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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?”

“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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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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