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The Tenor on Stage: An Interview with Jonas Kaufmann

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we would like to hear it anyway, but you would probably tell us now that you’ve sung Lucia, you’re not going back to Mozart, etc.”

“No, I never said that. I said, of course now I have to sing ‘Un’aura amorosa,’ I know.” “Oh, you will do it?” “Yes, yes, of course.” “Okay.” So I started. [sings]

“Stop, stop, stop.” “What?” “Can you kneel down?” “Yes.” “Okay, go on your knees. Now start again.” So I sang the first phrase, he stopped again. “Can you close your eyes?” “Yes, sure, I can close my eyes.” “Close your eyes and sing again the first phrase.” I did. He said, “Okay, that’s it.”

I was hired. Why? I thought he was totally crazy! But he really was sick of all those typical Italian singers, the cliché singers who always say, “I cannot sing when I sit down. I cannot kneel. I cannot do this, I cannot do that.” He hated that. He wanted people who can do everything and who want to do everything—who actually are enthusiastic about it. And that was his main idea. With Strehler, one of the main things was when he talked through a scene or an aria or something with us. Endless, an hour, an hour and a half of only talking. “You know, when the director does this, and this is the phrase, and then you have that. Then you have this music. Then you have to think about all the consequences.”

So he filled you up with emotions until you finally said, “Giorgio, let me do it. I want to do it now. So how am I going to do it?” “I don’t care. You enter here and it’s important that you exit that side because the others come out. Okay, let’s do it.” And you did it once and he said, “That’s great, but if you feel different tomorrow never try to do the same thing again. You always have to recreate it. Then whatever you do is fine.”

I’ve never forgotten that. The sad thing though was, as much as I adored him as an artist, he was a tyrant. He was shouting and screaming all the time. Really, I mean, terrible. And everybody was just obeying. They said, “Yes, yes, of course, of course.” After he died, they were totally headless. They had no idea what to do. A professional camera team had been following the rehearsals in order to make a documentary. They had the assistants watch the videos and based on the videos they recreated what the maestro had approved once. Of course, some things need precision. It’s the same thing if you are playing a joke between a couple. If the punch line doesn’t come precisely, the whole joke is ruined. There are some particular moments where this is actually necessary, but aside from those, everything was free with Strehler. We ended up standing on stage and the assistants would say, with prints from the video, “No! Venti centimetri più a sinistra! Ah! Perfetto!” So we were like statues all the time.

It was terrible! There were altogether over eighty performances. I did at least forty-five. And of course, after a while we just thought, what the heck, we’ll do our thing. I’ve done other productions, maybe not forty-five times, but close to that, and they were terribly boring at the end, but this one never was. It was always a pleasant journey. And this is the main thing I have to keep in mind all the time: that if you don’t act based on the feelings you have it will never be real and will never touch the audience.

When I say that I’m not happy with some of the modern productions I’m not saying I’m not happy with them because they are minimalist or lightly staged. No, it’s because they are too demanding. This Don Carlo revival is not really a traditional production: the whole thing is very abstract and the action takes place in a single chamber with a huge crucifix hanging over the stage. One of the best things about the space is that it is actually so reduced that the audience can focus very much on the singers.

And for the singer, you are given a chance to create things on a very small scale. You don’t need the big opera gestures because you have the attention of the audience. In a traditional production, like the stagings of the great Franco Zeffirelli, the problem is that you are fighting against the scenery, the costumes, and everything to be seen in this spectacular set. So there you need big gestures; everything has to be very large. Whereas, in a set where there are only two or three chairs and nothing else, everything goes down to the essence.

And I would say the same thing in a lieder recital. You create total focus. There’s nothing else on stage but you and the pianist. It’s a pressure, or it’s a chance. And for me, it’s always a chance because it’s a platform where with so little you can make a great impact. You’re telling those little stories and trying to drag the audience into this mood, into that situation, into a fantasy world, or whatever it might be.

