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The Tenor on Stage: An Interview with Jonas Kaufmann

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Royal Opera House, London, 2009/Catherine Ashmore
Jonas Kaufmann in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, September 2009. He will sing five performances of the role there in May 2012.

The following conversation with the tenor Jonas Kaufmann took place in Munich in January, when he was singing the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Bavarian State Opera. The production used the opera’s full five-act version, which Kaufmann told me he prefers. Some directors cut the first act, in which Don Carlo, the son of Philip II of Spain, secretly meets Elisabetta de Valois, daughter of Henri II of France, whom he is to marry as part of a peace treaty between the two countries. Alone in the forest of Fontainebleau the two young people fall in love, only to have their hopes crushed when Philip decides to marry Elisabetta himself. The shorter, four-act version of the opera begins in Spain with Don Carlo explaining to his boyhood friend the Marquis of Posa his despair at being in love with his stepmother.

Marie d’Origny

Marie d’Origny: The Don Carlo that you portrayed seems fragile, on the edge of a precipice. It’s clear from the beginning that there’s no solution to his problem.

Jonas Kaufmann: Well, the more I do the five-act version, beginning with the meeting of Don Carlo and Elisabetta in the forest of Fontainebleau, the more I realize that this longer version is much better and more interesting: it helps so much to develop the character of Don Carlo, to establish him as somehow human and not simply crazy. To have these happy moments, to see that he’s a young man who falls in love, and everything seems to be so happy, and then suddenly destiny strikes him. If you don’t have that, the curtain opens and you’re suffering from the fact that you’re in love with your mother. And this goes on for the entire opera. So after a while the audience must be saying, “Oh, give me a break. We’ve got it already. You’re in love with your mother, so what?” It’s much more difficult to get the audience’s sympathy.

With the Fontainebleau scene included, it’s completely clear that this is what broke him. And even when they talk about Elisabetta [gasps], he can’t breathe anymore.

MO: How do you combine not being able to breathe with singing?

JK: That’s tough, because as you well know breathing is pretty essential for singing. And it’s not only the technical fact that you have to pretend to not breathe while actually breathing. It’s also that, unlike the original historical figure and also the one in the Schiller drama, in Verdi, musically, Don Carlo isn’t a weak character. He’s insecure and he doesn’t know what to do, but vocally the singing is strong most of the time. It sounds very heroic.

It’s a problem similar to the beginning of Florestan’s aria in Fidelio, when he’s in prison, physically weak. Only bread and water, about to die from starvation, and still [Kaufmann sings a very loud note]. I mean, that doesn’t make sense. You have to find a way to establish his situation. In Fidelio it’s easy because if you do that, in the very first phrases, then everybody understands that he’s really exhausted and he’s losing his mind. Then you can get away with it by creating the idea that the whole thing is in his head.

He’s not singing for real, he’s not shouting out loud. It’s his thoughts we hear. Then it’s convincing. But Don Carlo is way too long to make that happen. And obviously, you don’t want to sound weak all the time because many phrases are too beautiful; it’s the vocal flexibility that is very important. You have both: you have those up-breaks of the voice, and then at the next moment it just falls down to something very tender and fragile.

MO: How do you prepare for a role?

JK: We always have to keep in mind that it’s not like in theater where you actually start from scratch. We have already an interpretation from the composer. So the composer has given us a timeline; he tells us where we stretch the words and where we squeeze them. He tells us where we have to be loud because the orchestra is loud, where we can be soft, which doesn’t mean that it has to be soft, but at least it’s very important to know [what the score calls for]. And the general mood is also in the orchestra so it’s not easy to turn that upside down. I think if you tried, even if maybe you succeeded, then the piece wouldn’t be as beautiful anymore; it wouldn’t have the same impact on the audience in combination with the music. Because the music is written for a certain effect.

I love to jump in, I love to appear at the last moment and just be surprised. In opera the problem is often that there’s no surprise. You know exactly what’s going to happen and you have to pretend that you don’t know. Cavaradossi or Don Carlo believes that there is a chance to get together with Tosca or Elisabetta. We all know it won’t happen. So if I don’t get this naiveté into that character, it’s difficult. And the less I know about everything happening around me, the easier it is for me to be really surprised by what’s going on. If the door suddenly opens behind you and someone comes in and you say, “Oh, I didn’t know that the mezzo is supposed to appear from here,” it’s a better surprise than “Okay, three, two, one, now she’s going to come. Oh, hi.” If you are free and well prepared then the spontaneous acting interaction is the one that has the biggest impact.

