23 Questions for Jonas Kaufmann
Besides English and Italian, Isabella speaks French and Spanish, hates big groups. What kind of big groups? Carola asked. This kind, Isabella said, waving her hand to indicate the Viennese Opera Ball.—Donald Barthelme
Dazzling audiences as a post-apocalyptic holy fool, gunshot bandit, or lovestruck suicide, operatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann is no stranger to catastrophe. After losing his voice while performing a bit part in Parsifal, he struggled to transform himself from an airy lyric tenor to a master of the French, Italian, and Wagnerian dramatic roles. Kaufmann’s singing is baritonal and darkly colored, with seemingly effortless top notes and ethereal pianissimi. While some critics feel distanced by his originalist interpretations—and the box-office vaunting of his Byronic good looks—others are seduced by his musicianship and soaring lyricism. Placido Domingo has called him “one of the best singers I ever heard.” We discover the real Jonas Kaufmann:
Q: Before pursuing your vocal career, you studied mathematics. Think fast, Kaufmann!: If the accursed Kundry mocked Christ in 33 A.D., how old was she when Parsifal baptized her? If Arizona Governor Jan Brewer proclaimed “Jonas Kaufmann Day” on February 24, 2013, how many Not-Jonas-Kaufmann Days will elapse by the 2063 quinquagenary (including leap years!)? Multiply by the number of times Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times has called your voice “virile”?…. Well. Wasn’t it smart to follow your strengths?
Q: Paris Opera’s 2007 La Traviata imagined you and Christine Schäfer as 1960s chanteur Théo Sarapo and his wife, Édith Piaf. With Sarapo’s journey from adenoidal hairdresser to pop superstar so suggestive of your own career, can you discuss the possibility that God gave us your dusky, distinctive voice to resuscitate Sarapo’s oeuvre? If not in Théo: L’Opéra—which you of all people, Bayerischer Kammersänger, could totally commission—then in a song cycle, capitalizing on your success with Winterreise? From Schubert’s “Gefrorne Tropfen fallen / Von meinen Wangen ab: / Ob es mir denn entgangen, / Daß ich geweinet hab’?” to Sarapo’s “A quoi ça sert, l’amour?”: an organic progression, nein?
Q: Why, sure, you have other options. Having already portrayed so many innocently smoldering virgins—Parsifal, Lohengrin, Werther—might you consider bypassing Otello and Tannhäuser to steer straight for the dirty old man roles? Milan may be gunning for a Kaufmann Don Pasquale, but I envision you as Rosenkavalier‘s Baron Ochs, fondling Sophie: “Tender as a pullet! Not very plump—no matter—but so white.” You may not be a bass now, but we’re talking five-year plans.
Q: Or…in the William Kentridge production of The Nose, Paulo Szot nearly got upstaged by the strutting papier-mâché nose. Only imagine: Jonas Kaufmann as The Nose, the rare artist to transition successfully from opera to mime! Shouldn’t you be considering your place in the annals of opera history, and not just coasting on Werther?
Q: Werther: a young man who kills himself for love of a married woman. The Act III aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?”—that’s what I ask the cat every morning. You sing it like you have a cat, too: “Why awaken me, o breath of spring,” a lilacs-out-of-the-dead-land lament for one’s meaningless existence, fed and then blighted by vain hope, ringing the rafters with agony, then whispering, beseechingly, for it to desist. There’s no way you don’t have a cat.
Q: You debuted as Siegmund in Robert Lepage’s production of the Ring, mingling demigodly vigor (that high A!) with the balmy, vernal tenderness of “Winterstürme.” Tell us about the time that Deborah Voigt (a gleaming, irrepressible Brünnhilde) sneaked you backstage for a midnight ride on The Great Metropolitan Scream Machine, that glitch-prone, 45-ton, seesawing set piece that morphed from Rhine to Rainbow Bridge to flying cavalry: HOJOTOHO, HOJOTOHO, HEIAHA!…. Get out! Lepage told you to get off his fence? Doesn’t he realize that you’re J-Kau, and you can fly like a Walküre any time you damn well please?
Q: Elizabeth Peyton’s many paintings of you, in balsam-and-ether-flowing-through-your-veins mode, joined those of Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Leonardo DiCaprio at Gavin Brown’s enterprise last year. Critic Peter Schjeldahl called them “points of ardor in the cold world.” Yet, can we agree that the showstoppers were Peyton’s portraits of Met General Manager Peter Gelb, whose Valhallan exorbitance and avidity for under-65 audiences shone from every lick of rosy, nacreous flesh? Didn’t his potency hammer all the rest of you into Nibelungen insignificance? I messengered him a silver rose once, but he never responded, so I tried poisoned violets.
Q: Do heldentenors avoid the Lohengrin “Bridal Chorus” if they marry, lest they raise hopes that they’ll divulge their true identities as Grail Knights, get stabby, and vanish in their feathery boats, because, let’s face it, no bride wants an ordinary wedding night when she could have, instead, a Bayreuth-debut-worthy “Mein lieber Schwan” of floating, otherworldly pensiveness yielding to burnished sensuality and regret?
Q: La Scala made you wade in a marsh for Act III of Lohengrin. Parsifal featured a lake of blood; can it be an accident that The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross said you “gave a fluid but disappointingly indistinct account of the title role”? Emphasis mine. Don’t you get waterlogged? Oh, prosthetic feet—like The Lord of the Rings?…. I hadn’t considered, but your sound does have a Númenórean muscularity, and there’s your lovechild-of-Frodo-and-Aragorn hair…. Well, writing opera-hobbit slash fiction isn’t my bailiwick…. Of course, constantly stuck in airports, you’d need creative outlets…. Sure, “Au fond du temple saint” has some hot Björling/Merrill/Galadriel threesome potential, but do you mind if we get back to discussing craft?
Q: The intimacy of your stage presence is simultaneously its strength and drawback. We’ve witnessed your earnest, minutely observed correlations of line to action, more introspective and natural than traditionally operatic, in the unhinged grin belying Don José’s pleas to Carmen (Royal Opera 2006); the unfocused gaze of Florestan, imprisoned in the dark (Fidelio, Lucerne 2010); and Don Carlo’s teasing grab of his portrait from Elisabetta (Salzburg 2013). How about the Met Shrug, that masculine, New Yorky gesture separating the boys from the men? Every time a hero does a heroine wrong at Lincoln Center—in Norma, Rigoletto, Tosca, Les Troyens—he shrugs: whaddya want? Notably, Peter Seiffert as Tristan, accused of invading Isolde’s country, murdering her fiancé, and kidnapping her to marry his uncle, retorted, “That was resolved,” and did the Met Shrug! With mounting anticipation of your debut as Tristan, what will you bring to this acting challenge? Will you play it big or small, adding the hapless whole-head wobble or the defensive chin jut?
Q: A BMW promo shows you driving and singing “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” sounding like anybody who sings in the car and happens to be the International Opera Awards Best Male Singer of 2013. Does it embarrass friends when you join in on “Happy Birthday”? Do you karaoke?…. I can’t believe that the man who sang Faust and Siegmund back-to-back is scared of karaoke! Look, we’ll hit Koreatown, and we’ll start you easy, with a duet: “Ebony and Ivory,” “I Got You Babe,” “Leather and Lace”…. You can be Stevie Nicks; I’ll be Don Henley. Or vice versa! Don’t be silly: either way, you’ll acquit yourself like a Meistersinger.