Depending on what you do, if you do groups of songs or if you do individual songs or if you do a song cycle, it’s different. With a cycle, obviously, you have a prewritten story, a thread between the songs. But when you create your program on your own and combine several songs, you’re looking at different elements: it’s not only whether they fit together musically. The mood also has to work. If you have five, six sad songs in a row, it’s difficult to keep the attention of the audience, so you have to have a mix. And that’s very interesting and fascinating. Because even in opera, I don’t know how, you can actually feel whether the audience is with you or not. Whether they just lie back and say, “Oh, it’s a nice evening,” or whether they sit on the edge like, “Ah.” In a lieder recital it’s even more obvious.

MO: I find this intensity particularly striking in your interpretation of Wagner’s Lohengrin: when you sing “In fernem Land” [In a Far-off Land], you create an atmosphere of absolute calm and concentration in the theater.

JK: The beginning of Lohengrin’s “In fernem Land” is a key moment indeed. [Having been forced to betray his vow of secrecy, Lohengrin reveals to his wife Elsa who he is and where he comes from, and why he therefore must leave her.] I’m always looking forward to it and I’m very happy when I feel the contact with the audience, when I sense people listening very carefully. I try to build up the tension of this scene as carefully as I can. This is the moment. This is the test case where a singer can show that Wagner often isn’t loud and bombastic, but very sensitive, magic, subtle, even economical. And it is one of the few moments when Lohengrin shows himself as the human being he really is. The first moment is his phrase “Elsa, ich liebe dich!” in the first act. After that he is mostly in the role of the knight who’s come to rescue the maiden in distress. When he’s alone with her for the first time, he’s overwhelmed by his emotional and sexual needs. He urges her, he corners her—and unwillingly he drives her to the point where she can’t resist anymore and asks the fatal question [about his identity]. He is very well aware of the fact that this dramatic development is as much his fault as hers. From then on he’s in a state of sorrow, loneliness, and honesty toward himself. Therefore the beginning of “In fernem Land” is the most intimate moment of the entire part, and the most demanding as well. When you come to those subtle moments, where you can build up a tension to the point that the audience is sitting on the edge of their seats—then singing Wagner is sheer pleasure and satisfaction.

MO: In your career you have to plan a long time in advance. What room is there for instinct and spontaneity?

JK: That’s a good question because that’s the downside of my career. At the beginning obviously you’re thankful for everything that someone offers you, you think, “Oh, do I want to do that now? Yes, why not?” And you do it. Now, I’m planning five years ahead. And that really takes away a lot. So I’ve started saying no to new productions only because I don’t want to be bound to a schedule that I’ve made five years ago not knowing whether—well, yes, guessing—whether my voice will be all right at that point. But even more important, not knowing whether I’ll actually be in the mood to do it or really want to do it.

I think making music is an art form like all the other art forms where, as you say, spontaneity and passion are very important ingredients of success. If you lose the passion, everybody can hear and see it immediately, and that’s a great danger. If you ask a painter to choose the colors for a painting that he or she will do in five years, you won’t find anyone who will say, “Okay, let’s make a deal.” As much as I love opera, as much as I love acting and everything, I think the problem with opera is that it’s not spontaneous, it’s too stiff. I’m not saying I won’t do any more operas. I have contracts until 2016, 2017, at least, with the Met, Covent Garden, Milan, Munich, Vienna, and so on.

Up until maybe two years ago, I’ve always done new productions. I did four or five new productions per year, but a new production—besides the frustrating fact of meeting the director—costs you an enormous amount of time: you have to be there for five, six weeks of rehearsals and then the performances. It’s also a financial disaster, honestly. They don’t pay more for an opening night than for the tenth revival of an existing piece. No: it’s one night’s fee.

So I’m not saying that I’m in poverty, but that’s also something you have to keep in mind. A conductor will conduct until he falls into his grave and the singer—we hope—will not. So this is my time. These are the years, the most important years, and if I do only new productions and always have six or seven weeks of rehearsals during which I don’t sing, it’s not worth it. If you do a revival then you slip into someone else’s footsteps, but you still have a chance to turn it around and do it your own way. And if you really don’t like the production you don’t have to take on the revival. When I sign a contract with an opera house five years ahead, they don’t know who is going to direct it. So I commit to it not knowing what is actually going to happen.

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