The Epoch Times, 4 December 2011
By Rosemarie Frühauf
Opera Is Relevant Today
An interview with German Operatic Tenor Jonas Kaufmann
BERLIN—Jonas Kaufmann is a phenomenon. In Feb. 2006 he made a breakthrough at the Met in “La traviata” as the stage partner of Angela Gheorgiu. Since then he has had celebrated appearances around the globe.

Born and raised in Munich, Bavaria, Jonas Kaufmann lives with his wife and their three children in Munich. A charismatic man with a movie-star appearance, the 42-year-old German’s popularity radiates far beyond the opera scene. Both connoisseurs and novices in classical music appreciate him.

His superior singing technique allows him incredibly subtle expression. His heartfelt dedication to the music he sings and the roles he plays are amazing in their artistic depth. He totally surrenders himself to what he does on the stage.

In an interview, given on Oct. 13, Jonas Kaufmann shared his views about opera as an art form and its relation to today’s audiences. Below is an edited version of the discussion.

The Epoch Times: What makes opera relevant today?

Jonas Kaufmann: Of course opera is a very old form of art. But I find it has an incredible power to open the doors to our hearts. It unlocks one’s inner self and provides access to the inside of our soul. This is the strange and fascinating thing about opera—something that has been the topic of many dissertations.

This combination of theater and music obviously has a very special effect on a lot of human beings. We often read about people who have experienced lasting changes in their lives, triggered by opera and the changes are for the good!

Plus the voice: it is not only the oldest and most versatile instrument but also the most natural instrument of music, as it is inside of us. We can influence this instrument via our thoughts and feelings in such a strong way that we can hear within a split second, whether somebody is happy, sad, or incensed.

Theater, music, and voice, these three things in combination, from my perspective, are a form of expression that has lost nothing of its relevance despite the fact that it was invented several hundred years ago.

ET: So you think this old art form of opera does hold interest for people?

JK: In the last 400 years of course, many an opera has been written about a story that happened in a land far away or a time long ago, intentionally, in order to avoid parallels with the time, place, and governing regime of that moment in history. But the audience at once recognized it as a topical plot.

If you look at a work like Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” for example, it features a story that still could happen today. It may be a bit unrealistic for a woman to live in the disguise of a man without being discovered. But the story of a political prisoner facing being murdered and hastily buried somewhere is something we read about in the newspapers every day.

In most cases, though, opera is about love, betrayal, and jealousy, again, something pretty common. In every soap [opera] on TV, we bump into the same topics.

ET: So it is emotionally engaging?

JK: For me it is very fascinating that a pop song that was a number-one-hit some 20 or 30 years ago is of interest today merely for nostalgic reasons. If people are touched by it for sentimental reasons, then it is in most cases not because of the music itself, but rather because of personal memories that are connected to it.

An opera that was been written 150 years ago or more and that still makes you cry today, obviously has a strong inner power. Opera as a form of art has lost none of its magical effect, and this enchantment will take effect on everybody that attends a performance with an open mind and without prejudice. This shows, to my mind, that it is an art form that functions even in our wild and crazy society.

ET: But our tastes are different now.

JK: Of course, our tastes have changed since then and the power of our imaginations [has] dwindled because of the stimulus satiation we are exposed to all the time. This is something we have to take into consideration. That means, we have to meet the opera audience of today at their level and based on their experiences.

Back then, two spots of light, a costume, and the atmosphere in the opera house were enough to thrill a spectator. Today you have to do a bit more. You have to adjust to a certain type of realism that was not needed at the time. Once the singers of Tristan and Isolde could stand five meters away from each other while singing, and it nevertheless worked as a love scene. It was because one’s visual fantasy was complementing what could strongly be sensed from the music and the lyrics.

ET: And it still works?

JK: Modern magic is possible. I think the highest assumption is to respect the work. That means, if there is so much going on onstage, in a way that the music is unable to unfold its magic, then something is wrong and the work is reduced to one extreme perception.

I have always regarded it as positive when a scenic interpretation, besides all consequence of depiction, leaves sufficient room for the viewer’s imagination to see other possible perspectives. To communicate to the audience that there is more behind this work and to give them an idea of what else could be brought out of it, this is something that challenges me tremendously as an actor and something I really get a kick out of.  

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