Magic is the Word: Joseph Kaiser and Die Zauberflöte [The Royal Opera’s Die Zauberflöte – 1-26 February 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Joseph Kaiser the latest Tamino in Covent Garden’s staging of Mozart’s idiosyncratic classic…

Joseph Kaiser. Photograph: Dario Acosta

It was in February 2008 that the Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser made his Covent Garden debut. When we meet at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Die Zauberflöte I ask him for his impressions of that occasion. His role then, that of Narraboth, was one that he had performed before, but the Covent Garden experience proved special – first and foremost due to working with a director who was then new to him, David McVicar. “When you come to work with David you need to be ready to really give your all and to lose yourself in the production. You need to be incredibly open-minded too. He asks a lot of his artists, but he is above all fiercely protective of them. Working with him on Salome was a visceral experience and just so raw emotionally. My role was not a leading one but all of us were feeding off the energy of the others. It really exceeded my expectations and I loved that production: boy, did I love it!”

In so far as Joseph has now come back to appear in a revival of Covent Garden’s acclaimed staging of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, there is a direct link in that this production too is one created by David McVicar, although it is being overseen by Lee Blakeley. “Lee has been really great about it, making sure that all the elements from David’s production are there while also allowing the present singers to contribute something of themselves to it.” Joseph’s own awareness of this opera goes back to his earliest days. He was born in Montreal in 1977 to parents who loved music so much that they encouraged Joseph and his three siblings not merely to listen to music but to play it. The music that they encountered through their parents extended to that of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Nana Mouskouri, but Joseph recalls that his mother loved opera also – Carmen, La bohème and indeed The Magic Flute.

Joseph Kaiser. Photograph: Dario Acosta

By the age of three Joseph had already picked up a violin and this was followed by the piano, the cello and drums. He recalls too appearing as a Munchkin in a staging of The Wizard of Oz, lacking any lines to speak but being aware of his father in the audience he called out “Hi, dad!”. (“That’s still brought up as one of my earlier moments of improvisation!”). At various times during his boyhood Joseph was convinced that he would become an Olympic sprinter or a Ninja (martial arts were a strong interest for three years or more). However, singing which he had always enjoyed in private took on an extra meaning when at the age of ten he followed the example of his older sister Charlotte by joining her in a singing class where he was the youngest pupil and the only male. By then he and his family were living in Scarsdale in New York City, but later he returned Montreal to attend McGill University which had a reputation for giving undergraduates a chance to perform. “Believe you me, I did a lot of watching there, but I didn’t like the idea of just sitting and observing others perform for four whole years and McGill enabled me to get up and sing as well. So that was really good. In my teens I found that I liked it and consequently I really worked at it. If I got positive feedback or got a prize, that encouraged me even more, but I don’t sing because I’m good at singing or to get a good review: I do it because singing is like breathing to me. I love it and it’s what I was meant to do.”

After McGill, Joseph was attached to a number of companies, the Canadian Opera Company among them, and he joined the Metrola Opera programme in San Francisco. However the significant step came when he successfully auditioned for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2003. But another development was also crucial since it involved Joseph in re-thinking his voice. He had started out as a baritone but received hints at more than one audition that the tenor repertoire might suit him better. But, the most important moment in this turnaround came when he was singing in the Montreal International Music Competition. “The judges were incredible: Teresa Berganza, Grace Bumbry, Marilyn Horne, Jon Vickers, Joseph Rouleau, Cesare Siepi. I got a prize in that competition which made me very happy, but what had a more profound effect was a discussion that I had afterwards when having dinner with Teresa Berganza. She said to me: ‘Listen, Joseph: we all think you are a tenor and you really owe it to yourself to try’.” Such a suggestion from such a source was not to be ignored.

Since Joseph now lives in Chicago with his wife and family the import of that city to his life cannot be overestimated but also not to be ignored is his praise for Lyric Opera of Chicago where he spent three rewarding years in its Young Artists Programme and to which he has returned since. “Sir Andrew Davis is a central figure there together with his wife Gianna Rolandi and they are fantastic, wonderful people who champion young singers. Furthermore the contribution of Bill Mason who is the general director really needs to be stressed. It’s a great company and very well run. It’s funny, but on the one hand it’s a great American company that has now become an international one and on the other it’s very mid-western being easy-going and somewhere where as an artist you feel very supported.”

In talking of his days there as a Young Artist, Joseph expresses his appreciation of the fact that he was not pushed too quickly. He mentions too with enthusiasm so-called ‘buddy sessions’ set up by Matthew Epstein. “We would get the opportunity to have hour-long sessions with visiting artists. My audition arias at the time were the ‘Flower Song’ from Carmen and ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’ from Faust and I got to work on them with such artists as Plácido Domingo, Kurt Streit, Richard Margison and John Treleaven. To hear how John sings the ‘Flower Song’ compared to how Kurt sings it, the way that Plácido does it compared to Richard! They’ve all done the role, and that experience was an incredible insight.”

