Limelight, July 28, 2014
by James Inverne
Jonas Kaufman: Super Hero
Headed for our shores, the tenor of the moment talks operetta and his new CD.

Singing actors on the opera stage are an exceedingly rare breed. The odds of an opera singer being able to act at all are naturally low – think of how many people you know who can act. Not many? Now how many of those happen to have the freakishly-shaped vocal chords that enable them to produce an inordinately beautiful sound. Even fewer (none?). Now consider how few people are blessed with the kind of voice that can be legitimately turned to a dizzying range of repertoire – Puccini, Massenet, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart, Richard Strauss. How many of those can act? We maybe have one or two at the highest level in every generation. Domingo has been the one for more years than anyone had a right to expect of him. And now, as that great man moves more and more to baritone roles and conducting, his true successor is Jonas Kaufmann.

The German tenor has always had an easy physicality on stage and a total commitment to, as that fine actor Mr. Thomas Cruise once said, “being in the moment”. But in the six or seven years since Kaufmann first burst through to prominence with his Covent Garden Carmen something wonderful has happened. That dark fist of a voice has loosened, stretched. There is a breathy duskiness to the voice and, at mid-throttle, a burnished sheen – testament to his meticulously-stepped career progression (a lesson to all lyrically-inclined dramatic tenors). Kaufmann has carefully balanced heavy and lighter roles, taking his time before the next biggie – and all the time with his eye on arguably the most dangerous of all, Verdi’s Otello, which only now he’s approaching, for 2016. Rarely has the singer-as-athlete comparison seemed so apt; it is as though a strong lad has been put through an Olympic training regime and what has emerged is the complete athletic machine. Everything is there, everything works in sync.

But what is truly impressive is that Kaufmann knows how to act through the words, through the vocal line. So that even if his Don José didn’t stagger with grief and rage, or his latest – Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (also at Covent Garden) – imprison himself fatalistically between Manon’s legs, those qualities would all be there through the singing alone. That instinct to find the musical truth and work outwards from there is, as much as anything, what allows him to move between styles so easily. It also, as in his recent tour of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise, gives him the freedom to find, where it can be devastatingly effective, stillness.

Given all of this deeply serious work, it comes as a surprise to hear that his new album for Sony Classical is Viennese operetta. I grew up with the recordings of Mario Lanza in this repertoire and as I have got older, I like them less – the full-pelt, artificial emotion, the relentless brightness in his voice, the self-consciously shimmering MGM strings. It had always seemed to me like taking the sweetest of deserts and then drowning it in golden syrup. Pleasant at the time, but hardly complex and easy to feel nauseous. Would Kaufmann’s album be, dare one say it, a crowd-pleasing sell-out (in both senses)?

“This idea didn’t come from anyone but me,” he says emphatically when we meet backstage at London’s Royal Opera House after a Manon Lescaut rehearsal, “My grandmother would hum all those melodies from the past. It was difficult for her to get her hands on recordings of it, but it was part of her youth. And my grandfather had studied in Berlin in the 1920s so he had actually seen all of it. They used to tell me about this golden era, this moment where people tried to forget about their sorrows and just dived into this entertainment. So it was always in my head. Then in 2001 or 2002, the ZDF radio station asked me to sing the operetta song Du bist die welt fur mich for one of those popular Sunday afternoon shows. They gave me the recording afterwards and I listened to that song all the time!

“When a few years ago I did the big Waldbühne open-air concert in Berlin and I needed something light as an encore, I came back to that – it’s a wonderful song, written by Richard Tauber, I mean, hello?! And the audience went wild. They almost cried – I could see elderly people being reminded of their youth, really touched.”

The video of that occasion bears him out. As he takes up the lilting melody, the audience visibly stills, and camera shots pick out couples embracing, looking at one another with knowing, shared memory. And let me say up front, his album is a revelation. He treats each song with the same care and intelligence he would bring to any Schubert Lied or opera aria. Take the most famous song, Dein ist mein Ganzes Herz from Lehar’s Das Land Des Lächelns. Lanza’s version all but overheats, a more recent version on DG has the tenor Piotr Beczała doing the standard tenor thing, very fine but generalised ardency. Turn to Kaufmann and it’s a different world. Even in this most romantic of songs he finds layers, introspection, even a sense of pain – so that when does push the big emotional buttons, it feels like an eruption, and one that, dramatically speaking, has been earnt.

“These numbers are written for real tenors,” he explains, “for Richard Tauber, for Joseph Schmidt, for Helge Rosvaenge even. Some of them are very difficult – in Dein ist mein ganzes Herz Lehar copies Puccini’s technique of having the violins double the voice so it’s really thick orchestration. Of course some of these melodies are just to entertain, but some are much more complex than you would have suspected, and most are rarely heard. Eduard Künneke’s Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk, a neck-breaking number that is a very tough sing, was only ever recorded by Rosvaenge himself, then two attempts by Fritz Wunderlich, and by Rudolf Schock and then never, ever again! Can you imagine? For 50 years nobody has touched it! So this was an obvious project for me. But the question was always how to do it so it doesn’t seem like crossover. Because it’s not crossover. These songs were done by serious singers and they did it with their hot blood. They didn’t do it to sell more albums because they didn’t need to!”

