Datum objave: 21.10.2011

Relaxed Power

Jonas Kaufmann

A Publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild

November 2011 — Vol. 76, No. 5

Relaxed Power

Jonas Kaufmann is at the top of his game and enjoying his success — but he won't let anybody push him too fast or too far. What is it like to be everybody's favorite tenor? OUSSAMA ZAHR finds out.
Jonas Kaufmann appears to be a man blessed with an entirely unfair set of gifts. There are, of course, the movie-star looks and the leading-man presence, the lion's mane of curls and the brooding glances, but he has something even rarer in an opera singer — a legitimate lyric-dramatic voice. Whether you call him a spinto tenor or a jugendlicher Heldentenor, he sings a superb lyric line, with an astonishing range of dynamics at his disposal and baritonal, chestnut colorings that impart a seductiveness to his words. His glory is his high notes, marked by a finish and ferocity that set him apart. At forty-two, he is a singer in his prime — that moment when the freshness of youth meets the wisdom of experience. This month at the Met, he takes the title role in Des McAnuff's new production of Gounod's Faust, portraying a character who would make a deal with the devil for such good fortune.
But Kaufmann's startling rise over the past five years is deceptive. Though he is Bavarian born and pursued his training at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, his hometown company, Bayerische Staatsoper, had little use for him when he was coming up. He spent much of the first decade of his career doing yeoman's work in regional German houses before Zurich Opera general director Alexander Pereira snapped him up in 2001 and made him a headliner. The current moment in his career, then — when it seems that he can do no wrong — more precisely resembles the endgame of someone who has taken the long view: Kaufmann has studied his craft and paced his development over a two-decade period, giving his slow rise to the top an aura of inevitability in its final arrival — and that kind of trajectory has less to do with Faustian bargains and giving good face than with maturity and perspective.
When he sits down with OPERA NEWS, Kaufmann is in the middle of a revolving door of interviews after last spring's opening of the Met's new Die Walküre, in which he made his role debut as Siegmund and ran off with the notices. Sporting a dark blazer and his customary weekend stubble, he is soft-spoken, affable and excited about the prospect of winning over his audiences once again as Faust — who, as he points out, abuses and ruins the other characters in the opera. "If you look at it firsthand," he says, "he's definitely not sympathetic — he's just an old guy, bored of life and very selfish. I think you have to try to make him sympathetic by humanizing him and making the audience understand the reasons for his behavior. And with Gounod's music, I'm sure that I have the possibility to get the audience's sympathy." Comparing Gounod's opera to Massenet's Werther — both are French adaptations of Goethe — Kaufmann says, "French composers love those German sufferers that then they can bring to joy, and so the whole rainbow of emotions is there."
He isn't shy about weighing in on the debate that has been hounding the Met's new Faust ever since Angela Gheorghiu withdrew from the show in March, protesting McAnuff's updated setting for the opera. "I have some impressions, and I had a conversation with him here in New York," says Kaufmann, who has seen a recording of the production's 2010 premiere at English National Opera. "I explained to him how important it is to me to keep the Romanticism, to keep the lightness in some of these things, because otherwise, I believe scene and music are working against each other. And he promised me to make that happen."
Kaufmann is by no means conservative when it comes to his taste in productions — even of French Romantic operas. Benoît Jacquot's sober staging of Werther at Opéra Bastille, which was telecast around France and released on DVD last year, divided critical opinion but nonetheless gained the tenor's approval. "It wasn't warm in the typical sense," he admits. "It wasn't this overwhelming, overflowing — it wasn't the Zeffirelli version of it, with everything for real. But it was very lightweight. It gave a lot of space for acting and for concentrating on the emotions, on the feelings, on the characters, because there was not so much distraction, and it was in the right environment." In Werther's aria "O nature," Kaufmann, dressed in the poet's signature blue frock coat, conjured entire vistas simply in the way he ran his fingers along a wall of ivy or through the tiniest trickle of water. "I think the secret is that you make the audience understand, or actually take the audience into your tour of fantasy, of vision, and let them see the forest through your eyes, because you can see it."
Despite his soft-spokenness and hearty, beer-hall laugh, Kaufmann talks like a man who has come to know his worth. He also knows what he wants. He doesn't necessarily flaunt his value, but he doesn't allow himself to be railroaded either.