Although in time Joseph would take leading roles with Lyric Opera of Chicago it’s arguable that the most important event there was his appearing as First Prisoner in a production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. The part may have been small but among the audience were Daniel Barenboim and Kenneth Branagh. What resulted was Joseph’s participation as Lensky in Andrea Breth’s 2007 Salzburg Festival production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and his appearance as Tamino in Branagh’s film version of The Magic Flute conducted by James Conlon, an English version for which Stephen Fry was engaged and made with the admirable intention of bringing opera to a wider audience. “I learnt so much from these people. In the case of James I remember sitting with him in Aspen where we’d gone to workshop the music. To help me take advantage of this unique opportunity and to really find the essence of the piece he would take it apart with me, sometimes note by note. And it was the same with Ken. His workshops were in June 2005 in London and we would go and sing our roles for him. He sat next to the piano and would basically sing the other parts in our scenes: he was both note perfect and word perfect. It was great fun and Ken is the best, most natural storyteller I’ve ever met, a very gracious human being. If that was unbelievable, so was Salzburg. Andrea Breth is a genius and her production of Eugene Onegin found the core of the characters and really brought them to life. And then there was Daniel at the helm. I’ve worked with other great conductors but there’s something about Daniel that is unparalleled. When you sit in a room with him as collaborator and he talks about a piece and how he wants it to be done, you just feel that nothing can match his comprehension of the piece itself and his wider overarching understanding of music.”

Joseph is now well established not only in opera but in the concert hall and as a recitalist. In all these spheres he delights in a wide range and in discovering and performing neglected works. To that extent it is well in character that future engagements include such endeavours as a staged version of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Vanished, an appearance at the Met in Capriccio with Renée Fleming, and the New York Festival of Song to which he has contributed more or less every year since 2002.

To conclude our conversation we discuss a number of points relating to Die Zauberflöte. “I think that this Covent Garden production is a beautiful one, although you can never really judge a production simply as a production because with each revival you have different interpreters come in. When I did Tamino in LA there were two casts and the other Tamino was Matthew Polenzani. He is an amazing singer with a phenomenal technique and he created a Tamino that was totally different from mine. It’s the same here where Christoph Strehl, Pavol Breslik and Will Hartmann have appeared before me in this production: how we interpret the character is totally different. To my mind what you need to remember each time is that you must present the story as though it’s never happened before. When Tamino feels – when I feel – this love for Pamina what is happening is almost frightening because there’s suddenly all this emotion and I’ve only seen her picture. You could debate whether or not he could really love her from that alone, but he certainly thinks he does: he’s convinced of it and it’s very real to him. And then later, when he is not allowed to speak to Pamina but she does not know it and leaves in consequence, you have to capture the depth of Tamino’s heartache. To recognise the need to say something yet not to be able to is something that makes you grow up really fast.”

Joseph’s comments on the emotional journey in which Tamino is involved make it clear that although Tamino is a prince and to some extent a conventional hero who has to prove himself by undergoing trials he sees the character as rewarding to portray as any in other Mozart operas. But Joseph does not regard the trial scenes, which lead to Tamino being accepted into the Brotherhood, as being the deepest. “When I think of profound moments in Mozart, I recall Idomeneo, the Ferrando/Fiordiligi duet in Così fan tutte, ‘Non mi dir’ in Don Giovanni and in Die Zauberflöte I would say that the ending with its sense of time standing still is what comes across as significant.” The Singspiel closes with Sarastro the ruler centre-stage and Joseph concurs that he is the work’s Prospero figure. But he comes up with an unexpected comparison. “If you think of the Star Wars films in chronological order you have a world in which everything you thought was good is bad and vice versa, and that’s how it is here. You have the Queen of the Night but her first aria is in a major key so she must be good, isn’t that so? But black proves to be white and up is down, and that too is something that Tamino has to handle.”

Joseph mentions his pleasure in working with such colleagues as Kate Royal (Pamina) and with Christopher Maltman who plays Papageno but, given the praise bestowed earlier on Daniel Barenboim, it seems fitting to end with his response to rehearsing Die Zauberflöte with Sir Colin Davis, a conductor new to him as a performer. “I can’t quote him precisely but there was a wonderful moment when we had finished rehearsing part of Act One. He just looks down at the orchestra and says quite simply: ‘I could listen to that all day’. One thinks of the amount of experience that he has had and all that he has done and I can’t even guess how many times he has conducted The Magic Flute, but there he is issuing this exhalation of pure pleasure that comes from recognising a perfect piece of music. His appreciation of what Mozart has created is so palpable that it’s infectious, something that is then felt throughout the entire cast.”

  • Die Zauberflöte – Nine performances at 7.30 p.m. from Tuesday 1 February to Tuesday 24 February 2011, and one at 12.30 p.m. on Saturday the 26th
  • David Syrus conducts on 22, 24 & 26
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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