Jonas Kaufmann: You won’t see me in contemporary opera

Jonas Kaufmann: You won’t see me in contemporary opera


norman lebrecht

December 12, 2021

From a Guardian interview, ahead of a cancelled London Christmas recital:

‘Most of these compositions are done once and forgotten. There are some exceptions, but the complexity of modern music is just too much for most audiences to go home with a smile or even with a melody. A new opera hits you in your face and it might be very impressive, but the endorphins that you have sometimes when you hear a beautiful aria? They’re not there for sure. That makes it difficult for these pieces to join the repertory….

‘The fascinating thing about opera is that is a bit old fashioned, a bit mysterious, a bit different. It should take a leaf from the Game of Thrones’ playbook. “Series such as this are so successful not because they are modern but because they create a different world in such a fantastic and perfect way that you dive into it and you start to forget it is fake. This is opera!’…

Read on here.




  • Lilas Pastia says:

    In other words: why bother to learn complicated music when no-one will hire you to sing it anywhere else.

    • V.Lind says:

      You make him sound lazy. I doubt that, somehow. He is about to tackle Peter Grimes. I suspect his innate taste makes him pretty clear about where to direct his efforts.

      • Ben says:

        Hopefully he’ll do better as Peter Greims (1945) than in last week’s Minuit, chrétiens! (1847) posted by Norman, where the voice for the first time in my experience of JK was neither steady nor at ease. The Britten perhaps exposes fewer weaknesses than the Adam.

  • Bloom says:

    These are generic, shallow, very self-contradictory assertions made during a late breakfast interview . They are not the result of deep , serious thought, I guess. In the same interview he says that opera is not a museum, but a living thing. This idea contradicts what he says about contemporary/modern opera. And so and so forth. (Or good modernity means for him only corny Xmas tunes , Netflix and Game of Thrones . Everything that challenges the cerebellum of the audience a little bit more is bad modernity.)

  • V.Lind says:

    This is one of the most intelligent interviews I have seen given by a singer. This guy has his head screwed on properly.

  • Thomas says:

    Reactionary twerp.

  • Bloom says:

    The interviewer is not very bright either when he comes up with the same boring clichés ( “the greatest tenor”, ” Tom Jones of the opera” ) and encourages Mr.Kaufmann’ s relaxed drivel ’bout knickers pelting , modern opera, racism and endorphins release. Everything in a quick chat over a coffee and a yummy croissant.

  • James Cook says:

    I agree, all contemporary operas fail

  • Cantantelirico says:

    Why do singers say such stupid things? Don’t they know that the interviewer is not their friend? And when will journalists stop hoping to hear a singer say something intelligent and enlightening? While Mr. Kauffman has the luxury to be able to turn his back on modern works, there any many singers who cannot afford to turn down such employment opportunities. Mr.Kaufmann’s career has not suffered one iota in spite of his frequent cancellations, leaving presenters and audiences embarrassed and disappointed. At this point he should be required to compensate his own covers. One or two cancellations can damage the reputation of most singers or even end their careers.
    He has also made the assumption that the audience for modern works is limited due to their lack of comprehension and the need to whistle a tune on their way to catching their trains. Just once I would like to hear a star admit that they do not wish to commit to modern works because there is no future financial potential for them doing so or that they just can’t sing them. Most modern works are done once and then shelved because most theaters won’t take a chance on them and most big name singers look down there nose at them. Please Mr. Kaufmann, smile for the camera and fulfill your engagements. Otherwise, take the fifth. You can be sure that if Tony Pappano had the stomach for modern works, Mr. Kaufmann would change his atonal tune.

  • Hermann J. says:

    Jonas Kaufmann: wont sing contemporary operas
    Also Jonas Kaufmann: will be singing Peter Grimes in Vienna

    • James Weiss says:

      Peter Grimes is 75 years old and from a previous century. It’s not contemporary so what is your point?

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        PG still ranks as contemporary in the sense it doesn’t have whistleable tunes and is sometimes wilfully discordant, the naughty boy.

        • AB says:

          Well, on my opinion PG has some very “whistleable” tunes – which btw has nothing to do with contemporary or not. And to be honest – maybe in the older books someone ranks PG as a contemporary piece, but in 2021 it is definitely not anymore. It is a standard mainstream repertoire.

