The Times, January 19 2015
Anna Picard
Jonas Kaufmann: is this the tenor your mother warned you about?
Set to smoulder again at Covent Garden, the superstar reveals why fame means he can no longer join his fans for a pint

A special kind of hysteria has attached to Jonas Kaufmann, the singer now routinely called “the world’s greatest tenor”. Opera lovers are well practised at suspending disbelief, mentally airbrushing extra pounds and other infelicities. When a voice is versatile enough to adapt to the different demands of Schubert’s lieder, Wagner, Verdi and verismo, it is an event. When that voice belongs to someone tall enough and handsome enough to convince as a leading man in the era of high definition, someone who can act, the superlatives explode.

One Australian critic recently described Kaufmann as “the sort of man your mother warned you about”. Perhaps she was confusing him with the damaged or damaging men he plays on stage: poets, painters, revolutionaries, renegades, flawed pilgrims and frisky gods. In person, during rehearsals for David McVicar’s new Covent Garden production of Andrea Chénier conducted by Antonio Pappano, he’s the sort of man any mother would be happy to audition as a son-in-law: polite and earnest; more history teacher than heartbreaker.

In much of mainland Europe, where opera is more integrated in the wider cultural scene than it is in the UK, Kaufmann is as famous as, say, Benedict Cumberbatch is here. Save for a remark to The Times some years ago about being typecast as “the Latin lover”, he has had the grace not to complain about the adulation. Yet recent speculation about his private life, including rumours of a liaison with Madonna, has made Kaufmann uncomfortable.

He is 45 but seems much younger in conversation, almost boyish, and rubs his hands across his face or through his hair while he thinks about the answer to a question. He speaks quickly and emphatically with the controlled candour that marks his self-authored website. He talks less about the voice than most singers and more about the psychological flaws in the characters he plays but admits that “it’s easier to sell erotic passion that just explodes like a flame”.

Born in Munich, Kaufmann learnt his craft with the opera companies of Saarbrücken, Stuttgart and Zurich, slowly nurturing a bright, attractive voice into something darker, more lyrical and more dangerous. In 2004 he made his Royal Opera House debut in Puccini’s La rondine, a low-intensity vehicle for the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. By the time he sang Maurizio to her Adriana Lecouvreur, in 2010, the balance of power had shifted and he was the star. Now the vehicle is his.

Andrea Chénier, Giordano’s 1896 opera of love in the blood-spattered streets of post-revolutionary Paris may have a certain bodice-ripping appeal but it’s unlikely that Covent Garden would stage it without him. The leading role has been associated with the greatest tenors of history, from Gigli and Caruso to Corelli, Del Monaco and, in his prime, Plácido Domingo. Tellingly, the singer who created it, Giuseppe Borgatti, went on to become his country’s greatest Wagnerian and the first Italian to perform at Bayreuth.

When we meet, Kaufmann has spent the morning trying to locate a balance between Chénier’s idealism and the frank sensuality of Giordano’s music, when Chénier discovers that the woman he dismissed as a flibbertigibbet is the anonymous author of the rose-scented letters that have made such a profound impression on him. I raise an eyebrow sceptically. “You’ve never had that coup de foudre or whatever they call it in English?” he asks. Not often, I mumble. “Of course not often,” he cries, “but opera is about extremes: either full passion or misery and death.”

Unlike most opera singers, Kaufmann says he isn’t plagued by lacerating self-criticism and sleeps well “99 per cent” of the time. He’s a quick study. He arrives to rehearsal fully prepared and regards anything less as “irresponsibility”. On acting, a passion that predated his decision to change from studying mathematics to music, he says there is no German phrase for “park and bark”, but he laughs when I suggest that old-school, stand-and-deliver opera singing would not be permitted in the land of Regietheater (so-called director’s opera) and high concept modern-dress productions such as Martin Kušej’s recent and notorious rubber shark Idomeneo: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It existed of course also in Germany.”

Kaufmann argues that “Regietheater in its purest form is fantastic. You can focus totally on the interaction of the characters, on the energy, on tiny details. You’re not distracted by chandeliers and pomp. However, it has to be worked properly, so that there is something that carries through, that keeps the flow, that holds the tension. If there isn’t, it doesn’t work. It’s just something ‘cool’.” From the muslin-draped Merveilleuses (flamboyant aristocratic ladies of the 1790s) flitting about backstage today, this will not be an issue in McVicar’s lavish period-costume production.

