The Weekend Australian Magazine, August 09, 2014
Serena Davies
The passion of Jonas Kaufmann
JONAS Kaufmann is almost certainly the greatest tenor in the world right now, a dashingly handsome German with an extraordinary voice, whose career is reaching new peaks with each year, even month that passes.
In February, Kaufmann ­“provoked one of the greatest ovations in recent memory”, according to the news agency Bloomberg, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, for his interpretation of the tortured poet Werther in Massenet’s opera of the same name. In April he sang Schubert’s wonderful melancholic song cycle Winterreise to a full house at London’s Covent Garden (the first singer to have been given a solo recital there in more than a decade; when he did the same concert at the Met it was the first time it had had a solo performer since Pavarotti in 1994). Covent Garden staged a new production of Manon Lescaut, an opera it hadn’t done for 30 years, with Kaufmann as des Grieux – “the most difficult and challenging role for the tenor that Puccini ever wrote”, according to Antonio Pappano, Covent Garden’s musical director. And now he is preparing for his first appearance on our shores.

What makes Kaufmann great is that his voice is not only beautiful but uniquely versatile, which means he can do both the lighter tenor roles of Verdi and Puccini and much of the big dramatic singing demanded by Wagner (and a lot else between). This is partly because he is a linguist, fluent in four languages: English, French, Italian and German. And it is partly because his voice has an exceptionally rich lower register – yet he can also sing amazing high notes that, in Pappano’s words, “blossom and shoot out and are big and generous”. His talent is ­comparable to Plácido Domingo’s. “There’s been no one since Plácido that has the freedom and breadth of repertoire that Jonas has,” Pappano says. There is also the fact that, like Domingo, Kaufmann is an instinctive actor. “He brings a protean talent in that he can shift and change,” director Jonathan Kent points out. “We were rehearsing a very difficult scene [in Manon ­Lescaut] where the two lovers know they are about to be trapped… I’d ask the performers to do the chaos of panic, with people running round not knowing how to escape. Jonas brings endless invention to that and he can do it while singing. He can think on his feet. He can throw himself around the room and still hit the notes.’’

I have been invited to his rehearsal of Manon Lescaut and Kaufmann, 45, is 20 minutes late. He apologises gaily, and no one murmurs. It is a modern production and the death scene is ­taking place on a broken flyover, a vast piece of stage machinery currently inhabiting one of the opera house’s even more vast rehearsal spaces. Kaufmann shins up the ladder of the set, wobbling it for fun as he goes, and pulls a face when he gets to the top. Then he takes the soprano Kristine Opolais in his arms and gets serious. As he and Opolais practise positions of collapse while singing the opera’s closing moments, he is two people, shaking with laughter one moment, then racked with wholly convincing torment the next. And he is dominant: directing as much as Kent does. “Are you singing my line?” Opolais says at one point. “You’d better be quick or he’ll sing the whole act,” Kent says, laughing.

This is a tenor with the world at his feet, ­perhaps a little cocky, but not at all lofty. “I really got lucky, in a million ways I got lucky,” is how he describes it when we meet at the end of the rehearsal, five hours later. Sitting in a rather cramped corner backstage, initially I have the sense of an overgrown boy opposite me; a feeling exacerbated by the length of his Byronic curls – despite the greying at the temples – and his ­outfit of a casual grey T-shirt and jeans. He is about 180cm tall and slim. His speaking voice is deep and loud, as if he is permanently projecting.

Kaufmann was born in Munich to an insurance broker and a kindergarten teacher who were East German by origin. They’d fled their homeland in the early 1960s but would visit their relations in East Germany when Jonas and his sister were children. “[My relations] thought each second the Stasi would smash down the door and come in,” he recalls.

His family lived in an apartment in a block in Munich that was built expressly to help cope with the influx of East Germans. His paternal grandfather, a banker and devoted Wagner fan, lived in another flat in the same block. ­Kaufmann describes their lives as “conventional”, but the family had an exceptional passion for classical music. “All my family members played the piano,” he says. “My parents had subscriptions to everything available. Concert series, opera, theatre. They took us too. We got used to that.”

