Jonas Kaufmann… has repeatedly failed to give satisfaction in New York

Jonas Kaufmann… has repeatedly failed to give satisfaction in New York


norman lebrecht

May 07, 2018

A very strange phrase in an NYRB review of Kaufmann’s Tristan Act 2 at Carnegie Hall.

As if a tenor exists only to give satisfaction in New York. Or that a critic’s job is to demand satisfaction.

Quite bizarre.

Here’s the full paragraph:

Tristan und Isolde is an opera about longing, with a prelude whose unresolved musical line expresses the intensity of unsatisfiable desire and a famous signature chord (F, B, D sharp, G sharp) whose chromatic tension suggests the impossibility of finding satisfaction. The longing in Carnegie Hall was focused on tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who has repeatedly failed to give satisfaction in New York over recent years, with several cancellations, notably at the Metropolitan Opera. He is easily the most celebrated tenor in the world today, sings to great acclaim in a variety of styles, from Wagner to Puccini, and presents as glamorously handsome in almost any operatic costume. At the end of this performance, he was collecting so many bouquets that it began to seem a little insulting to the marvelous Finnish soprano singing Isolde, Camilla Nylund.

Here are some earlier reviews.


  • Caravaggio says:

    True. This is not unheard of, however. I don’t know why but (some, many for sure) New Yorkers are accustomed to think of themselves and their island as if at the center of the music universe. But the attitude betrays a sign of deep insecurity mainly because they know it is no longer true. Better things are happening elsewhere and they know it. Funny that they still think that appreciative and fawning (or not) NY audiences signify the true measure of an artist’s worth.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Typical arrogance of music critics who think the musical production in front of them is there to please them and if not, it could not possibly be the fault of their own ears.

    But New York has an additional problem of identity in relation to classical music, it is the archetypal ‘modern city’ of more than a century ago, and nothing wears to thin as modernity. Therefore, as far as I have understood from various readings, there is a wide gap between audience approval and critics’ response. Since classical music offers an alternative to the Brave New World of modernity instead of an affirmation, audiences flock to this island of humanist refuge while critics feel committed to modernity’s identity symbols, fearful of being seen as ‘conservative’ if they don’t advocate and support the destruction of a precious tradition.

    This was already clear from the critical reaction upon Van Zweden’s appointment at the NY Phil:

    • Sue says:


    • Sharon says:

      I have been a New Yorker for over 30 years.

      The best things about New York City are the cultures, both the incredible diversity of ethnic cultures and the arts culture.

      However, arts culture in New York City IS (fortunately or unfortunately) synonymous with modernity. Most modern trends in music, theater and dance started in New York City.

      As far as the classical arts are concerned we do have Lincoln Center, the Met, the Philharmonic, Julliard and a number of smaller spinoffs such as Mannes, community opera etc. because the city is large enough and wealthy enough to support them but these, especially the famous venues, are largely attended by tourists and older people.

      In comparison to its population New York City is not a classical arts lovers’ city and New York City is definitely not “where it’s at” with regard to the classical arts.

      As far as Levine is concerned, if his conducting was giving a reviewer an orgasm almost 10 years ago–well, at least the reviewer was not professionally subordinate to Levine and a consenting adult! (smiley emoticon).

      • John Borstlap says:

        What if ‘modernity’ gets old? or is being interpreted differently from the ‘modern’ of decennia ago?

        When Salvador Dali went to NY for the first time in the thirties (he thought the city looked like an enormous piece of cheese and had the atmosphere of old Babylon), he was frequenting haute bourgeois circles where elevators were decorated with candles and framed music manuscripts; his impression was a city without electrical lighting. He also noticed that newly built vaguely classicist buildings were sprayed with grey to give them an ‘old world look’. Some decennia later, Paris’ Notre Dame church was cleansed and returned to its medieval pristine light colour. Things change over time.

  • Alex Davies says:

    To be fair, I took the phrase to mean that the critic has only been able to observe his New York performances, so cannot comment on performances elsewhere.

  • Olassus says:

    Isolde waits for her husband’s hunting party …

    Does the libretto show that a marriage has taken place? She is “Ireland’s queen” in Act I, and Marke’s bethrothed, but is this correct?

