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The Tenor on Stage: An Interview with Jonas Kaufmann

Bayerische Staatsoper/Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin and Anja Harteros as Elsa in Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, July 2009

MO: Does the reverse ever happen? Do you say I want to work with this director?

JK: Of course. Some theaters listen and some don’t. The same with colleagues. You have colleagues that you really want to work with. If you are in the same agency then it’s easy. If not, then it’s really difficult and you have to convince the theaters that you’re really trying hard to put people together. People understand more and more that the individual quality depends on the package [laughter]. You see, it’s not that you have one great singer and that can save the evening. It’s also that your own quality increases by having other people who inspire you.

MO: What about recordings?

JK: For a recording you only need a week or so. But a full opera recording is one of the most difficult things to make happen. Not because you have to schedule all the singers, the orchestra, and the conductor at the same time, but you first have to find the money and the label to do it. Most of the labels don’t record operas anymore. They would love to take a live recording because that’s much cheaper. Which I think is not fair because if the great singers of the past got the chance to do it in the studio, why don’t we?

MO: Why do you think it’s less easy now?

JK: There are two things. One is we travel more and more. Due to scheduling five years in advance, we squeeze the important projects where they actually don’t belong. If a singer thirty years ago refused to come over to the US for one concert, I think people would have understood. Now nobody understands that.

The second reason is now you’re always compared to the greatest records, and everybody has a perfect stereo at home or sees the DVDs. I think that wasn’t so much the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when people were living for the live performance.

I would say that to have a long career the most important things are to be critical of yourself and to understand that you’re not irreplaceable and you’re not invincible. If you feel that taking on a new role is too much, you shouldn’t do it. Nothing is worth the risk of harming your voice, and through that harming, damaging your confidence in your voice, because that’s equally important.

MO: Would you consider teaching?

JK: Officially I never teach. It’s important to say that because I am getting many requests and it’s such a great responsibility. If you have a singer, a young singer where you can see the potential, but where you see all the problems, first you open a wound. It’s very tough when you tell somebody, “What you’re doing is wrong. You really have to change it.” And then you leave them alone for two months because you’re on a tour somewhere, and then you come back? That’s not fair and not possible. You need regularity. Lessons once, twice, or three times a week, and then in three, four, five months a singer can learn a lot. But if you’re left alone for two months, without controlling the mistakes—do you think the singer won’t open his mouth for two months? That’s why I always say no.

MO: What would be the one important thing you would want to transmit to a student?

JK: The most important thing is never to imitate. Always try to find your own voice, your own sound, your own instrument, because that’s the most reliable instrument. Every other instrument that you pretend to have will break sooner or later. This is the most critical process, but once you have found that, then it’s only a matter of proper training to get the right confidence, even if it’s really difficult. Everybody is physically different and that’s the nice thing.

People say that the voice is the mirror of the soul and it’s true. If you are psychologically in a difficult state, it’s very difficult not to show that in your voice. So you need to have the right balance inside and to really feel the calm inside. And with that confidence you can build up the voice.

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