Jonas Kaufmann: I don’t like updated operas

In an interview with the German press agency, dpa, the great tenor says he is comfortable in the present Munich Meistersinger, which is set in no defined time, but he thinks that most time-shifts in opera simply don’t work.

To avoid any risk of misinterpretation, we present his words in the original German:

Frage: Die neue “Meistersinger”-Inszenierung soll nicht hochpolitisch sein…

Antwort: Nein, es ist überhaupt nicht hochpolitisch. Es spielt in einer relativen Moderne – vielleicht in den 60ern, vielleicht in den 80ern. Es sieht ein bisschen nach Plattenbau-Siedlung aus an manchen Stellen, aber im Nirgendwo. Es ist sicher nicht das mittelalterliche Nürnberg, das ist ganz klar. Man muss ein Milieu schaffen von einem Club, in dem alle Mitglied werden wollen, und das kann man eigentlich überall machen. Das kann man tun, ohne das Stück zu missbrauchen oder auf Kosten des Stückes irgendwelche politischen Statements abzugeben. Das haben wir alles gehabt, das haben wir alles gesehen. So lange es mit der feinen Klinge passiert, finde ich das in Ordnung, aber wenn es das ganze Stück beherrscht und die Musik nicht mehr ihren Glanz und Zauber ausbreiten kann, kann ich es nicht mehr akzeptieren.

Frage: Gilt das für Sie auch in einer Zeit wie dieser, die so aufgeladen scheint mit Hass und politischen Statements von allen Seiten?

Antwort: Wenn jemand ein neues Stück schreibt, wenn beispielsweise Frau Jelinek (die österreichische Autorin Elfriede Jelinek, Anm. d. Red.) ein neues Stück erfindet, dann kann da alles rein, was momentan aktuell ist. Dann hat das auch seinen Sinn. Wenn aber etwas vor 100 oder 150 Jahren geschrieben wurde – vor allem in der Oper – da muss man sehr vorsichtig sein. Natürlich könnte man immer politische Statements auf die Bühne bringen und sagen, damit erreicht man die Leute, aber ich glaube, damit würde man das Ende dieser Kunstform einläuten. Dann hat das Besondere, das Magische keinen Platz mehr. Feine, kleine Anspielungen reichen. Wer es dann nicht sieht, der will es nicht sehen. Wenn es viele großartige neue Komponisten gäbe, die neue Stücke schreiben, die ins Ohr gehen, die die Leute akzeptieren, deren Komplexität man begreifen kann und die die Leute als Gassenhauer auf der Straße singen, dann können wir auch gerne alles neu machen und ganz nah am Puls der Zeit sein. Aber so lange wir Jahrhunderte alte Stücke hervorholen, ist das immer ein Spagat.  



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  • Couldn’t agree more !
    All the Smartalec directors trying to make a name.
    Circus Carmen, Mafia Rig. the list is endless.
    The time slot IS part of the opera,and other art forms

    • Known very unfavourably as “konzept”. Great to have Jonas make a comment on this!! And I’ve seen him in concert with Thielemann; wunderbah!!

      • He comments but his Stolzing in Munich turns his back on Sachs, on the masters, and on German art!

        He is most inconsistent.

        • On the stage he had to follow the concept of director, otherwise he had to quit.
          Thank you, Jonas for your opinion!

    • Mafia Rigoletto…yes, Dr Jonathan Miller was a complete nobody until he pulled that stunt (which has been just *so* unsuccessful with the public and critics), wasn’t he?

      Kaufmann has form in this department; proof (were any needed) that you can be a phenomenal artist while having a rather limited vision of the artform as a whole. The idea of setting operas in all cases in the “correct” period is fraught with inconsistencies – what about operas such as Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflote or Turandot, where neither composer nor librettist specifies a period? Or La Traviata (the original production relocated the action to the 18th century). What period does ‘Parsifal’ exist in? And so on. To his credit, Kaufmann does seem to be acknowledging here that imaginative updating can work – it all depends on the vision and insight of the person doing the updating, unsurprisingly.

      • Sorry but Jonathan Miller was always a wonderful somebody, and in ‘Beyond the Fringe’, which was first class. I worked with Jonathan in 1979 in his Traviata. Being a medical doctor, he had Violetta in her bed for the whole of the last act, not leaping around trying to sing an aria with TB as no one actually would!!! Of course his Rigoletto in English updated for ENO brought him fame but he was well established long before that! Not only that, Jonathan understood voices – again being a medical doctor, not some specialist with a PHD – Permanent Head Damage!!!

