BBC Music Magazine, April 2014
Jessica Duchen
Winter's Tale
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann can seemingly do no wrong — whether singing Wagner, Puccini, Strauss or Verdi, he has audiences and critics bowing before him. But what of his greatest challenge to date? Jessica Duchen meets him to talk about recording Schubert's anguished Winterreise now is piled into six-foot heaps in the New York gutters as I make a winter journey to meet Jonas Kaufmann at the Met Opera House. Inside it's snowing onstage too, spattering the star tenor with a projected blizzard while he muses over Werther's gun. Kaufmann is rehearsing Massenet's opera in a new production by Richard Eyre. Its doomed hero would be his ideal role, were it not for the fact he seems the ideal singer for almost every role he tackles. His instantly recognisable voice has a unique, dusky luminescence; his tone, musicality, diction and acting ooze sensitivity and intelligence; and his smouldering good looks complete the picture of the ultimate tenor for our times. In his prime at 44, he is a musical omnivore — and he seems to be rather hungry. His terrific Wagner album for Decca is shortlisted for the 2014 BBC Music Magazine Awards and he could easily have devoted himself entirely to that composer. Instead, he has built an insistence on variety into his modus operandi, and it has paid off. At the Met, as he recounts with some glee, it is possible to find in the archive another tenor or two who has sung both the role of Siegmund in Die Walküre and the title in Gounod's Faust— but not in that order.

'IF I FOLLOWED ONLY the most obvious offers I would probably end up singing only Wagner, and that would be a shame,' Kaufmann says. 'I think the voice can grow more with the Italian repertory, in the sense of becoming more mature and versatile. In general the combination of the German, French and Italian repertory is what keeps me going, staying attracted and entertained in this business, rather than just repeating the same things. It's my personal experience that the more varied my schedule is, the more I feel that the voice is in good shape.'

Some critics suggest that Kaufmann sounds like a 'baritenor' — a voice category that used to be well recognised, suggesting a mix of tenor and baritone qualities. Kaufmann rejects that pigeon-hole too. 'I started out as a light tenor, not as a baritone,' he explains. 'The dark sound of my voice came only through relaxation. At the beginning I was very stressed and I squeezed out every high note — and with every high note that I sang wrong, I lost another low note, so I was quite limited in my abilities. But the more I relaxed and left my instrument alone, the more it could develop and mature and the darker it became. That's OK,' he grins. 'I'm very happy that I have it, but I didn't do it on purpose.'

It is less than a decade since he shot to fame. After a gradual rise through contracts with various German and Swiss opera houses — Saarbrücken, Stuttgart, Zurich — the crucial year was 2006, when the confluence of his debut at the Met in La traviata opposite Angela Gheorghiu, the release of his sensational first solo CD of Richard Strauss Lieder and a concert performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger at the Edinburgh Festival catapulted him into the international limelight.

Across mint tea (he avoids cow's milk), he comes over as a high-octane individual: mercurial, talkative and with a ready laugh. Yet there's an air of mystery about him despite the raffish smile and tousled curls. Perhaps it is no wonder that he excels as those driven, intense characters — Werther, Cavaradossi, Don Jose, Don Carlo, Siegmund, Parsifal. On the other hand, it is all about stagecraft.

`I can't say that I have lots of experiences like that in my private life,' he jokes. 'But one of the key ingredients to make an audience suffer with you, feel with you, to make things credible and look and sound natural is that you must really believe in it. You need to fill up these wonderful compositions with sense, meaning and genuine emotion.

`I always refer to Herbert von Karajan's words when he said that what we're seeking as musicians is "controlled ecstasy". The world around you — including yourself— has to believe that you are a 100 per cent this other person, and only when this happens is it something real. But it's a game, and at the beginning you don't know how far you can go before you lose control.

'This feeling of almost flying, of almost convincing yourself you're this other person, that's what makes this job so exciting — and also in the end so easy, because since you "are" that person, all the words you are singing or saying make total sense.'

The whole package is not so easy, of course. `Overnight success' usually comes only after years of hard graft — and Kaufmann's is no exception. He grew up in a district of Munich home to a large population that arrived from the former East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up, his mother among them. She was a kindergarten teacher; his father worked in insurance; and according to Kaufmann, his grandfather, who had a flat in the same block, lived for Wagner. 'I still have his vocal scores,' he says. 'I will never forget him sitting there in front of the piano, playing nothing but Wagner.'

The young Jonas first started singing in his school choir and took piano lessons, but a career in music seemed a distant dream. Persuaded to aim for a proper job, he enrolled at university to read mathematics. He soon found it was not for him; and on auditioning to study singing instead, he was accepted at once. On the side he worked as a chauffeur for a luxury car firm, enjoying snazzy vehicles and a fetching uniform —though apparently he was a little miffed that they made him cut his hair.

