|Vogue, March 2012
|BY ADAM GREEN.PHOTOGRAPHED BY NORMAN JEAN ROY.
LORD OF THE RING
THE DASHING TENOR JONAS KAUFMANNJOINS OPERA'S BIGGEST STARS IN
THEMET'S EPIC NEW PRODUCTION OF THERING CYCLE.
A colossal machine with hundreds of moving parts, Richard Wagner's Der Ring
des Nibelungen encompasses four operas; 34 assorted gods, demigods,
warriors, lovers, and dwarfs; dozens of swords, spears, and horned helmets;
a 97-piece orchestra (not to mention twelve anvils); one hotly contested
golden ring; and, of course, fifteen hours or so of some of the most
ravishing music ever written. As it happens, a literal machine is at the
center of the Metropolitan Opera's starstudded, visually dazzling and
controversial new Ring cycle, which, after being rolled out one opera at a
time over the past year and a half, returns to the Met stage next month in
its epic entirety.
Controversy has followed Wagner's master piece
ever since its 1876 premiere at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Conceived as
a revolutionary "total work of art" and composed over more than 25 years,
the Ring-whose four operas are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and
Götterdämmerung--draws on Icelandic myths, German folktales, and Greek
tragedies to tell the saga of the downfall of the gods and the rise of
mankind. Audiences have argued about whether the Ring is a psychologically
penetrating modern myth or an overwrought fairy tale, a sharp critique of
industrial capitalism or an abhorrent expression of German nationalism.
After 136 years, it continues to loom large, a cultural landmark familiar to
almost everyone, even if only through the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence
in Apocalypse Now or Elmer Fudd's "Oh, Bwünnhilde, you're so wovewy"
serenade to Bugs Bunny in "What's Opera, Doc?"
According to the
German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who stars in Die Walküre, the Ring is "a love
affair at first sight that continues to grow over time. You become
addicted." Given the work's singular power to excite oversize passions among
its obsessive devotees, a heroically scaled new Met production involving an
avant-garde theater director, cutting-edge stage wizardry, and a cast that
includes Kaufmann as the tragic hero Siegmund, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn
Terfel as the god king Wotan, the American bass-baritone Eric Owens as the
evil dwarf Alberich, and the American soprano Deborah Voigt as the warrior
maiden Brünnhilde, a certain level of frenzy is to be expected. Inevitably,
some mourn the retirement of Otto Schenk's High Romantic production, a
staple of the Met repertoire since the late 1980s.
A process of
renewal has to go on in opera the way it does in the theater-no production
of Hamlet would ever stick around for over 20 years," says the Met's general
manager, Peter Gelb. "I'm sure that if Wagner were here today, this is the
kind of production that he would imagine himself, because it does everything
that he wanted to do but didn't have the technology to achieve."
showpiece of that technology-and of the FrenchCanadian director Robert
Lepage's ambitious vision-is the set, affectionately dubbed the machine, a
45-ton, hydraulically controlled behemoth made up of 24 giant planks mounted
between two towers: Think a row of very big seesaws that move up and down
independently, twisting and folding in on themselves to create a
metaphorical spine for the production. Inspired by the stark landscape of
Iceland, which Lepage calls "a place where mythology feels real and alive,"
as well as the shifting tectonic plates beneath the Earth, the set becomes
an almost living embodiment of Wagner's music and the themes of
transformation intrinsic to the story. "I wanted to bring Wagner's
leitmotifs to life," says Lepage, "to give the way that they appear and
braid with each other a visual counterpoint."
For the restive
orchestral prologue of Die Walküre, Lepage and Co. use the machine (and
video projection) to create a storm-tossed forest through which the opera's
headstrong hero, Siegmund, flees a band of sword-wielding enemies. Kaufmann
brings a smoldering romantic intensity-and a voice that combines virile
power and lyrical tenderness to the part. Prepare to be bowled over by his
act-one duets with the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, the
unhappily married hausfrau for whom Siegmund falls, only to discover that
she is off limits in more ways than one. "From the first moment they see
each other, there is this mysterious connection," Kaufmann explains. "Within
one evening, they go right to overwhelming passion and then to discovering
that they are really twins. But now they are in love so, oh well, it's too
New York audiences lost their hearts at first sight to
Kaufmann when he made his 2006 Met debut as Alfredo in La Traviata. And when
he returned in 2010, with electrifying performances as Cavaradossi in Tosca
and Don Jose in Carmen, mere infatuation grew into a love of almost operatic
proportions. "He's one of the great stars of today," says Gelb. "His voice
is incredible, he's a great actor, and he has an ability to connect with the
public that very few singers have. He's got it."
