crappy than many others that are frequently played.

“And Maurizio is an interesting character, because he’s not that innocent. He appears very nice and smooth — but in the end he’s actually betraying, all the time, one woman with another.” He gives me a potted history of the real-life historical character — an 18th-century Count of Saxony, who was fighting wars at the age of nine and had married, and divorced, a rich duchess by his early twenties — which sounds even less plausible than the opera’s lethal posy. “Knowing all that,” Kaufmann protests, “it’s interesting to play such a character, and not only do the smooth, handsome guys.”

That Kaufmann even got a shot at playing the lovers and lotharios of the Italian rep — and he does it quite splendidly on his latest disc of verismo arias — is thanks to the sort of assiduous stubbornness that all those previous fourth tenor candidates never quite nailed. He grew up in Munich, in a Wagner-loving family (he has recently moved back to his home city with his mezzo-soprano wife and three children). He switched from maths to music while at university, but found himself lugging a voice around that no one understood.

“Everybody said, ‘No that’s too loud, that’s too much, that’s too dark’.” And he was using it in repertoire that no one wanted to hear. “I was always auditioning with Italian arias and they would hire me, but they would say, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but you’re a German singer, why don’t you sing German roles’, and then they gave me Mozart.”

Obstinacy on this front undoubtedly kept him back. It clearly still rankles that his home company, the Bavarian State Opera, hired him only three times in 15 years (their new management is much keener, hence his move back to Munich). But when, in the midst of the wilderness years, the Chicago Lyric Opera offered him a starring Verdi role he stunned them by asking for something smaller instead.

“It might have made a difference if I’d accepted it,” he says. “It might have pushed me on, might have meant I got an earlier contract at the Met . . . but why hurry?”

Lurking behind the tale surely lies knowledge of the most recent and terribly public story of artistic burnout by an operatic shooting star. Rolando Villazón was the hugely charismatic Mexican tenor who leapfrogged Kaufmann into the top rank during a meteoric rise — only to suffer from a spate of vocal problems that many now speculate have finished his career in the opera house.

“I think it’s important that once you really reach the top level, that you . . . not that you deserve it, but that you really worked hard for getting there, to have the experience of how to deal with the pressure that will definitely come. When you become a star overnight, it’s terribly hard to sustain it, and not be drunk by the success.”

He also says that record labels are hustling artists through repertoire that they can’t really sing on stage. “They see the dollar signs and they think ‘what the heck’.”

Was that Villazón’s fate (the two, incidentally, share the same umbrella record label)? “I’m not saying this is what happened with Rolando . . . he sang many performances, he did prove his qualities. But it was maybe too much.”

Kaufmann remains unsmilingly frank when it comes to the world of contemporary opera production. His biggest beef is coming up against those directors who can neither read the music nor the words in their original language. “And they sit there with the copies of the CD booklet trying to work out what’s actually going on in the scene. And you’re sitting there thinking ‘Oh, I could have done a beautiful production somewhere else, but now I’m sitting here waiting for the director to be ready to let him let us explain to him what this is all about’.”

Ideally Kaufmann, the calculating planner, would prefer to step to his own beat than wait for someone else. If you hire him now, you do it on his terms — get him in Wagner and you need to book in some Puccini or Verdi, too — “Unless you force it, unless you push it, then they put you in a box and you’ll never get out of it.” His first Siegmund, in Wagner’s Die Walküre, is coming up in New York, but so is a stab at a new French role in London, Aeneas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens.

Variety is the spice of this tenor’s life — and that goes for his leading ladies, too. Bad news for Gheorghiu. “I love to work with Angela — I hope you can see that on stage. But there are many beautiful, fantastic, fascinating sopranos . . .” He grins wolfishly, and Kaufmann the Iceman suddenly seems to thaw. “That’s the luxury of my job.”
Photo: Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Opera House Tom Pilston for The Times

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