One track, Feunde das Leben ist lebenswert from Lehar’s Giuditta, seems straight out of the verismo or the zarzuela playbook – it starts with an ultra-dramatic high note that goes straight to the gut. Even when the main melody starts, there’s the sense that it can – and does, actually – turn on a die and go for the solar plexus. First cousin, you might say, to those red-hot Italian and Spanish opera-for-the-people art forms. Kaufmann agrees, pointing out that most of these works were written for places like Berlin’s Metropoltheater (the Komische Opera today) – the people’s opera.

So then, I wonder, how did we get from there, from the development of a fascinating art form that was so much of its culture, its time and its society, to the souped-up, smoothed-out Lanza period. “Yah, but that came later, in the 1950’s when they brought back those songs for the first time and adapted them to the style of the day, and those high strings, choruses and so on were popular,” he says, “And part of the reason why these things are not so much in our ears now is because they stretched it too far then.” To illustrate how far this was the wrong direction he cites a recent concert in Vienna where the pianist Helmut Deutsch begged him to do as an encore a Franz Liszt song, Es muss ein wuderbares sein. He chuckles. “And he played it and I said, ‘That can’t be Franz Liszt! This is an operetta song!’ And it turned out that it was deliberately copied from the Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz show Im weissen Rössl [The White Horse Inn]. That had been a huge success at the time, and it was known that people would recognise the tribute and smile. So there is a bridge even between Liszt and these people.” A shaky, doubtless illegal YouTube video of Kaufmann’s Vienna performance reveals a chuckle from the audience as they, too, recognise the tune.

Yet this school of operetta is an art form interrupted. Ironically, says, Kaufmann, it was the very same sense of desperation for something to hold on to in a time of economic Depression and post-World War One that led both Germans and Austrians to the escapism of operetta and, gradually, into the arms of fascism and the murderous embrace of Nazism. And, along with all its other tyrannies, the latter phenomenon stopped operetta’s development in its tracks.

“This music became extinct because all the people involved in it were Jews and they all went abroad, to the United States or elsewhere. And that’s where the roots of the American musical come from,” he says. “It was a vivid, alive creative process, one that by the early 1930s was already incorporating, for instance, jazz elements that had reached Europe, and it all got cut off by the Third Reich. And the composers and lyricists mostly went to write the songs and melodies for the American movies or for the musicals, because that was the only thing they could do.”

He pauses to tell me the poignant story of the composer Robert Stolz, who returned to Austria from America immediately the war ended. “Though he had success in the States, as composer as well as conductor, he never felt at home there. Since he wasn’t Jewish he could have stayed in Austria; but he was absolutely against Nazism. So he fled to Paris in the night before the Nazis’ invasion of Austria. But when World War II broke out 18 month later, he was imprisoned by the French government. Gathered together with 50,000 other prisoners in the football stadium Colombe, he fell ill with pneumonia, and he would have died there, if his wife Einzi hadn’t bailed him out. Thank God he did survive as an composer: coming back to Austria after WWII he could revive his great career in Europe.”

This truism brings from the tenor, if not rage against those who stayed, then at least scorn. “There are some composers from that period who stayed, that we still listen to a lot. Of course, because their music is great. But they were obviously pretty much into what was happening then, like Pfitzner for instance, or Franz Schmidt, who was so into Nazism that he wrote a march for Hitler himself. Pfitzner wrote a short piece in 1944 called Welcome to Krakow. So why is it that those who stayed are still venerated above those who went? As it says in Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio, ‘You must separate the artist from the man.’”

My turn to chuckle. Strauss also wrote the operas Friedenstag, I observe, which is a political statement about pacifism, and Feuersnot, which was a semi-autobiographical, satirical attack on his critics. “Yes, and in 1936 he composed the Olympia hymn for the Games in Berlin. But Strauss and the Third Reich is a complex subject. To Stefan Zweig, who has written the libretto for his opera Die Schweigsame Frau he wrote in 1935: ‘Why do you you think I play the role of the president of the Reichsmusikkammer? To avoid things that are even worse!’ Like many others he thought the nightmare won’t last long. And he had to protect Alice, his Jewish daughter-in-law. So he stayed in Garmisch. And who are we to judge? Yet some of these composers who stayed are in our eyes and ears all the time and yet others who left are pushed away. Why?”

While we’re dealing in ironies, is there not, I ask, some further irony in the fact, at that Waldbühne concert, of the elderly people in the audience remembering those songs as the musical escapism of their youths? Shouldn’t that easy escapism be impossible given what happened? “At the time,” he replies, “they didn’t know that was their escape. You don’t think of that consciously. And maybe a reason this music is becoming popular again is because we are again in a crisis and need distraction. And many of these people actually remember the music from the 1950s revivals, where they tried to get over the post-World War two traumatism.”