      • Peter Pioneer @75 says:

        Actually you’ve just made a good point.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Basically he is right, but what he probably means is not ‘melody’ but expression coming across, which is the result of the interaction of many different elements of the music (not the plot). You can have a sensational plot and music which remains a mere bag of sound patters spilling from the pit, however loud and screaming. And you can have a plot with hardly anything happening, and music which, with strikingly economic means, hardly ever going beyond mezzo forte, creating an entire world of emotional engagement, like Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”. And there is only one short melody in that entire work, strictly speaking, the rest is a melodic parlando over undulating music.

    The problem of most ‘modern operas’ is one of idiom, and not of complexity (Wagner’s Parsifal, where people are chatting and explaining all the time, is musically very complex as is Tristan and the Ring). Recently, the Ring has been successfully performed in four separate seasons in Hong Kong in concert format, with a full house of Chinese people listening hours on end in stunned, concentrated silence; no problems with complexities. (Issued at Naxos with the HK Phil.)

  • guest says:

    Tabloid journalism reminiscent of fan mail, so gushing it should be embarrassing for both interviewer and interviewee, but apparently both are thick skinned. Kaufmann’s trivial contributions aren’t much better either. Truly subpar.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Music lovers who read SD are different from the average opera or concert attendee. We likely have a higher tolerance and appreciation for modern music; the average listener wants and needs those great tunes. The soaring arias of Puccini, Verdi and magnificent orchestral writing of Wagner is loved for good reason. The symphonic world has the same problem: there are a lot of works that have their first and last performance the same night; usually deservedly so. Is it any wonder that John Williams is more popular than any “serious” composer of opera or symphony today? The man can write tunes! So can the composers for Broadway. I haven’t forgotten that the opera world is littered with far more forgotten operas than those that have made it into the repertoire. But I have to wonder why modern composers don’t even try to write a good tune.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The question is too simple, and although there is an answer, that answer would not fit onto the SD website in spite of its space.

      ‘Tune’ is too restricting a term, better is: melodic writing that can take the listener along something moving from A to B etc. and ‘says’ something in relation to plot and character.

      If a truly (!) gifted composer, and meant is NOT a film music composer, would write something melodical, he would not be accepted by orchestras, opera houses, performers, all being afraid it would be fake or kitsch or conservative. The reason they make an exception for the unbearable kitsch film music of Williams, is because he is famous and lots of underdeveloped people like it, so they will bring-in cash.

      This is the reason that we don’t hear more of Nicolas Bacri whom I count among the very very few truly gifted contemporary composers courageous enough to break the mould:

      And then, consider that Bacri started-off as a brilliant supermodernist, being patted on the back by the French modern music establishment. He turned into a new tonalist after the confrontation with Scelci, a sound artist focussing on one single tone.

    • Kathleen E King says:

      Note: John Williams (NOT the guitarist) only ever wrote one “tune” with one orchestration, and he has marketed multiple times. Hear Williams? Hear that same tune, the same instrumentation and LOTS of trumpets and lots or percussion.

  • Couperin says:

    Look, can anyone seriously deny that he has a point? Who REALLY wants to keep something like Mazzoli’s Breaking The Waves or Muhly’s Marnie or Two Boys in the repertory?

    Even a clear masterpiece like Benjamin’s Written on Skin… What’s the long term projection on the life of this work?

    • John Borstlap says:

      AS long as there are small groups of masochistic establishment types who think it’s better to feed audiences exclusively with reflections of the most sordid elements of the modern world, these type of works have a future. But there should be space for alternatives, apart from those anaspeptic contrafibularities.

    • JB says:

      Why should singers only sing in operas with assured “long term protection of life” ? Opera history is full of forgotten works, which were often performed by the foremost singers of the day, and which may be unearthed one day or not. Who would have thought that obscure baroque operas would be played again after centuries of oblivion? One never knows.
      It is a pity that someone like Kaufmann does not put his weight behind some work of a living composer and prefers Christmas schmaltz instead.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Written on Skin has been quite widely performed in top-flight venues and continues to be so on smaller ones, but they’re not covered the way the original premiere and post-premiere surge was. It’s worked its way into the repertoire but most people lost interest after the initial furore. I love it, it’s incredible.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Here it is: early 20C expressionism, all over again, morbidity as a normal average, because we have to find new ways of moving the audience:

        If ‘old’ ways of moving audiences are still working, so much so that ‘old’ works are performed again and again and again, why do we HAVE to find new ways? is it inscribed in law? And what if there don’t exist any new way of moving audiences with comparable effect? Why, if a compsoer want to be expressive, the only style he can find is early 20C expressionism which paints everything in colours of morbidity and sordid despair? It is forced, ideological thinking, misunderstanding change as progress and thinking that modernity can only exist on the break with the past.