MO: But how do you keep that fresh?

JK: Well, by always trying to create it from the beginning again. I always live from scene to scene. It’s really that I go there and I think, “Okay, let’s see what happens tonight.” And I’m also trying to do things slightly differently to surprise the others, to keep it fresh and not always say, “This is the moment when we hug, this is the moment when we turn around.” That’s what the director wants. Sometimes they even come during the run and say [whispers], “But didn’t you forget you were supposed to stand the other way around?” “So?” I forgot my coat last night and the director came and said, “Where’s the coat? You forgot the coat!” In the last scene. Of course, I have a coat, I always have a coat. I just forgot it.

MO: You seem confident that your sense of the character will come across through the music, regardless of the staging.

JK: I believe that part of why I’m successful and why people hire me is not only the voice, it’s also the ability to act. And if you come and you’re reduced to an instrument that delivers the sound, then it’s not my world. I don’t need to be there. I can send a recording or come the day before the opening. It’s true it is sometimes very difficult to keep the essence of a character in a production. We have the music that fits perfectly to one situation and it just doesn’t fit to the other. As long as you’ve done a traditional production, then you can do whatever you want, because you have that in your head. No matter what goes on around you, you just create this moment for yourself. Whenever I say, “Listen, the story is different, what I’m singing is different, what the music tells us is different. Why are we doing that?” The answer is always, “Don’t be so literal.” I don’t think I am. I believe that when all arrows are pointing in the same direction, then this is a reason why you probably should go there.

There’s always this discussion. You see, the conductor believes that the audience is only coming to hear the orchestra and is not interested in the story, the sets, the singers, or anything. The director believes it’s an all-visual thing. So there is this constant fight over what each person believes is the most important part. I’ve seen semistaged or concert performances of operas that were more thrilling than staged ones. Why? Because it’s better to have nothing than to have something so disturbing that it distracts you from enjoying the music and that doesn’t allow the music to create its magic.

MO: I first saw you on stage in 1998 at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan when you were singing in Giorgio Strehler’s production of Così fan tutte. How did that shape your understanding of the stage? You were a young singer. [Strehler, one of the most talented theater and opera directors of the last century, died on Christmas night, 1997, between the rehearsals and the opening of Così.]

JK: As a student I always liked to act, but I was never that serious. Strehler had this fire and incredible energy. When you saw his eyes he was always burning and full of emotions and passion. He wanted to see real people in flesh and blood who react spontaneously, and just do things without thinking of singing, without thinking of anything. And I remember my audition for him was very odd. The first thing I noticed was, unlike in any other theater that I’ve seen for auditions, everybody was called at the same time and they all had to sit in the audience and watch the others sing, which is odd because usually everybody is trying to hide somewhere in the dressing room. And so I sat there and I heard five other tenors singing the exact same two arias. They sang the second Don Ottavio aria [from Don Giovanni] with the recitative, and then “Un’aura amorosa” [from Così], and it was goddamned boring, I’m sorry. I mean, much as I love and adore Mozart, to hear the same aria over and over again!

I was last. They said, “Go ahead.” And I said, “Wait, wait, wait, do I really have to sing the same things?” “Of course, why? We can see in your bio that you prepared it and that you’ve sung Ottavio.” “Yes, but isn’t that boring?” And they were all saying, “Now, no, no, that isn’t possible.” And there was this one guy, Strehler, who said, “What would you like to sing?” I said, “Well, something else. Maybe Lucia.” “Oh, yeah? Sing Lucia!”

So I sang Lucia, the Edgardo aria, and Strehler said, “That’s interesting, that’s nice. Where have you done it?” When was that audition? In 1996, 1997? I must have been twenty-six, twenty-seven years old. I said, “Wait a minute. Of course I haven’t done it!” “Oh, well, we really should do that. We really, really should do that, but you see, for Ferrando you’re too old.” “What?”

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