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’