  • Winger says:

    This is one of the few places I know of where a single infelicitous turn of phrase in a music review can prompt an entire post with multiple replies.

  • Rob says:

    Does his voice have the heft for Wagner ?

  • Been Here Before says:

    There are some people never be ready to be satisfied. One wonders what would it take to change their minds. The man’s satisfaction comes from knowing that he gave his best. He certainly will enjoy his summer as there are others who will appreciate him.

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    To me, the critic seems to be referring to his cancellations, not the quality of his performances.

    Probably could have used a better choice of words!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am usually quick to detect arrogance and New York-style provincialism, but did not do so here, even when invited to do so by our host’s reactions.

    I read the critic as merely attempting a clever linguistic tie-in with the music appreciation class cliche “longing without satisfaction” summary of this opera in general and its prelude in particular, with the fan base and reputation of this tenor and the number of times those ardent fans have been left holding the bag, or rather I should say, left holding an expensive and prized ticket bearing the standard fine print boilerplate about no refunds for substitutions.

    He wasn’t writing about his satisfaction, or lack of same, but that of the throngs who, like teens on prom night, have certain, well, expectations. A tenor’s cancellation is like a date’s headache, and sometimes equally dubious. Cue the F, B, D#, G#.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    Ever read PG Wodehouse’s novels on Jeeves and Wooster? The line might have come from that address.

    Besides, having listened to several of Mr. Kaufmann’s recordings, I can entirely understand how he fails to give satisfaction. But that is a minority opinion, as I am well aware…

    • Bylle_Binder says:

      Not entirely. I always feel a bit odd when reading all the praize J.K. normally gets. So sorry, but after a great start – in the last time I rarely found satisfaction by his singing. His voice sounds forced and very often overstretched.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Maybe Jonas Kaufmann should apologize to New Yorkers by singing

    “I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction
    ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
    I can’t get no, I can’t get no…”

    in orchestral version, of course, and concluding with New York, New York.

  • collin says:

    For all of you non-New Yorkers who don’t understand New Yorkese:

    “failed to give satisfaction in New York” means he “did not make me cum”.

    Let me give you the proper context. Here is the NYT review of the Met’s 1999 historic Tristan with Ben Heppner:

    “The opera is … a five-hour orgasm in the making.”

    OK? Bernard Holland, chief music critic at the Times, was the author of that review.

    So, “failed to give satisfaction in New York”, putting into historical perspective, just means that we New Yorkers expect orgasmic Tristans, that we expect to be drenched in sweat and orgasmic juices at the end of sitting there for 5 hours at the Met, that Kauffman is not yet a Heppner Tristan.

    That’s all.

    Is it really too much to ask to be orgasming for 5 hours straight listening to Tristan?


    • anon says:

      From the same NYT review:

      “The heart of ”Tristan” is its orchestra, and James Levine worked in slow, patient accumulations of force.”

      That sentence takes on a whole new meaning today.

      Oh puke!

      • Stephen says:

        I don’t see why Levine’s very real achievements should be anulled by some regrettable behaviour (revealed rather late). A certain von K has rarely been taken to task for celebrating the Fall of Paris to the Nazis with concerts and “Tristan” preceded by the Horst Wessel Lied.

        • anon says:


          Heppner’s (or any other singer’s) historic performances at the Met could not have been possible without Levine; they did not sing with a piano accompaniment.

        • Martin Atherton says:

          My God, “Stephen” – check your facts – or better still try and find something interesting to say. Frankly I think that comparison is reprehensible. It’s also rubbish, because if there’s one thing the likes of you have repeatedly taken Karajan to task for, it’s his ill-judged membership of the Nazi party, which seems to be a licence to say/write just whatever you like.

          • Stephen says:

            Hi, Atherton, try and be better informed and more courteous in future. Thanks.

  • Martin Atherton says:

    You don’t deserve courtesy, “Stephen”, and I certainly don’t need advice from you in that or any other department. You have misrepresented Karajan and the comparison you have made is deeply questionable. Thanks.

    • Stephen says:

      “Atherton”, you are clearly as ignorant of the facts concerning von K – about whom I was not rude – as you are lacking in simple good manners.