Even unshaven in
jeans and a crew-neck sweater, the darkly handsome tenor with a world-class
head of hair exudes that ineffable "it" that has made him, at 42, an opera
superstar. Kaufmann lives with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig,
and their three children in Munich, which he loves for its culture, its
access to skiing, hiking, and sailing, and the fact that it's where he was
born and raised. "It feels like home," he says, "and that's important,
especially for the kids, when you have a lifestyle like mine." He speaks
with easygoing passion about his quest to make the perfect crema for his
wife's espresso, the relative merits of the 28 recordings of Wagner's
Parsifal on his iPhone, and the importance of a singer having, he says in
his mild German accent, "the confidence to improwise."
character in Die Walküre, Kaufmann seems to have been touched by the hand of
destiny, minus the incest and the magic sword. His father, who worked for an
insurance company, and his mother, a kindergarten teacher, both played the
piano and nourished him and his sister on a steady diet of classical music.
His grandfather, also an amateur musician, introduced him to Wagner's operas
on the family piano. Kaufmann studied the instrument, too, but his real
passion lay elsewhere. "I was always singing-I loved it more than anything,"
he recalls "It was my way of expressing my feelings and my emotional status,
even as a child."
On his father's advice, he majored in mathematics
in college, but after a few semesters he dropped out and started studying to
be an opera singer at Munich's Academy of Music and Theater. He was taught
to sing with a light, "Rossini-like" tone that was typical of German tenors
but felt unnatural to him. Unable to rely on his voice, and constantly
coming down with colds, Kaufinann reached a crisis while singing the role of
a knight's attendant in Parsifal. "I started out feeling quite normal, but I
realized with each phrase that my voice was getting smaller and weaker," he
recalls. "Finally, I lost my voice completely, and the conductor was looking
at me like"-he widens his eyes in panic and then laughs, adding, "I realized
that I had to do something."
Kaufmann began studying with the
American baritone Michael Rhodes, who told him, "You're not using your own
voice. Just open up, relax, and let go." Despite dire warnings from
well-meaning colleagues that he would destroy his voice and several awkward
years relearning his craft (he compares it to driving a truck for the first
time after a lifetime behind the wheel of a Mini), Kaufmann trusted his
instincts. In the end, he found a way of singing that was not only more
comfortable and reliable but gave him new power and depth. Kaufmann sees his
style as a return to the age of such mid-twentieth-century tenors as
Wolfgang Windgassen and René Kollo, whose lightness of touch was lost in the
subsequent era of, as he puts it "huge Wagnerian beasts, who come out and
scream the hell out of it." Acclaimed for the baritonal richness of his
voice, he believes that without that intervention, he never would have the
career he now does.
Last year Kaufmann joined Placido Domingo as one
of the few tenors with the range to sing both Siegmund and Faust at the Met
And he wants to continue, in the manner of Domingo, to develop a voice
capable of capturing the "freshness, flexibility, and elegance" of the
French repertoire, the "passion" of the Italian repertoire, and the "power
and intellect" of the German one. "It would probably be easier to focus on
just one thing, but that doesn't interest me," Kaufmann says. "I want to
challenge myself, grow, and go on singing for many years".
he will soon be ready to tackle what he calls "the heavy stuff, the big
parts that as a young student I dreamed of but that seemed out of my reach."
It's a list that includes Verdi's Otello, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and
Berlioz's Les Troyens, in which he will make his debut in July at Covent
Garden. Next season, Kaufmann will also be coming full circle when he sings
the lead role in the Met's new production of Parsifal, the very work during
which he lost his voice as a young tenor. "It's so important that we don't
treat this as a job but as an adventure that we give life to each time we
perform,"he says. "It's not only making a beautiful sound and acting well,
but having this passion and joy in what we're doing because this is a
feeling that can come across the pit and hit the audience. Hopefully, it's
as exciting for them as it is for us."