Many of his stories involve negotiations — between him and impresarios, him and stage directors, him and his fans. When he signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca, in 2007, he didn't hand himself over to the marketing department to be branded as "the next German tenor," preferring instead to record a debut recital of calling-card arias from the Italian, French and German repertoires. "I've been fighting so hard for this reputation in the opera that I'm known as the one who can sing and who is accepted as a singer in all three — French, German and Italian repertory — that I don't want to ruin that by now going down the road for 'the German tenor,' or whatever."
But not all his negotiations are of the lofty, artist-of-integrity variety. When he was planning a lied recital in Munich's intimate Prinzregenten Theater and fans wrote letters complaining of ticket scarcity, he asked management for the 2,100-seat opera house. "They said, 'Oh, we don't do that,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Oh? I remember I saw Hermann Prey doing lied recitals here.'" He put his foot down, they agreed, and it was sold out immediately. "Now, they are so happy that they say, 'Every year you're going to do a recital there!'"
In addition to the new Faust, Kaufmann's Met schedule this season includes his New York recital debut, on October 30, and another crack at the role of Siegmund in April and May, when the company presents the first full cycles of Robert Lepage's new production of Wagner's Ring.
Initially, Kaufmann had some reservations about Lepage's Walküre, particularly the director's decision to set Act I in a sunken living room behind the stage apron. "I had the impression that I am losing contact with the audience, that I'm playing there in this hole for myself, and that I'm just too far away, too much separated from the audience. And then, when Jimmy Levine — I think it was in the final dress — when he stopped [conducting] and said, 'Jonas, I wish you could come closer. I mean, you're so far away. I want you more here. I want to see your expressions. I want to really feel what you're feeling. And it's just not enough.'"
They eventually worked out moments — such as the crucial address to his father ("Wälse! Wälse!") and the end of the Act I duet — for Siegmund to stand on the apron. According to Kaufmann, Lepage's original idea, which he respected, was that "the apron is for the gods only and not for the human beings. They shouldn't touch the apron. And then, Jimmy Levine was clever enough to say, 'Well, I think the Wanderer is actually human and not a god, and Brünnhilde, when she wakes up, is human, too. So, are you sure you're going to stick to this idea till the very end?'" He smiles. "And then Robert understood that maybe he can make an exception."
Kaufmann also had strong feelings about the large, elaborate shadow-play that illustrates Siegmund's narrative as he sings it. "I convinced Robert and his team that we should actually work out this scene in the first act as if there wouldn't be any shadow," he explains. "The original plan was to sit around that table and just sing and let the shadows do their job. And that's not what I'm here for. I said, 'Then you could've hired somebody else who is not capable or not willing to move, but I want to play. I want to act. I love acting, and that's why we need to do the real thing and pretend there is nothing else to help us.' And that's what we tried to do."
Kaufmann went on to chalk up another staggering role debut. His rather sterling gallery of roles on DVD — Lohengrin, Don José, Werther, Cavaradossi — is all the more impressive if one considers that most of them were first-time efforts: he runs the gamut from mid-weight Wagner heroes to poetic French souls to volatile Italian lovers, and maybe it's his maturity or maybe it's his seriousness of purpose, but he creates a complete character — warm yet specific, dashing yet vulnerable — every time.
It's hard to believe now, but a year and a half ago, most New Yorkers still knew Kaufmann as the tenor who made his Met debut in La Traviata with Gheorghiu in 2006. His one-two punch in the Met's spring 2010 season, when the tenor sang a mere six performances in back-to-back revivals of Tosca and Carmen, changed all that. At the opening salvo of Cavaradossi's "Vittoria! Vittoria!" — with Kaufmann in full cry poised downstage — his sound shook the air, and a wave of astonished applause swept across the audience. It was a divo-making moment. The subsequent online uproar among crotchety opera reactionaries that "he's no Corelli" confirmed what everyone else already knew: we had a new spinto tenor, and he was incredible.
Listeners in some quarters consider Kaufmann's sound controversial, because he sings Italian rep with a dark, musky timbre that doesn't rely on squillo for its effects at the top of his range. When he recorded his last album, Verismo Arias, in Rome with the renowned Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, such quibbles hardly mattered to the Italian musicians. "They were so passionate about their music, their repertoire, and they were cheering all the time," he says. "The more emotion involved, the more sobbing, the more they got into it. They were like, 'Yes! Yes! That's what we want!'"
