James Naugh­tie meets…

The uni­ver­sally ac­claimed Ger­man tenor dis­cusses his most test­ing role to date – that of Verdi’s tragic Otello – and laments the chal­lenges that mu­si­cians and opera houses face in our mod­ern times


Su­per­star tenor Jonas Kauf­mann

Dan­ger is a word that keeps pop­ping up in con­ver­sa­tion with Jonas Kauf­mann. Dan­ger on the stage, and dan­ger for opera com­pa­nies. He talks about the thrill of per­for­mance. ‘Any­thing can hap­pen. Every­one feels it – the thrill, the adrenalin, the pres­ence of the un­ex­pected.’

But also the plight of many opera com­pa­nies far away from Lon­don, Vi­enna, Munich, Mi­lan. ‘Many of the peo­ple in our art form strug­gle, I’m sorry to say. And in some places it is about to die. It’s a tragedy.’

Yet this is not a singer who is mop­ing, and not one who seems prone to in­tro­spec­tion. Be­fore we turn to his wor­ries about where the next gen­er­a­tion of singers will learn their craft, we dis­cuss at length his prepa­ra­tions for a new role, and it’s an in­sight into the high se­ri­ous­ness of an artist who man­ages, at the same time, to main­tain a cheery calm in the midst of the cir­cus of ad­mir­ers who fol­low him ev­ery­where and flock to theatres around the world to hear him.

We meet dur­ing his prepa­ra­tions in the sum­mer for his first Otello, a role he’s held back from per­form­ing as if wait­ing for his voice to darken a lit­tle more. He’s now 48, at the peak of a ca­reer which, since around 2006, has pro­pelled him to dizzy­ing heights. Yet in the hurly-burly of Covent Gar­den prepa­ra­tions for open­ing night, he finds it easy to step back from the de­mands for quick sound-bites and, step­ping straight from re­hearsals, is happy to talk about char­ac­ter in opera, Verdi’s grip on the imag­i­na­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of mu­si­cal the­atre.

This is the char­ac­ter who will emerge in a ma­jor doc­u­men­tary for the BBC, called Jonas

Kauf­mann, Tenor for the Ages, due to be shown on 15 Oc­to­ber at 7.30pm on BBC Four, by the renowned direc­tor John Brid­cut, whose films on mu­si­cians – Brit­ten, Rostropovich, El­gar, Parry and Colin Davis among oth­ers – are some of the most in­sight­ful cul­tural doc­u­men­taries of re­cent years. He tells a good story about the cool Kauf­mann.

In September 2015 he ap­peared at the last night of the Proms, singing three Puc­cini arias in the first half. There was a brief pause after the first two, from Tosca and Manon Lescaut, so that he could have a short break, cov­ered by the hum­ming cho­rus from Madam But­ter­fly.

Brid­cut and his team were film­ing back­stage.

Off he came, and was quite happy to launch straight into a con­ver­sa­tion for the cam­era, ap­par­ently un­trou­bled and happy to talk. An ex­pe­ri­enced BBC staffer who was there said, ‘I just don’t be­lieve this.’ No de­mand for peace and quiet, a scarf to tie round his throat, lemon juice or any­thing else. He was sim­ply happy to con­verse, and after three min­utes or so, head straight back to the stage to sing ‘Nes­sun Dorma’.

‘If you are a suc­cess­ful tenor, Otello is the part to do’

As Brid­cut puts it, ‘He has a huge re­silience, born of a re­mark­able self-con­fi­dence.’

And maybe the un­usual as­pect of that self­con­fi­dence, which is ob­vi­ous when you meet him, is that it seems to stop short of the ar­ro­gance com­mon in stars who are past car­ing what any­one else thinks.

Brid­cut has been film­ing him for nigh-on two years for the doc­u­men­tary. ‘He doesn’t want to be a star in an ivory tower. He can’t help be­ing a star, but he wants to re­late to peo­ple and cer­tainly doesn’t want to be dis­tant. At that level, it’s pretty rare.’

You get a good sense of that char­ac­ter in lis­ten­ing to him talk about Otello, and ex­plain­ing the na­ture of the chal­lenge.

‘It’s a very big one,’ says Kauf­mann. ‘That was the rea­son I avoided the part for a long time. From the mo­ment my voice was start­ing to get darker and darker I was be­ing asked to sing Otello, and I was strug­gling to ac­cept it, be­cause I knew I needed a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to mas­ter this part. It just forces you to do more than is ac­tu­ally healthy. The lows and the highs de­mand so much. There’s a lot of very strong stuff, im­por­tant parts of the opera, hap­pen­ing in the lower part of the voice. So you need to have that power to push through the orches­tra. And then Verdi gives you the only high C writ­ten for the tenor. Ev­ery­where else they are op­tional. Even the Trova­tore high Cs are only op­tional, but here you have the real thing.

