I’ve always fought against being put in a box,” Jonas Kaufmann tells Listen, “however bright or golden the box may be. It’s part of keeping myself attracted to the job.” Indeed, the celebrated German tenor has traveled through bel canto, Puccini, Wagner and Verdi — and when we spoke he was set to star in the title role of the upcoming Metropolitan Opera production of Massenet’s Werther. Kaufmann gave an interview of unbridled enthusiasm for his art and craft.
I’ve had a sore throat all month that I can’t seem to shake. Any suggestions?
Well, there are the usual things like tea with honey or hot water or inhaling with some herbal thing, but I think the most important ingredient is that you eat healthy, that you don’t drink alcohol. This can actually help the most, because of course you can get healthy by trying to disinfect your throat or something — but what really matters is your immune system. If that doesn’t work, because you’re under stress or whatever, then it will just take forever [to get well]! I hope you feel better.
Thank you. This leads us to fitness. And I hope you’ll permit me a sports analogy here.
Of course — by all means!
Before Tiger Woods became a professional golfer, there were a lot of out-of-shape golfers out there with big bellies who played professionally. But Woods’s success made people reconsider a lot of things (even how they built golf courses), not least of which was the base level of fitness required for playing professional golf. Now, I’m not going to name names, but there are a lot of professional, fat opera singers out there — tenors, sopranos, baritones, contraltos. And I saw your tremendous Parsifal at the Met. And this Parsifal was also tremendously fit. I have to think that in a marathon opera such as Parsifal, or any opera frankly, that level of fitness is beneficial as a singer.
There are two ways to see that. One is that it’s always been enough to have a beautiful instrument, so why shouldn’t it be enough today? People would once easily accept, in a semi-staged performance, singers who hardly looked at each other and never touched as the [romantic] couple — just because they are singing about love! And the music is beautiful, so the rest is okay. In our generation, it’s a different take: people want to see something more reflective of reality than used to be the case in opera. In theater, it’s always been a challenge to be as close to reality as possible. It’s a fact that we need to add something in order to make opera attractive and interesting and credible. It was certainly never a downside if someone could act on top of his singing, but it was never required. Then we unfortunately had the opposite, which is to say people were so keen to see good-looking people do some crazy things on stage — besides the singing — and that became more of a focus than the quality of the voice, of the instrument, the technique. I believe we are back on track, but we now must have the combination, because you can’t turn back that wheel. We need people on stage that can act and yet can do all the things that normal people do in their lives outside of singing. And in order to make that happen — with singing, and with something extra that isn’t as natural as talking — you need to be fit. You need to be [active] because this is very demanding. And I think that’s the ultimate result, and very fortunately I’m not the only one: there are many, many more out there. And I think this is the future of opera.
Parsifal is such a mysterious character in such a fantastical and mysterious opera — at some points in this opera, time seems to stop! Can you tell me about your experience with the role?
Parsifal is probably the most perfect opera by Wagner. If you look at the score and the way he handles the orchestration and everything, it’s just amazing. It’s so strong that it’s like a drug: the more you hear it, listen to it, dive into it — it’s not shallow water, it’s very deep. It’s almost endless. You always have the impression there’s another layer underneath the one you’ve just discovered. It’s like you’re diving for the first time at the Great Barrier Reef and you cannot imagine that this is all happening and that there’s so much more to discover and you want to stay there for twenty-four hours, but you only have air for now. So that’s the feeling for us [singers] also, not only for an enthusiastic audience. That makes it beautiful and unique for us but also tricky, because we tend to be drawn away by it, too, and it’s difficult to keep your concentration and stay alert because as Parsifal, as in any Wagnerian part or opera, you’re often onstage, acting, being part of the scene, but not singing. At the end of the first act, as Parisfal watches the whole ceremony [of the Grail], it’s about thirty-five minutes where he doesn’t move, doesn’t talk. But you have to be really there, be credible and be present with all your senses. And that’s what makes it difficult. It’s tiring and you can call it a marathon, as you said, though the phrases that Parsifal sings altogether are probably fewer than many Verdi opera roles! — but it’s really difficult nevertheless. When we did this [Metropolitan Opera] production I called it ‘a transcendent journey’ because I had the impression that we are on this strange cloud, in this mystery, not knowing exactly what’s going on as we’re carried away by these mystical sounds. On the one hand, it’s very fulfilling when you do it, when you have done it; at the same time, it’s very demanding because you need tons of stamina to sustain and to be ‘on’ a hundred percent.