Kaufmann isn't the only
performer in the Ring cycle whose journey to the Met's stage has had mythic
overtones. Last October, the American tenor Jay Hunter Morris found himself
living out an archetypal legend, albeit one that was more 42nd Street than
Götterdämmerung. Morris grew up in Paris, Texas, the son of a Southern
Baptist minister and a church organist, and spent his childhood singing in
the choir. In college, he performed country songs during happy hour at a
steak house in Waco. But when he saw a Dallas Opera production of La
Traviata, he fell in love with the art and, with the fearlessness of youth,
decided to make it his life's work.
After a 20-year singing career
marked by highs (appearing in Terrence McNally's Master Class on Broadway)
and lows (selling Rollerblades in Central Park), Morris found himself, as he
puts it, "pretty firmly embedded in the lower middle echelon of my field."
He signed on at the Met as the backup for Siegfried, the titular hero of the
Ring's five-and-a-half-hour-long third installment, who goes on to meet his
fate in the final chapter, learning the entire, fiendishly challenging role
with little hope of ever going on. Then, less than two weeks before opening
night, Gary Lehman, the production's Siegfried, fell ill and dropped out.
Gelb took Morris aside and asked, "Can you do this?" The next thing he knew,
Morris was wearing a breastplate and a blond wig to play the intrepid young
blade who slays a fire-breathing dragon, defeats the King of the Gods,
awakens Brünnhilde from her cursed sleep, and-after joining her in the
Wagnerian equivalent of "What Is This Thing Called Love?"-takes her as his
bride. With his rich tenor and youthful vigor, he went out an understudy and
came back a star. "I was relaxed and confident and in the zone as long as I
was onstage. It's when I was offstage and the magnitude of it all hit me-Oh,
my God, I'm singing Siegfried at the Met; who do I think I'm kidding?-that I
got a little terrified," he says. "Let's just say that it took me a long
time to get here and be ready for this moment."
The same could be
said for Morris's onstage partner in love and death, Deborah Voigt, who with
this Ring makes her debut as Brünnhilde sixteen years after her triumphant
turn as Sieglinde opposite Plácido Domingo, having lost nothing in the
intervening time except 100 pounds and several dress sizes. The soprano's
transformation came courtesy of gastric bypass surgery in the wake of the
infamous 2004 "little black dress" episode, when she was fired from a Covent
Garden production of Ariadne auf Naxos for being too heavy to fit into her
costume. Voigt says that her impetus to slim down had more to do with her
health than with her career, but, she adds, "it's opened up an enormous
ability to communicate as an actress."
On the opening night of Die
Walküre last spring, she ran onstage, stepped on her dress, fell, and
delivered her first triumphant "Hojotoho!" from the floor. "Fortunately,
Brünnhilde is kind of a tomboy, so I was able to laugh it off and make it
look like `Oh, I meant to do that,"' she says. A former high school
musical-theater geek, Voigt fulfilled a longtime dream last summer, playing
another tomboy who loses her heart to a man in Annie Get Your Gun. But for
now, she is focusing on Brünnhilde, whose transformation from bumptious
daughter of the gods to self-sacrificing wife of a mortal makes her among
the most relatable of tragic heroines. "My father never put me to sleep on a
rock surrounded by a ring of fire, but we had our patchy moments," she says.
"And I've certainly been wildly in love and been betrayed, so I relate to
that, though I can't quite fathom having the wherewithal to know that I need
to immolate myself in order to save the world."
In the run-up to the
premiere of the full Ring cycle next month, response to Lepage's ambitiously
conceived productions has been divided between those who feel that the
technology overwhelms the human drama and those who, like me, feel that it
captures the magic and grandeur of Wagner's larger-than-life vision. But
there's no argument about the glorious sound of the Metropolitan Opera
orchestra, which gleams under the baton of Fabio Luisi (who took over after
James Levine stepped down for health reasons last year). And in the end, the
Ring is about what Kaufmann describes as "the sheer emotional power of the
music," which needs no words or lavish stagecraft to speak directly to our
feelings. As Kaufmann puts it: "You don't have to bother getting into the
right mood. Just listen to the music, and you're right there. You can't