Kaufmann has researched the real Chénier, a poet and “revolutionary at the first hour” and the prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, who commissioned the execution of Robespierre only three days after Chénier was guillotined. The history is one of “terror, absolute terror”. Kaufmann is protective of the characters he plays, from the betraying Alfredo in La traviata (“you can only explain it with innocence”) to suicidal Werther (“I think Freud would have a lot to say about this”) and self-important grail knight Lohengrin (“he fully understands that he has made a mistake, that he is the one to blame, and that’s why he’s so aggressive”).

He is dismissive of “shiny, shimmering” heroes and more interested in “weakness”. Chénier is a work in progress, but Kaufmann is intrigued by the poet’s readiness to die for love: “Tony Pappano always says that since Tristan we all know what it means to promise each other to die together rather than being separated.”

As his career has gathered speed, Kaufmann says he has “to live faster”. The German idiom for this level of activity translates as “dancing at too many weddings”, but he hasn’t lost his appetite for dancing. During the Chénier run, he will be selecting takes for a forthcoming disc of Puccini arias. Lieder remains central to his work and he enjoys the challenge of establishing an atmosphere in “the first moment, the first phrase”. In 2006, when he sang Don José at the Royal Opera House, he enjoyed a low enough profile to be able to join a group of fans for a pint of beer. “I probably couldn’t do it now,” he says, ruefully. He says that he isn’t the sort of person that people recognise on the street. (It helps that his dress code is normcore jumper and jeans.)

Attention on his private life has intensified since the end of his marriage to the mezzo-soprano Margarete Joswig was announced in a joint statement last April. With three children to protect, he has been necessarily discreet, to the frustration of the popular press. Hence the rumour about Madonna and their plans to record a duet. “I think it came from Italy originally,” he frowns, “but they claimed they saw us here at an exhibition in London.”

So was he at an exhibition in London with Madonna? “No. I wasn’t. Everybody just copied it from somewhere else. So in Russia, even, in every magazine, it was this big, big thing with pictures of us.” Pictures of them together? “Of course not. There is no picture of us together because we’ve never met. I even thought about contacting her management to say, ‘Listen, it’s not me that’s spreading these rumours.’ ”

He was less distressed by the idea that he might sing with Madonna than by the speed with which a fabricated story spread: “It is something so uncontrollable that you wonder what comes next. Because this was positive gossip. It was not something very mean or nasty.” You mean, they didn’t say you were a heroin addict? “Exactly, but that could happen. And then people would believe it.”

Few of Kaufmann’s characters laugh, much less enjoy a happy ending. (Strauss’s Bacchus and Puccini’s Dick Johnson are exceptions.) This morbid trend will continue as he adds Radames (in next month’s concert performance and recording of Aida in Rome) and Turridu and Canio (in the Salzburg Easter Festival double-bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci) to his repertoire. His debut as Otello has been confirmed for the 2016-17 season.

As to Wagner’s Tristan, probably the most technically, physically and poetically demanding of tenor roles, he says, “I think I’m almost there and it might be a good idea to start studying it because the last act is very hard to memorise.” He has spoken previously of fears that other doors might close when that one is opened. Why? “Because if I study Tristan I’m certainly not going to sing it only one or two times. This is a kind of drug. If you like it, if you let yourself go into this world, it is something that is unique.”

By way of an antidote, his most recent recording is a tribute to the hedonism of the 1920s and 1930s, Du bist die Welt für mich. While his paternal grandfather loved Wagner, his maternal one had a fondness for the popular classics of his student days, when his future wife visited him in Berlin. “I remember he told me what a disappointment it was,” smiles Kaufmann, “She promised him that she’d come, he picked her up at the train and she came with her mother. Because Berlin had such a bad reputation.”

The music Kaufmann chose was deliberately escapist: playful Viennese operetta arias and songs from German movies, their orchestrations transcribed from old recordings, the original scores having long been lost or swamped in “cheesy arrangements” from the 1960s. It was “like a time machine”, he says. “Everybody was swinging in the corridors. Everyone had a song on their lips. It was crazy how much this influences your mood. So only then did I think I understood how powerful this music is, and how seductive.”

With that, he goes cheerfully back to work, back to death and misery and a passion more powerful than the guillotine.

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