Although his student years coincided with the heyday of the 'Three Tenors', his taste gravitated towards historical singers, notably the great Fritz Wunderlich. 'It was rare, especially among German tenors, that someone would express his feelings so much,' he says. 'He moved me to tears many times, because whatever the nature of the emotion, it was always so truthful. He never wasted one phrase — it was always filled with feeling. He was burning inside.'

In 1990 Kaufmann started to study with his closest mentor, the pianist and Lied professor Helmut Deutsch, who remains his recital partner today. 'Later he told me that he took me on out of curiosity, because he'd heard from other teachers that I was a difficult character and he wanted to see how that was,' Kaufmann admits. 'We soon became close friends. He always scheduled me as the last student of the day so that we could go out for dinner and talk. I never dreamed of doing professional concerts with him! But without him I would not be singing Lieder today. At that time I thought this was an artificial art-form and I used a different way of singing for it — only because I thought that was the way it was done.' When he sang some operatic arias to Deutsch, the latter realised what had happened and put him straight on that misconception. 'I realised it was all the same,' Kaufmann says.

The pair's latest recording is of Schubert's darkest song cycle, Winterreise. Travelling through snow, ice and despair, its protagonist is perhaps a spiritual cousin of Werther, but his fate is more complex. In Kaufmann's view he is suicidal, yet death continually eludes him. 'Helmut Deutsch has doubts in believing that this guy is dying at the end,' Kaufmann says. 'Sometimes this unhappy lover thinks he's about to die. That's what encourages him and gives him energy; then he realises he will have to wait for another day to end this misery.'

To Kaufmann, the crucial turning point is the pair of songs Der Wegweiser' (The Signpost) and 'Das Wirtshaus' (The Inn). By then the protagonist has followed the will-o'-the-wisp of 'Irrlicht' in a direction he knows is wrong; but on finding the signpost, he understands he must travel 'the road from which no one returns'. Next, the 'inn' is in fact a cemetery. The protagonist longs for a room there, but finds none.

The reason is the same situation as in Werther,' Kaufmann suggests, 'when he says that the holy earth is forbidden for someone in his situation of misery — meaning that if I kill myself, I cannot be buried in a cemetery. That's why he says he has to move on. He seems to have new energy, but it's only to encourage himself to take his life into his own hands. When, at the end of "Mut" [Courage], he says "If there is no God in this world, we have to be gods ourselves", it actually means that if God doesn't feel enough mercy to end this misery, I'll have to do it myself. For me this is extremely strong.

`Whenever I'm performing this cycle it takes a moment afterwards to get out of this very dark mood. I can only imagine how deep an impact it must have made on the audience in Schubert's time, when people perhaps did not see as many shocking things on a daily basis as we do now.'

`Music is the key to the soul,' Kaufmann declares. 'It's remarkable to think that as a musician one holds the key to the hearts and souls of all the audience in one's hand. You just have to know how to put it in and turn it round. Once you do, no one can hold back — it just goes directly there. And this is fantastic.'

Kaufmann has that knowledge and that stagecraft: he can reduce packed audiences of heavy-duty opera buffs to tearful heaps of jelly. Attend one of his mixed-programme song recitals or concerts with orchestra and you realise that it is not only his own ecstasy that he controls. It is also ours.

He compares the process to an ice-skating contest. First comes a programme including set requirements: 'You have to vary the emotions, you can't have one depressive thing after another'; then a section in which the contestants can express themselves freely: The encores are this second part, when you can be spontaneous.' He says he never plans the order of his encores in advance, not even in orchestral concerts, but works the audience by sensing what type of number he feels they need next. They often won't let him go. Once in Berlin, he says, he and Deutsch simply ran out of encores. They finally offered — as their ninth one — a song they had not prepared, on condition that they could please go home afterwards.

Home, for Kaufmann, is once again his native Munich, where he has settled with his wife, the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig, and their three children. He seems to enjoy his ties with the city: he caused a sensation at the Munich Opera Festival last summer when he jumped in to replace an ailing Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin, and he wasn't above singing anthems in the stadium for Bayern Munich before the Champions League final in May 2012 (It was just for fun and was meant to be for luck,' he says, 'but it didn't work, because Chelsea won'). In what spare time remains — there isn't much — he likes sailing and hiking in the Alps, 'being somewhere where there's no nothing, no music and no cellphone!'

This summer, though, his feet scarcely touch the ground. He is touring Winterreise — including a recital on the stage of the Royal Opera House in April — and will be back in London to sing Puccini's Manon Lescaut in June. More recordings are in the pipeline, too, while further ahead he can look forward to his stage debut as Walther in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. But the four remaining Wagner roles he has not yet done — Tristan, Tannhauser and the two Siegfrieds — he says 'will just have to wait'.

`What keeps me going is the joy of this job,' Kaufmann declares. 'That joy I still have is the result of this big mix, the fact that I'm not singing only the same five or six operas over and over again. There's still not enough time to do all the things I'd love to do. As long as it stays like this,' he adds, 'that's fine.

 back top