        As an expressionistic work, ‘Written on skin’ is a fine work, though, in terms of music.

  • Pebbles says:

    My understanding: Most of the modern operas ( and this is the case in every other discipline I guess) don’t have the potential to become classics. The question is how willingly audience and singer are to find out which of them have a chance.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Audiences would be willing, but singers would be very rare.

      It is also very discouraging. I heard from an excellent soprano, who was taking-over a role of the atonal, modernist opera [redacted] by terribel sound artist [redacted] and worked like hell to get the impossible role into her head. At the rehearsels, where [redacted] was present, she could not remember the precise notes of some passages and bluffed her way through, garbling whatever she felt would fit into the mess. Nobody noticed this, not even the composer who had his own score on his knees. After the performances where he was quite a success and everybody grateful she could save the production, she got quite depressed because – as she said: ‘All that effort, and me trying to get it all really right, and in the end you discover it makes no difference if you sing the wrong notes, why doing it at all?’ A lesson for composition students, I guess.

    • V.Lind says:

      Audiences are not necessarily unwilling. Some of the work of Debussy and Ravel must have been a radical switch from what they were “used to,” as well as Poulenc, and later Britten and others — all of whom have works that get performed.

      But let’s face it — a lot of what we get dished up these days does sound as if it is being experimented for experiment’s sake.

      The best of new music — not much of it opera — gets into repertoires, partly because it can be incorporated — tried out — in a concert that includes the more familiar. You can’t do that with opera.

      It is a very expensive stage, literally and metaphorically, to experiment on.

      If we look at art, where experiment has been part of the genre since time immemorial, ad which moved from the crude to the representational (with very individual approaches) to breaks from that through movements like impressionism and surrealism and expressionism to utterly abstract to outright iconoclasm, somehow some of it finds an audience. But in big galleries, where they doubtless track these things, I wonder how many people opt for the rooms with what are now deemed masters as opposed to those with squares of white canvas or dresses made of meat.

      And commercial galleries are smaller and can afford to take chances that a opera house cannot. Even small music ensembles can try out experimental music a little more affordably than a fullout staging of an opera.

      There are no perfect analogies, and art should not utterly depend on the changing tastes of “the market.”

      Once again, it begins with education: as fewer and fewer people are introduced early to the basic constructs of classical music, the less they are likely to respond to the attempts at the new by people who are among the few who want to try to take their art into new forms.

      And when an artist of Kaufman’s stature says he is not interested, it has to be considered an expert opinion. There are many who would not share his view and they will persevere — but there is considerable reason to question whether they do it out of a real taste for new music or for their own brand of iconoclasm (or sense of adventure).

      But new music is presented all to often as a virtual experiment, with audiences as guinea pigs — not a feeling most of us embrace.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Most operas of the 18th and 19th centuries also failed to become classics. We listen to the relatively few that did. Just as the audiences of past centuries had to do the work of sifting wheat from chaff, so do we: it’s our responsibility, as listeners, to the art form.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    Sadly, he’s mostly right. Since Peter Grimes in 1945 (or possibly the Rake’s Progress a few years later) what contemporary piece has really “permanently” entered the worldwide repertoire?

    • Ceasar Tejada says:

      c’mon Poulenc’s Carmelites…

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed, the Carmelites have steadily grown in status and the opera is now one of the most popular of the 20th century, in spite of its decapitated nuns.

    • V.Lind says:

      Nixon in China, Akhnaten, even Einstein on the Beach, get an airing occasionally. By larger companies.

      I like the sound of Il Postino, by Daniel Catan. It is apparently melodic!