        • Una, I can easily believe what you recount.

          Can you explain at all how he came to be so bitter?
          Reading interviews with him these days just makes me cringe.

    • So true what he says. No one can say that he does not give Updating a try. At Munich they are forever updating operas and trying out different concepts, several of which I have seen to my cost! Trovatore comes to mind as particularly unpleasant and unnecessary in its imagery. It needs more artists of the stature of Jonas Kaufmann to speak openly.
      Bravo to him

  • “Wenn es viele großartige neue Komponisten gäbe, die neue Stücke schreiben, die ins Ohr gehen, die die Leute akzeptieren, deren Komplexität man begreifen kann und die die Leute als Gassenhauer auf der Straße singen, dann können wir auch gerne alles neu machen und ganz nah am Puls der Zeit sein. Aber so lange wir Jahrhunderte alte Stücke hervorholen, ist das immer ein Spagat.” That says it all…. an obvious truth, too seldom observed.

  • I agree with Mr Kaufmann to a certain extent but there are exceptions. ENO’s mafia Rigoletto did work and has proved a very popular production so much so that, after having abandoned it in favour of a new production a couple of seasons ago, ENO are bring it back next season. The problems arise when you try and update an Opera such as Maria Stuarda (the less said about Covent Garden’s abomination a couple of seasons ago the better). Operas that are set in a defined period of history do not make sense if they are updated.

    • I agree, this has to be taken on a case by case basis. For instance, I loved Richard Jones’s updated Pagliaci at ENO but the Calixto Bieto Fidelio (also ENO) was ghastly because it was badly directed and overburdened with a spectacular set ….not because it was updated.
      One of the most celebrated productions of the Ring is non-historical (I remember guns in it!!!!!): Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 staging at Bayreuth.

      • Broadly agree Hilary but you might differentiate a little from those pieces which are ahistorical from those like some verismo masterpieces which were set deliberately close to the time of composition.
        I like many others want opera to remain relevant and to engage exciting directors and designers to the opera stage.
        There is a case to be made for original productions but we must realise this not seeing or understanding these pieces as the composer intended since we do not live in those times. Seraglio in 1782 still had close historical ties to the seige of Vienna in 1682 and the contemporary existence of the Ottoman empire on the southern borders of Austria at the time of the premiere.

  • So Stolzing wearing cans and a leather jacket does not qualify as time shift? Or the Lohengrin in Munich where he wore a tea shirt and sweat pants whilst building a house? Given that he now restricts most of his appearances to BSO where no production could be considered as remotely recognisable to the original in anything but the music it seems odd that he feels few of the productions he chooses to appear in actually work. Still I’m glad that he does and having listened to the new Meistersinger can’t wait to see it, even with Sachs in a faithful reconstruction of the portable shoe repair van originally envisaged by Wagner!

  • Couldn’t agree more and am delighted that Jonas Kaufmann speaks up about this nonses. He has done so many times before.

    Next: can he start saying no to bad productions?

  • In fairness, Kaufmann isn’t saying (in this interview) that he’s against all updating of operas, as long as it’s done in a sensitive and credible way. In fact he praises “the new ‘Meistersinger’ ” as a job well-done: a prefab housing community that could be anywhere, although it’s clearly modern — and NOT medieval Nürnberg — but still creates the atmosphere of a club that everyone wants to join; something like that can be set anywhere.

    (Warning: this post is dependent upon the accuracy of Google Translate)

    • It’s amazing how Google Translate has developed in accuracy over the years. I remember how jumbled up it was to begin with.

      • Five years ago I used it and wrote the translation down in order to speak to the man at the local Post office in Vienna. He looked at me as though I had more than two heads!! It was embarrassing as I was living there and had to visit the Post at least twice a week.

    • Yes, thank you. He is NOT saying that he ‘disapproves’ of updating opera in a black and white manner. He is saying it depends on how it’s done. The headline here is somewhat simplistic; Kaufmann’s views (on anything) rarely are.

  • Thank you for posting the original. However, for those of us who do not speak German and who do not trust online translation services, do we have an English translation?

  • Who does when you’re a realmsingwr in opera, and not some ‘expert’ back seat singer or musicologist. These productions can be so hideous. Doesn’t mean they gave to be stereotypes or stuck in the past but at least something akin to what the composer intended as well as the singer not hanging from the ceiling whilst they sing!

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