‘The purists, like [con­duc­tor] Ric­cardo Muti, al­ways try to per­suade us not to sing the op­tional high notes be­cause he’s con­vinced that they were put in on de­mand from the tenors of the time. But it mat­ters here. You can see that it is re­ally Otello as the char­ac­ter who has been pulled apart by the dark side of Iago and the bright side of Des­de­mona.’

There are other bur­dens that any Otello must carry. It’s a role with a bit of a his­tory.

‘Many singers have strug­gled, even some great names. So it is not an ob­vi­ous thing – that if you are a suc­cess­ful tenor, this is a part to do. Think about Pavarotti. He sang it, yes, for a record­ing but never re­ally mas­tered it. Jon Vick­ers was a great ex­am­ple and del Monaco was prob­a­bly the wildest of them all. But Ra­mon Vi­nay [the Chilean tenor who died in 1996] for ten years be­came a tenor, sang Otello fre­quently, and then went back to be a bari­tone. He’s prob­a­bly the role model we all re­fer to, even Plá­cido [Domingo] him­self, be­cause this is the the real dark sound you imag­ine if you think of Otello.’

And then, with stage calls echo­ing through his dress­ing room, and still with his gen­eral’s boots on, he speaks about Otello as the ex­em­plar of what opera could achieve.

‘I can tell you that even the great­est ac­tors have told me that they envy us a lot be­cause we have the mu­sic un­der­neath, tak­ing us through, be­cause they have to cre­ate ev­ery­thing from zero and we have the lux­u­ri­ous po­si­tion of lean­ing back and let­ting the au­di­ence be pre­pared by the orches­tra.’

Lux­u­ri­ous in one sense, but you still have to sing it. ‘And it is cer­tainly chal­leng­ing, that’s true,’ Kauf­mann con­tin­ues. ‘Remember this. There are not many mur­der­ers for a tenor to play. A choice of four that I know of, so we don’t get a reg­u­lar chance. I’ve sung one,

Don José in Bizet’s Car­men, many times – but she’s pro­vok­ing him so much and he’s us­ing ev­ery­thing he has to tell her to stop. Otello is very dif­fer­ent, and for me this is the first time I’m com­mit­ting a mur­der that is planned, and be­comes in­evitable in this way.

‘When you dive into this ad­ven­ture of be­ing Otello on stage, it’s so much eas­ier be­cause you have the orches­tra to help. We all know Verdi is one of the most bril­liant com­posers of opera, and he waited 15 years after his last great suc­cess to do this master­piece. And you re­ally feel the dif­fer­ence. How he had de­vel­oped. A lit­tle bit of Wag­ner, a lit­tle bit of the up­com­ing verismo style – you have all

‘A lot of mu­si­cians and singers in opera are strug­gling’

of those el­e­ments and they are com­bined in a way that is re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing.

‘The phrases are so beau­ti­ful. I al­ways say that Verdi gives ev­ery­thing – some­times more than is re­ally healthy for each and every phrase – and it all fits. It’s just bril­liant.’

In talk­ing about this one opera, aware that his per­for­mances were bound to be sub­jected to in­tense scru­tiny as a first-time Otello – and in a pro­duc­tion, by Keith Warner, which every­one at Covent Gar­den knew was go­ing to at­tract some crit­i­cism be­cause of the sharp break from the lush, colour­ful sets of Eli­jah Moshin­sky – Kauf­mann re­vealed his in­tense feel­ing for char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. It’s a per­for­mance that will be broad­cast, from the Covent Gar­den run, on 21 Oc­to­ber on BBC Ra­dio 3 and on BBC Four the fol­low­ing day.

‘You are forced to show all the hu­man sides – the ten­der­ness, the soft­ness of this char­ac­ter, along­side his ob­ses­sions with power. In Shake­speare of course you can do a lot, but it’s much darker. He’s re­ally like an an­i­mal. Here we have the two el­e­ments… beauty and the mad­ness. Think of the beauty of the love duet, which is the only place where you can talk about love.

‘Be­cause it’s very dif­fi­cult for him to talk about pri­vate stuff – he’s al­ways talk­ing about his great suc­cesses – and this shows me that it is some­one who has no ex­pe­ri­ence in love and re­la­tion­ship to women. It’s an en­emy that he never came across.’

Lis­ten­ing to this singer in the midst of re­hearsals – in cos­tume, hav­ing just con­ferred with his con­duc­tor, An­to­nio Pap­pano, about some de­tails in Act III – is to get a glimpse of his own de­vel­op­ing un­der­stand­ing of the opera, its struc­ture and its pos­si­bil­i­ties.