The first opera Kaufmann saw was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, at the age of seven. “I thought it was real,” he says. “I was destroyed when ­[Butterfly] came out for the curtain calls and she wasn’t dead anymore.” He says he sat next to the radio every Friday afternoon to record his favourite songs from the pop charts as well. But it was classical music that was his “normal”. He started singing in choirs as a child and continued after his voice broke, and remembers facing down the derision of his schoolmates. “I was 17 and we did a concert and I sang some arias. The whole room started laughing and giggling. They had never heard anything like it before,” he says.

Despite his talent, Kaufmann says, he never thought he was special. “I never thought about music as my profession, it was just great fun.” And so, following the advice of his father to make plans for a serious career, he enrolled as a maths student at the University of Munich. But realising this wasn’t where his passion lay, he switched after two terms to study to be a singer at Munich’s Academy of Music and Theatre.

Years performing in the smaller German opera houses followed; he graduated to the larger European ones by his late 20s. He got his big international break when he sang opposite the celebrated soprano Angela Gheorghiu in La Traviata at the Met in 2006. The world-class engagements have come along ever since. His life is frenetic. In the next six months his schedule will take him to 11 countries, from Europe to Japan, America and Australia. He’ll return to Munich, which remains his home, three times for work. This has been the pattern of his life, with minor variations, for about the past 10 years. It’s like being a pop star on permanent tour.

He says his peripatetic existence means he is too busy to take exercise. “Keep fit? I sing!” he says. (Though he does do some yoga.) And as for his downtime… “What downtime? What are you talking about?” He laughs heartily. “Yes, I go skiing,” he admits. “I go sailing, I go hiking, but for very short periods in the year. More to relax, not to stay fit and healthy.”

It is a life of total focus and absorption that extends to drinking salt water during performances to stave off low blood pressure, which can cause dizziness. It comes, too, with an ­arguably valid anxiety about health (he had a lymph node removed in 2011) that has given him something of a reputation for cancellations. That is one reason why he bucks against the pressure that opera houses put on stars to sign up to shows five years’ hence. Another is that he can’t know what parts his voice, which is developing all the time, will be ready for that far ahead. “I can’t find enough singers to go on strike to say we’re not going to sign anything over two years. But it has become insane, I think. The thing to do is to say no to almost everything and there will still be something that comes up at the last minute.”

Kaufmann announced the end of his marriage to the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig on his website in April. Their union had lasted the ­better part of two decades, and they have three children together aged eight, 11 and 15. The split, it seems, is a casualty of his career. “We have agreed it doesn’t make any sense to tell anything about it,” he says. “But I’ve talked about the circumstances actually. I’m not the only one sitting in that boat. All musicians who do this kind of job have this struggle to combine private life and work. I’ve been pointing that out in almost every interview. That’s the way it is.”

Yet, of course, Kaufmann loves opera, despite its constraints. He quotes conductor Herbert von Karajan’s description of the experience of performing as an exercise in “controlled ecstasy”. “You should forget about everything around you,” Kaufmann says. “You should forget that you are a singer, that you are on stage. You must think that your colleagues are real people… and that there isn’t an audience attending. You can come to a point that you can do it so convincingly that you believe it is you who is saying this, you who is suffering.

“It’s great [to perform like this] but not every musician has it, and not every musician is seeking it. There are musicians who are brain-guided; they seek perfection, not passion.”

With this our conversation comes to a close, and Kaufmann bounds out of his chair to see a friend at a nearby pub. As he leaves, the press officer shows him an advertising board for the new season which shows a grainy close-up of Kaufmann and the soprano Anna Netrebko in an embrace. It must be about 1.5m high. “Oh, I love that,” Kaufmann says. He’d like a copy. “See,” he gestures to me. “The passion!”

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