Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to the German tenor who has released a recording of Romantic Arias and sings Cavaradossi in The Royal Opera’s Tosca in May…
“My family weren’t professional performers but they loved classical music and all of them played the piano. Consequently I grew up listening to music all day long and we took out subscriptions to almost every concert series available to us.”
Jonas Kaufmann looking back on his childhood and enthusing too about his birthplace. “I think that almost everybody loves their home-town and I certainly love Munich. The cultural life is great, but there’s more to it than that. You have all the other facilities around there too: you have the lakes and the Alps themselves are only an hour away. Throughout my childhood we had a place in the Tyrol, a very old farmhouse that was really paradise.”
Munich has two opera houses and a Hochschule, where Jonas studied music, and is the ideal spot to launch a singing career. It appears as though everything was smooth sailing. Even while he was studying, Jonas made professional appearances in small roles at two local venues, the Bavarian State Opera and the Gärtnerplatz Theatre. Then in 1993 he was a prize-winner in the Nürnberg Meistersinger competition after which he quickly became part of an ensemble in Saarbrücken for a few years. All of this suggests a career without problems, but something quite different emerges when I ask him about this history and what seemed to be early recognition of his special qualities.
“My problem was that the voice we all discovered was not really mine. It was a nice voice, lightweight and flexible with a high register well suited to certain things, and it’s true that doing what was expected of me led to those small roles in Munich and also to my first contract which was in a small town not far from there. The latter meant doing thirty-six performances of the Johann Strauss operetta A Night in Venice. It’s a beautiful piece but appearing that number of times in it was, as you might imagine, a bit much and I was still studying at the time. Later there came that period at Saarbrücken. After the rather cosy time at the Hochschule it put me under pressure in a way that I had not foreseen. You often had to sing for seven or eight hours a day, which seemed impossible. I did it, of course, but I started getting troubles with my voice and consequently I looked for another teacher.”
This point was reached in 1995 and the outcome was crucial to Jonas’s career. “The teacher that I found was Michael Rhodes, an American baritone from Brooklyn and what he said basically was that I had to change my voice. I had been manipulating it to try and bring it close to the kind of voice that I had been led to believe was appropriate. I was pushing a lot to squeeze out my sound because I admired the kind of sound I was being asked for, but it made me very stiff and tight and I should never have accepted it as right for me. What Michael Rhodes urged me to do was to open my mouth and relax, to produce whatever came out naturally. That may sound easy but to cultivate the voice like that is not as simple as it sounds and it probably took me half a year to become fully convinced that I should give up what I had been doing before. There was also the fact that it seems logical to use less voice to save the voice and, indeed, you hear all too often of young singers who take on heavy repertoire too soon. But I realised that my case was different and that with this new approach I really could sing all day long without getting tired and, what’s more, wake up next morning with the voice feeling fresh.”
Just how right he was to adopt this new approach is confirmed by Jonas’s subsequent career and by the way in which his voice continues to develop. He may have put aside composers such as Rossini having recognised that there are other singers whose voices are better suited to that repertory but today his voice aids him in his desire to expand his repertoire. Central to this are German, French and Italian opera. “I’m climbing the ladder step by step, not too much at once. In the last two years I have realised that the direction that my voice is taking means that eventually I should be able to take on anything that I want. It’s really a matter of getting the timing right. I have already appeared in Parsifal and Lohengrin will be coming up for the first time in the summer of 2009. Then, in March 2011, I will tackle Siegmund – all of which meant so much to my grandfather who loved everything Wagnerian. As for the Italian repertoire, I shall be singing Cavaradossi at Covent Garden in May this year and I have in mind pieces like Ballo. Others such as Butterfly would follow naturally and maybe Trovatore, but the real target here, the heaviest role, is Otello and that I am very much looking forward to when it comes – I just have to keep calm meanwhile, behave myself and wait for it. There are also many things in French: some roles have to wait but will come such as Aeneas in Troyens and many others would be possible for me but can’t be fitted into my schedule yet.”
All of this gives some idea of what we can expect from Jonas, but fails even so to take aboard other areas of work that he enjoys: performances in the concert hall and in Lieder. The demand for the latter may not be so great and in any case Jonas appreciates that there are singers who are specialists in this field. Nevertheless it’s important to him, even if he can only manage something like three to seven recitals a year. Admirers of his acclaimed recording of songs by Richard Strauss will understand his enthusiasm, but the appeal he finds in Lieder also comes from recognising how it aids him. “It helps to keep the rainbow of colours in your voice because you can use parts of that voice that would be almost inaudible in the opera house.”
Another subject I raise is the question of singers whom Jonas admires and here his comments unconsciously confirm his own interest in music as a means of truthful dramatic expression. One inspiration here is Jon Vickers but for the most part he talks of German singers of the past. “Immediately I have to mention Fritz Wunderlich – he was just so admirable. When you hear him it is as though he was giving his whole heart to every note, and all his emotions too. It almost feels as though he approached every note as though it might be his last. He gives all his energy and everything that he has to every single phrase, and all of that is apparent in his recordings – it’s what makes them so strong and so touching. What’s more, he did so many recordings and concerts during his career that you have the impression that for him every day must have contained thirty-six hours. Only somebody really committed to his work could have done all that: he would have been burnt-out had he not loved it so. But he was not alone: during the same period there was Rudolf Schock, always in Wunderlich’s shadow but another brilliant singer. Someone else I admire is Josef Traxel.”
Although Jonas feels that Wunderlich in particular set standards that no-one is ever likely to match, he clearly sees him as his exemplar. “I think that you start doing the right thing when you are honest because an audience can feel the difference between emotions that come from inside you and those that are contrived. When you really feel it within, it shows in your voice which automatically changes into the right colour and that’s what you should seek to achieve. You should never ever seek to make an effect for the sake of it.”
The comments quoted here were made earlier this year in the very week that Jonas Kaufmann’s recording of Romantic Arias had just appeared. At the time of our meeting Jonas was preparing for the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata which proved to be one of Covent Garden’s. His next engagement for Royal Opera is as Cavaradossi in Tosca. The first of eight performances is on 12 May and these plum roles have come his way in London only four years on from his Covent Garden debut. That was in Puccini’s La Rondine and it was with memories of that occasion that our talk came to an end.
The production in question was a revival of the 2002 staging that found Angela Gheorghiu reprising her role as Magda and in it Jonas took on the role of Ruggero previously played by Gheorghiu’s husband Roberto Alagna. Any artist making a Covent Garden debut might well be nervous, but to do so opposite the formidable Gheorghiu and to be appearing in the part formerly taken by Alagna could have made the occasion truly unsettling. So I asked Jonas how it was, and his reply may surprise some. “Of course it was a big step for me, this debut, because this opera house is at least one of the top three in the opera-world today and, indeed, for me given the overall quality of the productions, it is actually number one. And, yes, I had heard tales about Angela’s behaviour, but if I may say so she treated me very well. She proved to be a very good colleague and, having done other things with Angela since then, I think that I can say that the chemistry works well for us. What did give me some pressure preparing La Rondine was the fact that Roberto was actually there. All the time he would be watching the rehearsals and eventually as the dress rehearsal approached I went over and asked if he shouldn’t be doing the singing himself. He insisted that the study in which he was then involved meant that he couldn’t have done it, but after that he disappeared so it could be that he realised that he had been watching a little bit too much. That for me was more stressful than all the rest, but it was a gorgeous production, the music is beautiful and I didn’t have too much to sing. All told it was an ideal role for my debut here.”