  • sabrinensis says:

    He’s right and there are unknown modern operas that can easily satisfy Jonas’ broad requirements. Like these from Nicolas Flagello.

  • Susana Martínez Robbio says:

    Pienso que opinión de Jonas Kaufmann es absolutamente certera. Su palabra es autorizada. La sostiene su arte, la maravilla de su voz y las actuaciones soberbias que nos regala en cada oportunidad. Gracias, maestro!

  • Kathleen E King says:

    Kaufman is absolutely correct! Most “modern” or contemporary opera is simply not “opera” at all. Rare exception, oddly enough, was Ahknaten; perhaps because it by definition was mysterious and places one in a fantastic, sensual and spiritually enriching world. There ARE words to remember, not least of which, are “Open are the double doors of the Horizon. Unlocked are its bolts….” And, of course the immortal Hymn, circa 3350 years and counting. Stick by your guns, Mr. Kaufman, REAL music and good opera will prevail over this modern “woke” schlock.

  • Dollar mahler says:

    Well…nobody in the woke-brigade would ever admit it….but he’s kinda right…I know I would much rather pay hundreds of bucks for a ticket to see Tosca or La Boheme rather than something I’ve never heard of before and will not stick with me after I suffer through it…

  • Jason says:

    OK, well we won’t as you to sing in our operas then. That was easy.

  • mdesiderio says:

    Top candidate for the most over-rated, over-hyped tenor in several generations. Painful listening.

  • mdesiderio says:

    Top candidate for the most overrated, overhyped tenor in generations. Painful listening.

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    Modern composers only think of the intellectual response their music evokes, not the emotional one. The only emotion it usually arouses is annoyance.

  • Bloom says:

    Aribert Reimann’s “Lear” is an extraordinary opera. So is Samuel Barber s “Vanessa” (this one s got some really nice “tunes” btw. ). So is Henze s “The Bassarids”.Or Benjamin s “Lessons in Love and Violence”. Or this year, in Aix-en-Provence, Saariaho s “Innocence”.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      As is Reimann’s “Medea” and all the Henze I’ve managed to hear/see (about five of his operas).

      No one has mentioned John Adams. I’ve seen “Nixon in China” all over the US (Houston, NYC, Washington, LA), the Continent, and UK – even in rather small houses like Freiburg im Breisgau. Also a magnificent “Death of Klinghoffer” in Praha, at the Národní divadlo.

      I am old enough to remember when “Peter Grimes” was still considered “new” and “box office poison” at many big houses, even with Jon Vickers and Colin Davis. It takes audiences a long time to come to terms with anything which breaks their norms and expectations. While Britten has largely been ignored in Wien (until recent years, thanks mostly to Theater an der Wien), this season will see two new productions of “Death in Venice”, two revivals of “Peter Grimes”, and the Symphoniker did the “War Requiem” a few weeks ago.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The barrier with Britten at the time was the level of dissonance. Meanwhile, that obstacle has melted away. Now the barrier is musical meaninglessness.

        Recently the new opera by American/Chinese composer Bright Sheng: ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’, was a hughe success at San Francisco Opera, with music that sounds like a modern Puccini; it will be mounted again somewhere in the coming seasons. When composers leave behind sterile materialist thinking and bad taste, and dare to be seriously expressive again, they will regain credibility in opera.

  • David G says:

    Kaufmann is correct, with a few exceptions of course. I’m going to La Scala this summer to see Gioconda, which may have the most ridiculous libretto ever written. But it’s still a popular opera because of its brilliant music and captivating tunes. You can’t force the public to attend operas which may have relevant stories and intellectual music.

  • Michael P McGrath says:

    The man’s an intellectual giant! His benchmarks are “Game of Thrones,” Michael Jackson and Prince. Perhaps great singers should stick to performing and leave the cultural, political, musicological, and philosophical pronouncements – cherished Joyce DiDonato, please take note?

  • John Mason says:

    Does anyone know of a competition where newly written operas can be judged? I’ve written an opera with modern themes using a late 19th-century musical vocabulary – romantic, all the beautiful tuneful arias Jonas could desire (I say humbly), etc. I feel the entrenched musical establishment is interested only in intellectual music that doesn’t emotionally involve the audience. IMO the Emperor has no clothes here, but how do I find a producer sympathetic to my approach? Thanks.