‘We have a Par­si­fal mo­ment – there’s a long­ing for some Holy Grail. And I’m re­minded also of Tales of Hoff­man – Act III and the se­duc­tion of Juli­etta. Otello’s very in­no­cent on this bat­tle­field, and so there­fore he is also very vul­ner­a­ble. He has no ref­er­ence, no com­par­i­son. It makes it dif­fi­cult for him to cope with the fact that she might be­tray him.

‘It’s sim­i­lar to the re­la­tion­ship to Iago. Why would he trust this man so much? The rea­son is you need al­lies out there who you can trust, be­cause your life de­pends on it. In love he finds it so dif­fi­cult, so it is very dark and he is com­pletely de­stroyed. It feels so de­pres­sive but he’s found a lan­guage that is so strong.’

The de­meanour of the singer who is firmly es­tab­lished at the apex of his ca­reer is un­trou­bled. In a sched­ule of al­most Domingo-like pro­por­tions, he some­how man­ages to carve out rea­son­able time at home in Munich with his part­ner Chris­tiane, and his three chil­dren. Brid­cut’s team, fol­low­ing him through per­for­mances across Europe, have found him tak­ing a strik­ing amount of trou­ble to do the things that can be­come such a bore for a celebrity – the end­less au­to­graph re­quests, the throng at the stage door, the reg­u­lars who be­come so fa­mil­iar in theatres that they’re al­most like (gen­er­ally benign) stalk­ers.

Brid­cut, stand­ing be­hind the cam­era, found him sur­pris­ingly pa­tient when a crew ar­rived, yet again in a dress­ing room. ‘Here you are again. You’re like a mem­ber of the fam­ily – one that you can’t quite get rid of,’ he says at one point.

But back to dan­ger. It’s easy to talk about the thrill of the un­ex­pected in per­for­mance: ‘Be­ware, be­cause you’re go­ing to be moved by it, a lot!’. Less so the con­di­tion of opera, which trou­bles him, per­haps sur­pris­ingly given his suc­cess and his con­vic­tion that the five or six lead­ing opera theatres (in­clud­ing the Royal Opera House – ‘in su­per shape right now’) are de­liv­er­ing at the top level.

But, de­spite pock­ets of ex­cite­ment stirred up, as in the UK, by small com­pa­nies with a sense of ad­ven­ture, he looks across Europe, even in Ger­many, and sees de­cline.

‘The great houses are do­ing well be­cause they at­tract a lot of peo­ple and a lot of at­ten­tion. All the oth­ers – and this is where the sup­ply of new singers comes from – are strug­gling, be­cause they have fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, and also rep­u­ta­tion-wise. Let me ask you this. If you want to go on a Christ­mas shopping tour, you’d go to New York be­cause it’s cool; so why wouldn’t you fly an hour or two to see the best opera you could get? And not take what you have in front of your door? It’s very dif­fi­cult for these houses to com­pete.

‘I am in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion be­cause I am suc­cess­ful and I can choose. But a lot of other mu­si­cians and singers, a lot of peo­ple in our art form are strug­gling. A lot of houses have closed – in Ger­many even. You have Italy, where the thing was born, and you have fi­nan­cial and artis­tic cri­sis. And you have many beau­ti­ful opera houses that aren’t open! They are closed for ever; or maybe they open for a week or two in a year just to raise enough money to keep the place go­ing. This is a tragedy.

‘We’re fight­ing against all the other en­ter­tain­ment busi­nesses and when you look at a mu­si­cal show that runs eight times a week and is re­hearsed for half a year, fi­nanced with an enor­mous amount of money, or you look at movies, of course you re­alise we don’t have the money they have.

‘But you don’t have the thrill there. You can watch it 20 times and it will be the same. In opera, 20 times but never the same. Every night it’s go­ing to be fresh. That’s the truth.’

It’s time to get his armour on again.

‘Jonas Kauf­mann, Tenor for the Ages’ is broad­cast on BBC Four on 15 Oct; Otello from the Royal Opera House will be broad­cast on Ra­dio 3 on 21 Oct and shown on BBC Four on 22 Oct. Jonas Kauf­mann’s new disc, ‘L’opéra’, a trib­ute to 19th-cen­tury French opera, is out on Sony Clas­si­cal on 15 Sept.

moor feel­ing: Kauf­mann as Otello with Marco Vratogna as Iago, Covent Gar­den, 2017

spon­ta­neous spinto: ‘Every night it’s go­ing to be fresh. That’s the truth’

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