You started this discussion about sports. It’s like being a goalie in a soccer game with a perfect team — call it Bayern Munich, my home team. They’ve won everything possible. And Manuel Neuer is the goalkeeper for Munich and the German national team. And there’s no doubt that Neuer is great, but he has problems sometimes because his team is so good. Let’s say that for eighty-nine minutes of the game he has zero to do, not one shot on goal. And then suddenly in overtime there’s one moment where you have to show your excellence to perfection, and if you screw up this one particular thing everyone will blame you and say ‘My goodness! He has had nothing to do! He has one shot on goal and he can’t hold the ball!’ But it’s so much more difficult than if the teams are more equal and you have a lot to do — because that keeps you alive and focused.
Smoldering. Jonas Kaufmann in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal (left and right) and as Maurizio in the Royal Opera’s production of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur — with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role (middle)
There’s a theatrical concept of ‘creating a character’ that has been imported into opera. In theater when you create a character there’s just a script and stage directions. Preparing for a role in opera, I would say that a score provides more information than a script — the composer has fleshed a lot out already with setting text, dynamics, et cetera. What are the biggest challenges in opera preparation?
It’s somewhat different from preparing a part for a play because in a play you have all the information regarding your character: you can read your lines, the lines of the others, read between the lines, read background information, et cetera.
Moreover in opera you have the [prevailing] interpretation of the composer, meaning that you can’t start from zero: you have to find a way to interpret this part so that it aligns with the composer’s idea. So you have to find out what he thinks your character is, knowing that the intention of the music is to underline and support your acting, not to diminish what you’re trying to do or what the director is trying to do — otherwise you end up moving in two different directions. I think it’s absolutely essential to be aware of that. So when you come to a production, confident that the director has prepared the opera well with his opinions, ideas and interpretation, then you must immediately double-check whether this interpretation is in conflict with what you think is the essence of the composer’s will. You have to decide if you think it works, if it doesn’t work. You try it out — maybe you’re wrong, or maybe you have an idea. You find something else and say ‘How about trying this? I know what you want, I understand the essence of your idea but I think we can show it in a different way than you originally intended.’ Then you can build on that and maybe come up with an even better interpretation than the director’s original draft — or the conductor, same situation. I have my ideas of interpreting — of tempos, dynamics, rallentandos, going slower here, faster there — and so has the conductor. And we have to find a way to combine these into something that pleases everybody.
If you’re in a production with a long run, does the interpretation change over time or are you fine-tuning?
Of course, during the rehearsal process a lot changes. In the beginning you think ‘This is perfect, I think we should go in that direction,’ and then it’s ‘No, I want to see more of this.’ You always try to change the way you look at something and make it more interesting, unique and satisfying. You should never stop changing things, although there are some basics that you can’t change once opening night has arrived. You cannot, in performance number three, say ‘You know what? I have a totally new idea. It came overnight....’ You have to save it for your next production because it’s not fair. But what you can and should do is be absolutely certain as to the circumstances of your feelings, your wishes, about interpreting every thought, and then you do it. These feelings, these situations appear to always be the same. But if you look closer, they’re very different because your life experience constantly changes your way of seeing things and makes you do something different, makes you understand that what you thought was important in playing this character is not as important as some other things that you discover. So I think you should never stop changing, meaning I start from scratch when I open my mouth and while I will likely end up more or less with the interpretation I had in my head, sometimes you find another level — a phrase that you’re singing, you give it another meaning by changing the strength, by saying it more ironically or truthfully. These little details should always be questioned and if they don’t perfectly fit with your muse, they should be changed.
We are artists and spontaneity is part of our fuel. It’s required to have the passion, the joy — the fun in what you do. It’s important, as it gets the fire from the audience when they see you’re having fun yourself.
And these changes help you achieve spontaneity during a performance.
Absolutely — this is what keeps the interpretation alive. It’s what helps keep you fresh and ultimately credible because it’s what comes out of you in the moment and not something the director put into your head six weeks ago.
After Parsifal and The Ring we have this idea of you now — at least in New York — as a Wagnerian tenor. I think that’s a misconception. Because now comes this Verdi album. And it seems to me that you ultimately have a voice that is so flexible, both dark and light. Would you define yourself as a spinto tenor or Heldentenor or do you just work with your voice as it evolves?