The funny thing about Kaufmann is that his voice, buttressed by a comprehensive technique, is more than sufficient reason for his fame, but because of his good looks and smolder-factor, he is dismissed in some less than charitable Internet chatter as "the shaveless wonder." (Did Corelli sound any less impressive for his golden calves?) When the Italian daily La Stampa asked him last year whether he would have found success without being so handsome, Kaufmann responded, "I don't know. But if I am like this, it is neither a virtue nor a fault. The real problem is that the opera public goes to the movies and watches television, so it has less and less imagination. Once it was easier. Pavarotti and Caballé used to come onstage, stand still, sing like gods, and everyone was happy and contented. Today it is no longer enough."
Kaufmann describes his singing technique as "power through relaxation" but says there was a time when a vocal crisis nearly ended his career before it had really started.
"Before I found this technique — and obviously it took years and years to — my idea of producing more sound was by more effort, more pushing, more squeezing, more shouting," he recalls. Things came to a head with his first professional contract, at Staatstheater Saarbrücken, in 1994, when the erstwhile student suddenly had to sing and rehearse all day, six days a week. He reels at the memory of it. "It was a crisis," he says. "It was terrible. I was sick all the time. I had one cold after the other. But it was not that. Once a teacher told me, 'If you have to cancel shows because you believe you have a cold, you don't need a doctor, you need another teacher.' And I'd say, 'This is bullshit.' But it is true."
Though he sought the advice of opera greats such as James King and Josef Metternich — people who "really could sing" — he was at a loss. His travails took him to voice teacher Michael Rhodes, who put him through his paces and introduced him to a technique called Vokalausgleich. "You have to assimilate the vowels to each other," he explains, "so that the A, E, I, O, U sounds are more equal and in a similar position, so that the voice isn't stressed by just changing all the time." This is the technique Kaufmann uses today, based on a mouth position that resembles a yawn. "You think vertical more than horizontal, and that relaxes the muscles here" — he gestures to his neck — "and that relaxes the tongue root, and the voice box can go down where it has to be. It's a whole process." Once you have one-hundred-percent trust in your voice, he says, "then you can relax and let the instrument do its thing."
After Kaufmann made it big, he did an unlikely thing: he went home. "I always wanted to go back one day, but I had trouble in getting my foot into the Munich Opera House door," he says of his early years. "I was there as a student, and I sang there many things, small roles, so they would never take me seriously. Sir Peter Jonas never ever offered me anything." In fifteen years, Kaufmann sang a grand total of four performances under Jonas, but he saw an opportunity when Klaus Bachler, the Austrian actor who had been running Vienna's Burgtheater, was appointed in 2005 to become the new general director. "When it was announced that he was going to be the next head of Munich Opera, I went to his office in Vienna, and I spoke to him frankly and said, 'Listen, is there any way that I can participate?' He was totally surprised. He said, 'Well, I always thought you would never want to sing here, because I was wondering why you didn't. I can offer you anything — from five performances to a full-time contract doing everything. Whatever you want, as much as you wish.'"
The second chapter in Kaufmann's relationship with Bayerische Staatsoper commenced with a new Lohengrin in 2009. It was quite the homecoming. Kaufmann was unanimously praised; OPERA NEWS's Munich correspondent dubbed him "a Lohengrin for the ages." He has moved his family back to Munich (they lived for a time in Zurich), where he is a favorite at the company's summer festival, doing new productions, revivals and recitals — in Italian, German and French, of course.
As Kaufmann continues to get pulled in every direction, he is deciding for himself what his next step will be. The next three to five years will find him moving deeper into spinto, even dramatic, territory. He is casting a wide net — from Manon Lescaut and La Fanciulla del West to Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino to Cav/Pag and Andrea Chénier. He wants to use these parts to lay a foundation for the heaviest Verdi and Wagner roles. "I see this whole career like a building," he says, "and you cannot build something by putting the roof or putting the antenna on it first." He points to the ground. "You have to start down there." Wagnerites will have to wait the full five years for Tristan, the two Siegfrieds and Tannhäuser. "The difficulty is all those real heldentenors, they have problems in the long high phrasings that are in there," he says of Tannhäuser, "and the lyric tenors have problems then in the strength. And I believe that I have that all." The Mount Everest of the Italian rep — Otello — will arrive only after the other Verdi parts. Unlike other tenors of the past ten years who tried to scale the heights of opera's greatest roles before they were ready, Kaufmann is waiting until the top is truly within reach. "I've always thought I will do it one day," he says, "but now, I think this day can come."

Jonas Kaufmann Recital.
Sunday, October 30, 2011, 4:00 pm

The Met is proud to present the New York recital debut of one of opera’s great new stars. Program: Liszt, Mahler, Duparc, R. Strauss.
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