Jonas Kaufmann: ‘I have been singing with the handbrakes on’

The German tenor has spoken with refreshing candour to Britta Schultejans of the German press agency about his comeback struggle and his hopes for the future. He sings Andrea Chenier in Munich this weekend.

Excerpt:

Q: Do you find you have become more cautious since your illness-related break? Are you back?

A: In the first performances, I sang perhaps a little with the handbrake applied – or with more prudence, less spontaneously and less full-throated. But that’s over, and in a piece like this there is no chance to hold back. This is so wild and vocally so challenging. This can not be controlled, thank God.

Q: In June you will make your debut in London as “Otello”. Is that in the back of your mind?

A: I know that this is coming, but not more. I don’t plan to hold back on the “Otello”. There is plenty of time in between.

Q: Are you a bit nervous?

A: Maybe. I was a bit nervous at the “Lohengrin” in Paris because it was the first performance after so long. Since I already had the fear in the back of my mind, whether I could get through the evening or if I would have problems again. I felt I used to be more energised. This is a positive tension, self-evidently. But that soon went away, once I realized it went well. Had I tried it a couple of times and failed, I’d probably have been much, much more nervous.

 

Frage: Merken Sie, dass Sie nach Ihrer krankheitsbedingten Pause etwas vorsichtiger geworden sind? Nehmen Sie sich zurück?

Antwort: Bei den ersten Auftritten, die ich danach wieder absolviert habe, habe ich vielleicht schon ein bisschen mit angezogener Handbremse gesungen – oder mit mehr Klugheit, weniger spontan und weniger aus dem Vollen schöpfend. Das hat sich aber schon wieder gegeben, und gerade bei einem Stück wie diesem hat man gar keine Chance, sich zurückzuhalten. Das ist so wild und stimmlich so fordernd. Das kann man – Gott sei Dank – nicht berechnender machen.

Frage: Im Juni geben Sie in London Ihr Debüt als “Otello”. Spielt das in Ihrem Hinterkopf schon eine Rolle?

Antwort: Ich weiß, dass das diese Spielzeit noch kommt, aber mehr auch nicht. Ich habe bisher nicht vor, auf den “Otello” zu sparen, auf keinen Fall. Es ist noch genug Zeit dazwischen.

Frage: Sind Sie da denn ein bisschen nervöser?

Antwort: Vielleicht. Ich war ein bisschen nervöser beim “Lohengrin” in Paris, weil es der erste Auftritt nach so langer Zeit war. Da hatte ich schon die Angst im Hinterkopf, ob ich den Abend durchziehen kann oder ob man wieder Probleme bekommt. Das habe ich schon gespürt, dass ich vorher etwas energiegeladener war. Das ist eine positive Anspannung, die ich sonst kaum noch kenne, weil man das inzwischen ja so selbstverständlich nimmt. Das ist aber dann schnell weggegangen, weil ich gemerkt habe, dass ich nahtlos anknüpfen kann. Wenn ich es ein paar Mal versucht hätte und gescheitert wäre, wäre ich wahrscheinlich viel, viel nervöser gewesen.

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  • Dear Kaufmann,

    for the sake of your credibility, of your voice (?) and most importantly as a sign of respect to poor Verdi, please pull out of Otello. Probably it is best for everyone just to stick to the recordings of Lauri-Volpi or Del Monaco…

    Sincerely,

    Your friend.

    PS: same applies to your colleague Kunde, would you forward him this letter?

  • Someone who even think about “holding back” on Othelo then should not try to sing it. That role is a real killer. The singer exceels himself or “die”. I am sure Jonas Kaufmann kan become the greatest Othelo of all times.

  • I agree about Kunde but not about Kaufmann. Yes, Del Monaco at his best had no equal before or after him as Otello but Kaufmann surely has a right to sing the role. It’ll be more in the Giacomini – Cura kind of way. But is is a voice killer, no wonder Del Monaco didn’t speak two days before and after the performance, a kind of discipline strange to the modern singer furthermore poor Verdi had to suffer far worse that Kaufmann in the title role….And like Mario jonas has the looks as well

    • Del Monaco is pretty far down my list of Otellos. I never thought it was more than a superficial “lout” reading. I’ll grant that people might prioritize one thing over another in that part, but I just don’t see how anyone can get that excited about him after hearing Zanelli’s excerpts, for example, or seeing Vickers act it on stage or on film.

    • Indeed, so many singers now use this, pinning the larynx down with the root of the tongue. It can never end well. Remember quiet singing, dynamic range, true portamento? How audiences used to leap to their feet and cheer?

  • Well, this rather chimes with my view of his Barbican concert Siegmund a few weeks ago. ‘Singing with the handbrakes on’ is rather that what it sounded like, at least compared with his normal ardour…

  • All I can say is I have ecperienced Jonas Kaufmann as an intelligent and honest singer. He would never overtax his voice. He knows exactly what he can do. And his limits have been bad luck in terms of health and NEVER a lack of singing proficiency, capability and intelligence. Listening to him is pure joy and a privilege.

    • He is indeed a very intelligent and usually cautious singer. A single lapse in judgement/habit cost him dearly. IMHO, it wasn’t the demands of a role or the music but of 1) living up to an overblown reputation and his 2) generosity toward audiences that contributed. The first is beyond his control and the second is part of his very nature. That he controlled what he could is understandable. Glad to know the handbrake is off. His total involvement is what puts him above his contemporaries and earned his reputation.

  • We haven’t had a decent recording of Mahler 8 for a long time. It would be interesting to hear him do the tenor part.

    • His solo recording of Das Lied von der Erde is out April 7. If you love Mahler (Kaufmann does) it is worth the money just to hear his Der Abscheid. Heard both concerts live, ineffable experience.

  • Well, he is certainly holding back – cancelled the MET 3 years in a row. Gelb is certainly quite – lets say it this way – with his statements regarding future engagements (i.e. he is pissed off).
    Now I saw/heard JK yesterday int the Saturday Matinee in the ROH and it was an extraordinary performance, a different Otello. However, his voice needs to ripen. Lyric passages were lovely while the dramatic outburst lacked middle voice and strength. I’d like to see him again in that role in 5 and 10 years.That said, I had seen many Otellos and few achieved this standard (Domingo did).

  • Let’s not forget, that Jonas Kaufmann was a ‘white Otello’ , which is not the same . Before more than 100 years yet was colonisation, and the colour of the skin determined the temper of the character. Before the premier Mr. Kaufmann spoke about the possibility that Verdi created to perform another Otello,as it was played up to now. He performed a different Lohengrin too, which was not only a hero, but a loving man, whose tragedy was to loose Elsa. I didn’t see his Otello, because I was ill, even when it was played in cinema in Hungary . I can imagine that he makes something quite new in this role. I saw his four Don José, these were also quite dissimilar from eachother. He is a wonderful actor, we can trust him!

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