Jonas Kaufmann, book review

Henschel Verlag, 2010

“Meinen die wirklich mich ?” (Do they really mean me ? “) is the false humble title of this very recent book on tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Well, he is probably correct. If one reads certain postings on operatic fora with more than an average number of crazies (Opera-l for instance), one almost thinks Caruso, Gigli, Bergonzi all combined in one are reborn. For this reviewer who has always desperately asked himself how a tenor with a beefy sound like Vickers could get such acclaim (even by people who never saw him in the flesh), Kaufmann once more poses a problem. Not that Kaufmann is not a better singer. He definitely is; but a better tenor ? The critic in the biggest Dutch daily wrote of his Lohengrin in the recent ratty production at Bayreuth: “if you like your tenor to be a baritone, Kaufmann is your first choice” and added that he simply did not understand the standing ovation for the singer at the end of the performance (he would greatly have preferred Klaus Florian Vogt). So I’m not the only one who doesn’t quite get the fuzz. Let me however admit that the burnished Kaufmann sound is very apt for the German repertoire. There is no more exciting singer around for Fidelio or Walküre but it is in the Italian and French repertoire which the singer in his own words likes best that he cannot really compete with his great predecessors though he is always musical and stylish. An intelligent singer like Kaufmann knows the history of singing and admits listening a lot to older singers. His two great heroes are Fritz Wunderlich for the German repertoire and Franco Corelli for the Italian operas. The book ends at the recording sessions of an album of verismo arias with Eva Maria Westbroek which will appear later in the year of next year. So doesn’t this book come too early as his great international career is rather short ? No, it doesn’t. Everyone liking opera and being able to read German should read it or otherwise insist on an English translation.

The book (only 176 pages) starts a little bit lamely and tamely with the usual pages on pa and ma, Germany in the seventies and the tenor’s different schools (he got a classic education, Greek and Latin included, and is thus representative for the famous “Bildung” that is now even in Germany rapidly disappearing). But then the red meat arrives. Theoretically the well known German critic Thomas Voigt has written it but the real author is Kaufmann himself as the book mostly consists of a very long interview with the tenor and his wife. Though Kaufmann probably doesn’t tell it all, he is forwardly enough to give us a clear and often scathing view of nowadays operatic life in all its aspects. Take for instance his opinion on the famous German Musikhochschule where he got two lessons a week of 45 minutes of singing. Aspiring singers moreover were forbidden to take private lessons. Most however did and Kaufmann clearly gives all due to his real teacher Michael Rhode, a former pupil of Giuseppe De Luca. So most singers come totally unprepared to the harsh life they will meet. They have prepared a role for six months in school and then are asked to learn a role in a few days time. They often haven’t an idea of their own voices. The interviews become hilarious (or sad) when he tells in great details the troubles singers meet, the downright ugliness, the stupidity by managers and directors  when a young singer starts a career. Kaufmann too admits that he nearly despaired and knows a lot of young and promising singers who simply gave up. Not that things brighten up a lot after he slowly makes an impression. He tells us of Giorgio Strehler who thought Kaufmann with all his 27 years of age far too old to sing Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte. Strehler wanted singers of… 20 years, then accepted the age limit of 25 and finally had to settle for the “veteran” tenor Kaufmann. Take Riccardo Muti who at Kaufmanns audition at La Scala asks him to sing the aria van Beethoven supposedly wrote for Jacquino. The tenor is dumb struck for a moment with such monumental lack of knowledge by the conductor. And then there is the big question of Regie-Theater. Kaufmann hates it (first carefully worded but later very clear) when a director thinks of a singer as just a puppet who has nothing to tell and must only follow orders. He admits there have been several productions where he put his mind on zero and just did what was asked of him. But it says a lot about the inflated egos of theatre managers and of directors that one of the few leading tenors of the day doesn’t want to be called “difficult” (his own words) too many times as this inevitably shortens or even kills one’s career. These are the pages too when Mrs. Kaufmann (a former mezzo) cries out her disgust for the crooks of Regie-Theater and for the weak-kneed theatre bosses who have taken over most opera houses and think it politically correct to admire the horribly expensive nonsense. It is clear she tells us what the tenor really thinks. In short the book is a realistic (and sometimes devastating) description of nowadays opera performances and should be obligatory reading for every star struck youngster that still dreams of an operatic career. The book leaves us with the somewhat sad conclusion that the lack of great singers is not only due to the disinterest of youth for classical music but also that anybody with a meaning of his/her own, with a few pounds too many and with a personal and voluminous voice (which Kaufmann to his own luck originally did not have) is not welcome in a world of sharks, morons and con men. The book has a lot of interesting photographs, a good index and a few comments on the singer in the worst tradition of hagiography by his colleagues. But at the same time the doyen of German critics Jürgen Kesting is allowed to speak his mind on the tenor’s first album (Italian and French arias) which he doesn’t like very much and to advise the tenor on a number of vocal weaknesses he should remedy (the lack of mezza voce; the brusque transition from forte to pianissimo like Vickers though Kaufmann is not such an irritating crooner). It says a lot about the tenor’s intellectual curiosity and honesty that he had no problems with these pages. Highly recommended.

Jan Neckers