German-born tenor Jonas Kaufmann has played his cards right, wisely giving his voice enough time to mature and his technique enough room to develop. Now 40, since carefully choosing his repertory for almost two decades, he's enjoying success across the world with his roles in Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Manon, and Werther. Flagged for record deals, he's already put out a handful of recordings and three solo discs. His latest solo (released last fall) was a recording one of Franz Schubert's Lieder cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, with Helmut Deutsche on piano. Dropping to raves and praise, Kaufmann's vision of the heartbreaking (literally), romantic Lieder was hailed as one of the best versions recorded to date.
Opera Chic snagged the busy tenor between his booked performances and chatted about Schubert, Lieder technique, and future roles. Click the link below to read the full interview!
Opera Chic: Few geniuses have been as unlucky as Schubert when it comes to musical theater: you’ve sung single arias from Schubert’s musical theater, but have you ever thought of singing a complete Alfonso Und Estrella in an opera house (I personally think it’s a masterpiece, never mind the weak libretto)?
Jonas Kaufmann: I’ve actually looked at it, but the problem with Schubert is that he was never able to find a good libretto writer. Every single opera he wrote has tons of gorgeous music in it, but it’s just so ridiculous that you dare to put it on stage because you know people will say, “Well, what is this all about?” I’ve done several operas in concert performance and I’ve also done quite a lot of performances of Fierrabras where we got lucky to find a director who found an interesting way of putting that story into a direction where you could really accept it and actually enjoy it.
Alfonso Und Estrella is about knights in the Middle Ages, which is difficult to stage. But I love Estrella’s aria. It’s such a gorgeous aria, yet spreads out in such an intricacy and the atmosphere is just so great. The piece is lovely but I’m almost over the likeness of this character in the opera. So I’m not sure that I’d be the ideal Alfonso.
Opera Chic: And if you could pick your ideal Estrella?
Jonas Kaufmann: Well, I’ve done several things of this kind of repertoire with a German soprano named Juliane Banse. And she also did a revival of Fierrabras with us, and it was really a joy doing that with her. I think she has the right voice for it because she has a very flexible voice, and she can sing very beautifully in the higher register. But she has also a pretty dark voice, so she can do all that range which was very important for Schubert. He always wrote a little bit in both extremes, not forcing the voice, but it’s the same thing with Lieder. Like when you look at Die Winterreise, it’s written for a tenor, and actually 90% of the songs a baritone sings in the exact same key just because it’s very low on the low side for a tenor. That also happens quite a bit that you have to have without any effort the low register there. And that’s why it’s difficult to find a typical voice type because a very, very typical -- let’s say “Germanish” voice -- that is very thin and flexible usually tends to not have enough weight in the lower register.
Opera Chic: You’ve spoken in the past about how you try not to look backwards too much and therefore avoid choosing “mentors” among the singers of the past, because you always try to find your own interpretation. But do you have some past Schubert recordings that you’ve listened to, at least as a point of reference? For example: Juan Diego Florez says he often listens to Fritz Wunderlich recordings as a sort of “master class”.
Jonas Kaufmann: Well, that quote that you picked-up from a past interview was said in the context that I think there’s a certain danger in choosing mentors for the developing voice. Because if you find a voice that you like so much and then try to imitate it, you will try to manipulate your voice to sound as similar as possible to that specific person, that specific recording, or whatever it is that you’re trying to follow. And the younger you are, the easier it is to fall into a wrong direction and to mistreat your voice. And this can be very dangerous for your instrument because if you actually find a new or natural vocal sound, you will only then have the guarantee that you can actually sing for a long time. Otherwise at a certain point, at a certain age -- mostly it starts at the end of your 30s until your mid 40s -- your voice suddenly says, “No! That’s it! I won’t do that anymore!” So, that quote was meant to act as words of advice to young singers to try not to imitate others: Better to try not to imitate the old recordings and to try not to imitate us.
Like recently, someone told me that he had a student who was singing dark and always covering his voice. And he asked him why he was doing it and the student said, “Well I want to sound like Jonas Kaufmann.” Well, that’s nice! But it can really be dangerous! However, if we’re talking about interpretation, well, that’s something that’s completely different. For interpretation you should find ideal recordings where you can really be inspired and figure out how much is actually possible with your voice.
Of course in the German tradition there are many Lied singers. One of my teachers, Hans Hotter, was also a very good and famous Lied interpreter. And for the tenor interpretations, Fritz Wunderlich is one of the first ones that come to mind – that’s absolutely clear. Even though at the beginning, he had done only one Lieder recital which was not a big success just because he didn’t know how to deal with his repertory at all, and then he really started learning it and had kind of a master class with a pianist and was working very hard. I know the Wunderlich family very well, and from the stories, I know he was very strongly trying to achieve and to establish what some of the others of his generation had already done – people like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – they’ve been the masters of the Lied, along with his very close friend, Hermann Prey. So he just wanted to do something equal, and I think in the end he really did, because some of his life recordings of Lieder recitals are just so breathtaking and honest.
