Skytalk: Jonas Kaufmann
© Tanja Kernweiss

Opera’s not everything

  • PHOTOS TANJA KERNWEISS
  • INTERVIEW RÜDIGER STURM

Does a world-class ­tenor have a life outside Milan’s La Scala or the New York Met? Jonas Kaufmann on pop music, coughing and the work-life-balance.

Mr. Kaufmann, your new album doesn’t just include works by the great classical composers but also operetta melodies from Vienna by Johann Strauss, Robert Stolz and Ralph Benatzky … It’s an unexpected choice.

My earlier albums have often been “Best of” compilations, but I’m no longer such a fan of that approach. These days, rather than cherry picking from the repertoire, I prefer to concentrate on one thing and present it in more depth. This way, I get a chance to feature things that may be less mainstream but nevertheless fit into the overall picture. And Viennese music has always been very important to me.

Is it difficult to come up with an album that has a brand-new twist?

Coming up with new things is quite difficult, it’s true. However, there are many avenues that I have only just touched on so far, but which I still intend to explore.

Is there any chance of you moving into the area of pop music and explore something more recent?

I’m not opposed to the idea at all, it’s just that my voice is my strong point, and the further you go into the realm of pop music, the less repertoire there is for a strong voice. My grandparents would have said: It’s always just about rhythm! Sure, I could do pop music, but why would I? It would have to make sense to me. Chansons are still very melodious, but after that, it gets difficult. The vocal challenges become much more limited.

This year, you were forced to cancel some of your performances because you damaged your vocal chords by coughing something up that you had choked on.

Of course, I don’t want to lose my voice and never be able to regain it. If I’m careless and don’t treat it well, my voice will lose its quality. Things have worked out for me very well so far. I had a problem a couple of years ago, but my voice improved again of its own accord when I allowed it plenty of time to heal.

Skytalk: Jonas Kaufmann

Work-life balance: Jonas Kaufmann makes a point of getting it right

© Tanja Kernweiss
Skytalk: Jonas Kaufmann
© Tanja Kernweiss

You’ve turned 50 this year – an age that is considered to be a turning point in a singer’s career.

People used to say that one’s voice had reached its peak by the age of 50, but things have changed quite a bit since then. For one, people now live longer and feel themselves to be younger. Plácido Domingo is over 80 and he still performs. So it doesn’t really look like this magic line actually still exists. I definitely do not intend to start changing my behavior and taking any unnecessary precautions in preparation for old age. But I also don’t intend to squeeze my schedule so full that I no longer find the time to enjoy life.

Your calendar doesn’t currently look like you’ve allowed yourself much free time.

That’s true, but then again, it isn’t. The periods between performances become a little bit longer every year. On the other hand, the temptations are numerous. Who wants to give up something incredibly promising in exchange for a little more free time? There are instances when I go against my own principles and take things on even though I’ve decided to slow down. Then again, I’ve come to appreciate my free time more and more. If you stop experiencing things because you’re always so caught up in your work, you lose the ability to express yourself. I need to gather experiences outside the world of music in order to be able to interpret music. This has always been my guiding approach.

What about negative experiences? Don’t they interfere with a musician’s performance?

I never had any problem with that. The moment I go on stage I forget everything else around me – even if disaster has just struck moments before. I never take my anger or any other negative emotion with me on stage. Rather, I give myself up entirely to my performance. Everything comes tumbling down around me afterwards, of course. It’s a temporary act of repression, but for me, it works very well.

The political stage is currently teeming with tense moments. Does opera exist to shut that out as well?

I’m quite aware that opera tends to represent a world in which none of this exists, but that is a good thing. Audiences expect us to whisk them away to another world. It’s no coincidence that entertainment really blossomed during the 1920s when things were very tough economically. And look at the enormous success enjoyed by the TV show Game of Thrones. Twenty years ago, we would have laughed at the thought of getting all het up about a story set in the Middle Ages. But today, we happily turn to such worlds to escape our everyday problems. And in a way, that’s also the role and distinct capability of opera.

Skytalk: Jonas Kaufmann
© Tanja Kernweiss

I’m a political person. But when I interpret opera, politics is not my main concern

Jonas Kaufmann, opera singer

Is that what staging opera is all about? Providing an escape route from the here and now?

It’s important for opera to be modernized, but if we do it in a way that is only provocative or even offensive, we destroy its main purpose, which is to entertain. It’s quite possible to emphasize the social criticism contained in operas like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Beethoven’s Fidelio without putting people off. I’m a political person, but when I interpret opera, politics is not my main concern.

Does opera still function as entertainment? Young people in search of entertainment tend to head straight for YouTube these days…

Oh, this assumption about opera, that its audiences are all elderly, has been around for about 50 years.

Isn’t it true, then?

Let’s put it this way: When you’re older, you have more time and a better financial situation. If you’re passionate about opera and would love nothing better than to attend performances in New York, Paris and Milan, it gets expensive. On the other hand, we’ve seen the arrival several years ago of live performances being screened in cinemas as well as live streaming, which is attractive for young people. Again and again, we see youngsters who are only 15 or 16 succumb to the opera virus in such a way that they can think about nothing else. But the world of opera will change. Germany is the country with the most opera houses worldwide, and these will have to consolidate. In other words: Smaller opera houses will join up, create an ensemble and perform at various different venues. Only the five or six biggest opera houses will be able to continue as always without running into difficulties selling tickets.

Your two eldest children are teenagers now. Would they be interested in opera if their father weren’t an opera star?

Whether or not I’m an active musician is not so important. What’s important is to give children the opportunity to see
opera. My children might even have shown more interest if
opera had only been a hobby. For them, it’s what their father does. My children like music and will obediently attend my performances or rehearsals, but I think they mainly do it to please me and to demonstrate that they don’t entirely and utterly reject what I am doing.