Wall Street Journal, NOVEMBER 29, 2011
The Smoldering Tenor

The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann would seem to have it all: a plush yet ringing tone, the ability to float high notes with ease, and facility singing in French, Italian and his native tongue. Oh, and let's not forget his smoldering, Latinate good looks and impressive ability to inhabit various operatic roles—from forthright, virile heroes to complex and conflicted antiheroes. Indeed, Mr. Kaufmann has achieved nothing less than outright stardom in recent years, especially at the Metropolitan Opera, where his every appearance sets legions of music-loving hearts aflutter.

And never has Mr. Kaufmann's profile been higher in this city than during the present season. Last month, the tenor, age 42, made his New York recital debut, appearing with the distinguished accompanist Helmut Deutsch in a program of art songs at the Met, a venue rarely used for so intimate a purpose. Early this month, he joined the soprano Angela Gheorghiu and the Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall for a concert performance of Francesco Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." And on Tuesday, he assumes the title role in the Met's new production of Charles Gounod's "Faust." He also returns to the Met in April, for Wagner's "Ring" cycle, in which he'll reprise his acclaimed portrayal of Siegmund in "Die Walküre."

Mr. Kaufmann, a native of Munich, did not arrive on the scene fully formed. But thanks to his sensational debut at the Met in 2006, as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" opposite Ms. Gheorghiu, it sometimes appears as if he did. In fact, the tenor's first appearance in the U.S. came much earlier—in 2001, when he sang the supporting role of Cassio in a production of Verdi's "Otello" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"It was many steps, not only the Met," said Mr. Kaufmann, discussing his growing fame during a break from rehearsing "Faust" earlier this month. "But I would say the Met was the most important step. It changed the way people looked at me in Europe. Before that, I had sung at La Scala, Paris, Covent Garden, Vienna. I had success but was only known by the insiders; the crowd did not know me. But with the success in New York came my first record contract, and the combination was very helpful to take this final step to the Olympus of opera singers."

Reaching that mountaintop was not preordained. About a year into his professional career, in the mid-1990s, the tenor suffered a vocal crisis, brought on, he says, by trying too hard to impress audiences in the small roles he was given. "After my first year, my voice was totally gone," he recalled. "And I was having colds all the time. One teacher said, 'If you are ill all the time, you don't need a doctor; you need another teacher.'" He found one in Michael Rhodes, an American baritone living in Europe who urged him to equalize his vowel sounds. "It's not like you talk," Mr. Kaufmann explained. "You want the impression of legato. The main thing is to relax and trust your instrument. You must sing with your own voice, and I wasn't."

Some critics have taken Mr. Kaufmann to task for a lack of crispness in his diction. But this singer is not one to apologize. "Every overpronounced consonant stops the flow of air, and that's not good," he said. "The key to understanding what somebody sings is not the consonants; it's the vowels. When the vowel is correct, your ear adds some of the consonant that might have been lost. No problem if somebody is criticizing that, but I wouldn't change a thing."

Mr. Kaufmann describes his voice as "dark" and "baritonal" but prefers not to dwell on assessing his sound. He'd rather discuss how he deploys his instrument and the special relationship all singers have with their voices. "I try to let it sound natural and warm, more than drilling too much in the squillo," he said, referring to the piercing sound singers use to project over an orchestra. "The voice is a unique instrument because it's individual. And it's built inside, which means it's versatile as no other, with so many colors and corners. You, with your feelings, can influence the sound, which changes with your mood and character. The violinist has to export his feelings through the arm into the violin, but in a singer, you open your mouth and follow your instincts, and suddenly it's filled with emotions. You only need to say hello, and I can tell something is wrong with you if I know your voice."

Avoiding Mr. Kaufmann's heartthrob status is no easy task, especially in his presence, as those abundant dark curls will not be denied. He accounts for his features by speculating on ancient liaisons but maintains that his recent ancestry is entirely Teutonic. "Unfortunately, we Germans were forced in the last century to really do research on our backgrounds and roots," he said. "And that's why I know that my family was pure German as far back as 1500-something. The family of my mother always had dark skin, hair and eyes. The Romans had been in the south of Germany and had several garrisons from Arabia and North Africa stationed there, and that's probably one of the reasons—I don't know, but I wonder myself. I have an Italian coach from Sicily, and he said, 'In your former life, you must have been from Naples.' I feel more connected to the South than to the North, I have to say."

Whatever their source, good looks can take a musician only so far, Mr. Kaufmann insists. "Even though beauty could help a career, it can never be something a career is based on," he said. "Beauty goes by faster than you know, so if your qualities in singing and acting aren't good enough, where do you go once the beauty is gone? Generally, the parts I'm interested in are not the beautiful ones, because perfection is never interesting. That's why it's even more difficult if you are beautiful. It's just on the surface—there's nothing fundamental underneath, which is where our work really starts."

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