So Juan Diego is absolutely right – you should look into Wunderlich first because he’s always honest with all his passion and soul. And to look into him for everything he puts into his music and his words, as words are very important to him and a very interesting aspect of his Lieder because unfortunately many singers forget the content when they try to make the most beautiful sound and they don’t realize that there’s actually a story behind it. But that was never the case with him.
Of course, I do also listen to recordings. Some of my favorites for the Italian repertory are Corelli because he was so obsessed by his own voice. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily look at him to find the perfect interpretation and the prefect taste, but vocally, yeah, he’s really something. And at the beginning of this year when I was in Paris for my first ever Werther, I was listening to a recording from the 1930s of Georges Thill, a very famous French tenor, which is still one of the most important recordings of this work ever.
Opera Chic: Schubert died at 31, younger even than Mozart when he passed away. There’s already such an astonishing evolution in his style, have you ever wondered what could have been, how music would have been changed by Schubert had he died an old man after a long career?
Jonas Kaufmann: Yeah, absolutely. Especially for me as an opera singer, based on the fact that he’s done so many operas. But it’s evident that he had this passion for the drama in his music because there’s some pieces: like when you look at Die Bürgschaft, a 20/25-minute long ballad based on the poetry of Friedrich Schiller – it already has so many operatic elements, like the transitions from one to anther and the piano that raises the tension to some certain point and then there’s the climax – it’s all there! It sounds so staged in his head and this was written when he was 17-years-old, so I’m sure once he would have found an equal partner to supply him with some really good librettos, he would have been able to do so much more in this direction. And in every direction!
He’d already done so many Lieder that I don’t even want to imagine how many more years we’d have his work and how many songs we’d have of his. So many more works that no one would be able -- not even Fischer-Dieskau – to have recorded them all in a lifetime. There’s just so much. But on the other hand, maybe he would have changed his mind and started doing something else, like doing even more symphonic work, or maybe he would have gone into another direction. But what you have of his overall works, I think the most astonishing things are the vocal music pieces and his songs. And all his symphonies are very interesting but have never had a lot of success, and most of them hadn’t been played in his lifetime: they had been refused as being too difficult to play, and people didn’t like them. So it’s really a shame. We have a composer who hasn’t even heard all his works performed in his own lifetime. Anyway, its history and we can’t change that!
Opera Chic: For a voice such as yours, with the kind of career you’re having, French opera seems to be a nice break, a light intermezzo between the heavier stuff. Conceivably, how much heavier do you think you’ll be able to go, in terms of repertoire?
Jonas Kaufmann: First of all I have to say I don’t think it’s correct to say that French opera is light. There are some French operas that may be considered to be lighter, but in general, what happens with French composers is that they don’t stick to a plan. Like, they don’t think, “This is for a light lyric tenor,” or “This is for a lyric heroic whatever.” They always follow their instincts pending on the situation that the character is in during that exact moment. They write for at least two, mostly three vocal types at the same time, just because they love to express emotions through break-outs, and at the same time have those moments break down into very intimate intervals. So when you look at parts, even Don Jose: Jose has some very light and very tender stuff to sing at the beginning and during his second act aria he starts getting more and more passionate about this relationship and about its end that the voice and the character gets heavier and heavier all the time. And it’s the same with all the others. Werther also has some really heartbreaking stuff to sing. And Des Grieux in Manon. His first aria is so intimate and so beautiful and he’s so shy. And the second aria, Ah, fuyez douce image, is so “heldish” and so strong. So you can go on like this all the time. That’s why the French repertoire isn’t so much lighter repertory, but is it an extremely flexible repertory. You need flexibility and you need to be able to switch from very light to very heavy. And it’s very important to be elegant. The French always love everything to be very smooth and elegant, and not so much straight forward.
But we can definitely talk about how heavy it might get! Estimating from now -- how my voice is growing and developing -- I think there is much more to come, and I’m pretty confident that I’ll reach the end of the line by doing someday the heaviest part. Like, I know that I’m going to do Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Verdi’s Otello, which is probably the end of the Italian repertory, and also Tristan from the German repertory. It’s in reach. Not now, not tomorrow, but in 5-to-10 years time. Some of these parts will definitely appear.
So yeah, but I think the recipe is to keep your voice fresh and healthy, and not to concentrate on the heavy edge of the repertory but always to keep this mix in your schedule so that you always have to keep your voice flexible. And to keep your voice under control and to also realize immediately something is going in the wrong direction so that you can then adapt it and make the change to something better. And keep yourself aware that it’s probably too early to sing this part now -- like maybe it’s too soft or it’s too held back -- this all can happen and you must always double-check and if it all goes right, I’m pretty confident that I’ll reach the heaviest of the heavy!
Opera Chic: Is there a Verdi opera that you still haven’t done that you’re thinking of singing in the future?
Jonas Kaufmann: Definitely Otello! Otello isn’t too far away now. I’m 40 now, so I can start to estimate where the good point of this repertory will be. But I haven’t done Il Trovatore, I haven’t done Un Ballo in Maschera, so there are several Verdi operas that are still waiting, and I hope to do them all, and if nothing goes wrong, I will do them all!