Switching tack to ask about his vocal approach to the songs, I note that he finds a great deal of subtlety – even so far as to use a mini-trill at the end of the aria from Lehar’s Paganini (usually an excuse for tenors to, frankly, show off) just as a touched-in little inflection. He laughs as I mention the trill, and does a very good, wall-shaking impression of (I think) Pavarotti’s famous multi-note version. My ears recovering, I ask whether his experiences of, say, Lieder, had an influence. He reflects. “Maybe another of the reasons these aren’t done is because you need all of that, as a singer. You need some big Lanza moments but you need also a softer approach. And everything in-between. So you need the Lied voice, the passionate but still soft and seductive one, you need the heroic one too. But most important, you have to take these songs for real. The moment I think I can play with it and pretend to be this and that, the melody will do the rest, it’s wrong. If you don’t believe strongly in this music then you shouldn’t do it. It’s not a vehicle.”

Does he ever study the text away from the music? He smiles. “Sometimes you have to. Sometimes you have to really think about the text because the terms they use are so outdated that we have to somehow convey the real meaning, so that the audience understand it! It’s like in Wagner. When you read through Wagner’s words you think, ‘Whaaaaaat?’ Because the sentences are so incredibly long and when you come finally to the end you tend to have forgotten what he started with. So you have to find a way to wrap it up with your music-making, with your interpretation, the colour in the voice and everything just to give it a sense.

“Also, just thinking ‘What the heck, the melody is great and that’s all that counts’ wouldn’t give enough credit to the songwriters because they have written everything with so much humour and humanity. They really push their double-meanings so far, for instance. There’s a song, not on the album, where a guy is talking to the girl in the telephone exchange room and he’s saying, ‘I want to be in your socket, so plug me into your central exchange’ and we know what’s really going on! So there’s a lot of that kind of thing and it’s done so well that you laugh and realise how much fun they had when they wrote it. So you have to understand and convey what they’re talking about to find what’s there.”

An almost crooning, half-voice in a few of the songs on the album seems to take almost a Sinatra-like approach, in the way that Ol’ Blue Eyes would approach an easy listening song and make a mini-drama of something like ‘One for my baby’. Since these operetta composers went to the US, does Kaufmann feels there’s a line back to the German songs? Would a Sinatra have been a Sinatra without the influence of these composers? By the same token could Kaufmann have sung the German songs in quite the same way had Sinatra and his breed never existed?

“Probably yes,” he says, answering the last question first, “because there were others in America and in Germany who had this mix of a great voice and really using it in that way. The famous Viennese entertainer Peter Alexander, for instance, always sung in his movies but only showed his full baritone with maybe two or three notes in an entire film; he would play with the voice, with its endless capacity. And that’s similar to what Sinatra did. And it’s absolutely true that you can follow the track from the operetta to the development of Bing Crosby, Sinatra and their world.”

Which, I say, is really fascinating because it opens up that whole American school of singing as art song, and a true inheritor of the German-Austrian style, coming from Lieder through operetta and then on to “One for my baby”. “It does,” he says, but cautions, “The style itself varies. A classical singer would never approach a high note in the same way in Mozart, in Rossini, in Puccini, in Wagner. It would always be a different approach depending on the repertory and the composer. So you might use a big portamento or be very clear or soft and then crescendo, or in the verismo works really go for it. All of these are different for the same note. And, yes, that Liszt song I mentioned or some of these have similarities with pop songs from the 1940’s or 50’s and there is a bridge built there, but of course it doesn’t mean that you sing a Haydn song and a Schubert song or a Sinatra song all the same way.

“Yet the idea is the same. Of using all of the ability of your instrument, of the human voice. If you can fill up the words with real emotions then actually there is no need to discuss or preset ideas of, say, colours because the colours come naturally as soon as you believe in the song. It’s the same with Sinatra and Crosby. You think Bing Crosby thought, ‘I will do this now’? No, they had fun in interpreting.”

He has, I say, done so many new roles in recent years. Just as method actors talk about finding a “sense memory” – accessing how something feels that they can then inject into a role that calls for a similar emotion – does he as he progresses develop a muscle-memory, a way that the body remembers how to create certain effects, or more important, how to support the voice through ever-more types of challenges? “It helps,” he agrees, “you carry your experiences not only in style but in technique. When I did Walküre for instance, it’s very low, so I had to get this heroic strength and tone into a mid-to-low part. That was totally different to anything I had done so far. In the lighter French repertoire you have phrases that are uncomfortably high but you somehow have to hold them together to the rest so they don’t stick out too much. So these all come in handy and you reach the point where, though you mustn’t be complacent, you look at the score and it’s there for you. The muscular memory is there all the time.

“But I actually think there’s a truth in this method acting as well. I don’t want to say at the moment you actually then perform it, but to access a character and a personality with all its weirdnesses, you have to find something similar inside. In order to make that happen you have to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t have to be you, but if you really look carefully you can find those moments.”

And what, finally has he found inside himself for the operetta project? I don’t need to ask that question out loud, for the answer comes without the asking, in one short, telling anecdote. “Somebody said to me when listening to the recording for the first time, ‘On this one, I can hear you smile.’”

Jonas Kaufmann’s new disc is out next month. There are still tickets available for his solo concerts for Opera Australia in Sydney on August 10 and 17 and in Melbourne on August 14.

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