The Sunday Times, 14 April 2013
Hugh Canning
The reluctant fundamentalist
The star tenor Jonas Kaufmann tells Hugh Canning why he wants to bring ‘piano singing’ back to Wagner
Back to the future: Kaufmann is a maverick who likes his Wagner quieter (Tom Pilston), (Anm. das Foto ist von November 2010)

I t might seem strange feeling sorry for Jonas Kaufmann, the German hunkentenor who has it all — the darkest, most burnished and beautiful voice among his peers, the romantic good looks and the world’s great opera houses and record companies jostling for a slice of his time. But he looks a tad morose when we meet at the cafe of Vienna ’s Hotel Imperial (his choice, perhaps because Wagner and his family stayed there in 1875, when preparing the local premieres of his Tannhäuser and Lohengrin).

He is in Vienna to make his local debut as Parsifal, trailing rave reviews from François Girard’s new production at the Met — transmitted across the world in cinemas last month — but he had to cancel the first two of three performances with a severe cold. The night before the third, he postpones our scheduled meeting until the day after the performance.

He cheers up as he sips at a mélange — a Viennese cappuccino — and tucks into a creamy sponge torte, but he only eats half of it. When I remark that he looks thin, he retorts, “I hope you mean that as a compliment!” He still looks a bit drawn, and admits that he had felt weak on stage and had to slump on the floor to watch the Grail Knights’ Act I ritual when he should have been standing. Even though he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, he rallied for Parsifal’s erotic encounter with Evelyn Herlitzius’s Kundry and his climactic Act II solo. At less than his best, Kaufmann was still worth travelling for, but, he says, “I was really sick. When I arrived for rehearsal, everyone was ill, and I had caught a bug. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sing.”

He shrugs it off as bad luck for him and a letdown for the audience, but it’s clear that he, along with the other handful of big opera stars whose names guarantee sold-out houses, is under a lot of pressure. He says he hasn’t heard about Antonio Pappano’s recent fractious claims that “this generation of star singers” — presumably he meant Kaufmann and his contemporaries, though he didn’t specify — are often sick, and implied that they aren’t as committed as, say, Placido Domingo was in his heyday. (You have to wonder if Pappano knew about Pavarotti cancelling a run of Tosca at Covent Garden because of dust in his throat.)

“I know it must be disappointing when you get your hands on tickets and there’s a cancellation, but we singers have to be aware that, at every single show we do, there are maybe 20 people recording the performance, and overnight everybody knows about it on the internet. You can ruin your reputation in one single show — so of course you think twice before you say, ‘OK, I’m sick, but what the hell.’”

He adds that there hasn’t been a time when top opera singers have been paid less than they are today — even the most lavishly subsidised houses are having to cut costs in these austere times. “Look, I’m not saying I’m badly paid, but I get less per show than Placido [Domingo] got 30 years ago. I could also add that, right now, the pound is low, but that’s not a reason to cancel. You don’t sign a contract if you want to make more money elsewhere.”

Those who have bought tickets for Kaufmann’s Royal Festival Hall concert next Sunday, and for his return to Covent Garden for Don Carlo in May, can probably relax. He obviously enjoys working with Pappano (who doesn’t?) and Don Carlo is a role close to his heart, especially in the original five-act Paris version performed by the Royal Opera.

“In the four-act version [made by Verdi to facilitate performances in Italian opera houses], you don’t have the chance to establish Don Carlo’s character. You see him in the monastery weeping and suddenly you find out he loves his mother.” He chuckles. “There’s almost no chance to win the sympathy of the audience without the Fontainebleau scene, where you see they love each other before she marries his father. Opera houses like to play 90% of Don Carlo, so that it doesn’t turn into a Wagnerian epic, but it’s hard, when you know Schiller’s play, to lose what has been cut out.”

As when I last met him four years ago, Kaufmann is still contemplating the biggest Verdian challenge of all, Otello. It is scheduled “in three or four years’ time”, but he won’t say where. (In the meantime, in this busy Verdi year, he will sing two other new roles, Manrico in Il trovatore and Alvaro in La forza del destino, both in his hometown, Munich .) Likewise, the theatre is as yet unspecified for his first staged Walther von Stolzing, which, after several postponements (not his fault, he says), he will now sing in February 2015. For those who heard his youthful concert performance in the Edinburgh Festival’s 2006 Die Meistersinger — or have his recording of Stolzing’s Prize Song — this is an inviting prospect.

For Kaufmann’s British fans, who would dearly love to see him in a Wagner opera, it may come as a surprise that he is not universally admired in his native land as a Wagnerian, despite the acclaim that his Met Parsifal and the new Wagner album from Decca have attracted. Kaufmann has very particular ideas about a composer he has known from his childhood, listening to records at his grand­father’s knee. “What actually makes a Wagner tenor?” he asks rhetorically — and proceeds to tell me what he thinks.

“For at least 40 years, there has been a tradition that you need a big sound that can cut through the orchestra with impeccable, edgy diction and without a beautiful roundness of sound. I think it may be because orchestras play Wagner louder than they did 40 years ago, and certainly more so since the time his operas were written. I don’t want to pose as the Harnoncourt [Nikolaus, the Austrian period-instrument guru] of Wagner singing, but I’m not the only one who wants to bring back legato, bel canto and cultured piano singing to Wagner.”

These Italianate virtues, which Wagner would have expected from his singers, are proudly displayed on the new album, which includes one of the most moving and beautifully sung accounts of Siegfried’s Forest Murmurs solo I have heard, and a hair-raising account of Tann­häuser’s Rome Narration of his terrifying encounter with the Pope. He brings a poetic sensibility to Wagner’s intimate passages, while sporting plenty of heft for the heroics. He is a thoroughly modern heldentenor, in touch with his lieder-singer’s side.

And what will he be singing at his concert a week today? “Well, Wagner and Verdi, of course,” he says — he’ll be giving sneak previews of his forthcoming new roles. The composers’ joint bicentenary seems to have been scheduled to coincide with Kaufmann’s prime.

Jonas Kaufmann sings at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, next Sunday

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