No, I would never define myself as being a Wagner or a Verdi or a Puccini or a Mozart or whatever tenor — tenor, yes, so far, I would say. [Laughs.] But the rest, it’s interpretation. I don’t sing Wagner or Verdi or even songs with a different voice or a different technique. I do [sing] with respect to the different circumstances, pace and style of the music, but never with an eye toward perfection or a habit that other people made so popular that it became so-called ‘tradition.’ That’s a dangerous word because tradition is something very important as long as there are reasons behind it — reasons to support the impact of the work or to make the audience better understand the music’s intention, but not because it’s easy, let’s say, to take a big gap here and a big breath because it’s not comfortable to sing it in one phrase, or to add things because there was a colleague who started the idea of ‘I want to show off.’ As soon as these things happen, as soon as you do a piano only to show the world ‘even on this note I can do a piano,’ who cares? You can show your friends, your teacher, and they’ll be proud of you, but the audience is not interested in that. If the audience wants to see a super-special ability, they go to the circus or to a freak show. But in opera they want to see something that touches their hearts, that is emotionally overwhelming. If I do something just because I can, it doesn’t make sense.
You have been very open about some vocal problems you had earlier in your career [circa 1995]. Why is it taboo to talk about vocal problems?
When I had my vocal problems, almost everyone in the audience was aware of them — at least I had that impression. Very often people have vocal problems but they aren’t that obvious and they can cover them up with an extra boost of energy or enthusiasm, or with interpretation. But this is very dangerous because if you have a problem and you change the way you sing — the way you treat your instrument — in order to compensate for your problem, this ‘compensation mode’ becomes ingrained and when you’re back on track, you’re singing incorrectly, at least for a healthy instrument — and you can’t get rid of these bad habits. That’s why it’s difficult to make the decision to go public and say ‘You might not know this, but I do have a problem. Therefore I need to stop and I’m coming back in a couple weeks or months.’ That’s very tough. As you say, I’ve been quite open with it, but it’s not that easy. If I say I have a cold and have to stop for a week, it’s a disaster for all the people who have tickets to these shows and who are understandably disappointed. And if you say ‘Well, I still have it; the doctor said I should wait a couple more days,’ then rumors are flying: ‘He’s trying to cover something up — he probably has vocal nodules!’ Then you say ‘Well, even though the doctor says to wait it’s probably better that I start back earlier to prevent rumors.’ So this is a reason for people not to come out and say ‘I have this problem; it’ll be over soon. Just relax.’ Because then everyone panics and says ‘Oh God, we all knew it. We’ve seen it coming these past couple years, totally wrong repertoire, blah blah blah.’ It’s an endless avalanche. So I understand people who don’t talk about it, but as soon as my body, my instinct or my doctor tells me ‘You should make the call,’ I do it. It pays off at the end of the day. No one will say ‘I went to hear him and he shouldn’t have sung’ and your career won’t end early because you failed to take care of your voice.
You took charge of your career in 1996. Today I have to think that, much like the former Soviet Union, you’re now on the Five Year Plan [Major opera houses plan their productions/soloists five years in advance.] There must be a downside here, in that you can’t be so spontaneous about what you choose to sing.
That’s absolutely true. You can’t change it and I think this is ridiculous. We are artists and spontaneity is part of our fuel. It’s required to have the passion, the joy, the fun in what you do. It’s important, as it gets the fire from the audience when they see that you’re having fun yourself. If you are in the opera world it’s not like being a painter who throws away all his red paint because he decided overnight he would use green paint now. Only green, no red. I can’t do that. I have to decide which colors I’m going to use for my paintings in five years’ time.
And you have to imagine what paint is going to be available to you!
Exactly. Which ones do I want to use and which ones will I actually have? As you’ve said, the instrument is part of our body and it evolves. It changes because you’re aging, it changes with your experience in a positive way and it changes either positively or negatively based on the parts you’ve taken or not taken before those five years are over. It’s difficult and I can assure you I’m quite sick of making these decisions from so far away. It’s like you are a child, and you see the perfect toy in front of you that would be ideal for you right now but they tell you ‘Well, you’ve decided on all your Christmas presents until you’re eighteen. So will you want this then?’ And you say ‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe at sixteen I’ll reconsider if I’m still into Playmobil.’ So that’s tough but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, with everyone fearing for a job tomorrow, of course I’m in a luxurious situation to say that I’ll have a job in five years’ time and my future is safe.
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