Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Exploring Artists: Jonas Kaufmann

I owe Jonas Kaufmann an apology.  Anyone who has been following my blog from the start knows that, in the past, I have not been kind.  When I first heard him, I did not like him at all.  And it wasn't the depth or darkness of his voice.  After all, I much prefer the darker tenor voices to the bright, sunny, cheerful-sounding ones.  I would gladly listen to Domingo (my all-time favorite tenor) over Pavarotti (who I avoid in any role that isn't the Duke of Mantua) any day of the week.  Among the newer generation of tenors, I favor those who have followed in Domingo's footsteps, and greatly appreciate the voices that have baritone qualities.  So it was not the depth of his voice, although it did take me some time to become convinced that Kaufmann was not just a baritone trying to sing tenor roles.  No, I thought his voice was somewhat muffled, as if he had something in his mouth.  It may be that I had just found all the wrong YouTube videos, but there you have it.  I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what it was that everyone saw in him.

Then last month I went to see Tosca from the Royal Opera House at Cinema Paradiso, a lovely local art-house theater.  I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by him, but I wasn't expecting too much.  I was going because I love Tosca, and because I was excited to see Bryn Terfel as Scarpia.  I was really anticipating nothing more than a tolerable performance from Kaufmann.  Harsh, I know, but there you have it.  So when I did finally see his Cavaradossi, I was caught completely off guard.  Not only did he sing the role very well, (second only to Domingo among all the Marios I have seen and heard,) he could ACT!  I mean, really act.  He seemed to really understand what the character was all about, and then adeptly conveyed that understanding to the audience.
After I saw that performance, I decided I was willing to give Kaufmann another chance.  However, I approached his music slowly, and with some trepidation.  And, while some of what I found did not impress me, a lot of it really did.  I discovered that, although some roles really don't suit him (at least in my opinion), when he sings the right characters, he really is an exceptional singer.  His voice has all the color of a baritone, yet he deftly handles the range of a tenor.  This combination helps him provide a certain depth of character that is often missing from the tenor roles.

Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich in 1969.  While he studied piano and sang in the school choir as a child, he very nearly became a mathematician.  However, he realized after a couple of semesters that he would never be happy with such a career choice.  So he began his vocal training at  the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich, and upon graduation he signed a contract with the State Theatre in Saarbrücken.  It was during that time that he began to have trouble with his voice, but under the instruction of Michael Rhodes, he learned to sing more easily by simply using his natural tone.

In the intervening years, Jonas Kaufmann has sung a wide variety of roles, from Rossini's Almaviva (this, I can't even imagine!) to some of the great Verdi and Puccini parts.  He recently sang Siegmund at the Met, and has been applauded as an outstanding interpreter of Wagner's works.  He is currently appearing, once again, on the stage of the Met, singing the title role in Gounod's Faust.

Jonas Kaufmann evokes strong reactions from opera lovers everywhere.  People either love him or hate him.  He is variably called the greatest tenor alive or a baritone in tenor's clothes.  There's not a whole lot of middle ground where he is concerned.  I used to be part of the group of people who strongly dislike him.  But my opinion is changing.  While he is still not my very favorite tenor in the world, (as I have said before, that spot will always be reserved for Domingo) I am beginning to develop an appreciation for his voice that grows every time I hear him.  In a few short weeks, I have done a (somewhat) complete about-face.  Whereas once I wondered what people saw in him, I now have come to enjoy his rich, dark voice.  In time, I may become one of his die-hard fans.  Then again, I may not.  In the meantime, though, I plan on savoring his voice for its unique tones.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to my new recording of Madama Butterfly, starring Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton!


  1. How could you dislike any singer when your opinion was based on you tubes and videos? How can you even form an opinion without having heard him in a live performance or a recording? Those of us who have for some time now considered Kaufmann the "greatest" have been listening to his performances in opera houses in the US and Europe, and maybe it is time for you do the same if you want to be a blogger whose opinion matters to anyone... which I assume does matter a lot to you....
    Buy a ticket to New York and go see Faust if you still can!
    Or better, go hear him in Walkure next spring! THEN you can opine ....

  2. Oh, dear! It seems the point of this discussion was completely missed! I thought I made it clear that, after listening to more of his work, I am, in fact, liking him more and more. But you bring up an interesting point. Can we, as opera lovers, only form opinions of those singers whom we have been fortunate enough to see live? Are our opinions invalid if we do not have access to specific live performances, even with all the opportunities to hear and see recordings of those performances? I will be the first to agree that nothing is quite the same as a live performance, but if I can't just buy a ticket to New York, shall I just throw up my hands up in defeat? After all, how many of us today have actually heard Callas live? Or Bastianini? Or Caruso? Can we not have opinions about them?

  3. Loved this so much I am back for another view. You are so right about Jonas's voice and I think that's why I ADORE his voice so much above any of the other younger tenors around today, it does seem to have so much more depth and colour to it than any of the others and his acting abilities do shine out. For me who can only afford when I'm going to opera house to sit up in "the gods" distantly removed from the stage, my opinion, for what it's worth, is that cinema screenings are better, far better to get the full interpretation from a singer/role. So looking forward to more from your fabulous blog! Keep up the great work!

  4. I did not mean that you should not have an opinion if you are not able to go to live performances, and I also mentioned RECORDINGS (of which are many out there, including gorgeous Strauss and Schubert recital CDs). What I objected to was your "not having been kind" attitude. I don't think one can draw conclusions - specially negative ones - based on You Tube viewings, and pontificate to anyone who will read your blog (which I haven't until this one) about how much and why you dislike a voice.
    If you chose to be an arbiter of voices in public, reserve your opinion until you have a full picture of what you are criticizing.
    Happy holidays!

  5. It is unfortunate that your first viewing of this blog has left you with a negative impression. One of the recurring themes here is discovery, whether it be introducing opera to new audiences, or discovering new artists, operas, and venues. One of the messages I was trying to convey with this, aside from discussing a voice that I DO actually like now, is the importance of being able to recognize that first impressions are not always correct, and the value of giving things another chance. Perhaps I could have been clearer that, while videos were my first introduction to him, they were not the only thing I had access to. I have been listening to other recordings, and have recently purchased his Romantic Arias and Versimo Arias CDs, as well as the recording of Madama Butterfly he made with Angela Gheorghiu. As I stated at the beginning of this discussion, I have come to very much enjoy this man's voice, as well as to admire his dramatic abilities, and I look forward to future opportunities to write glowing reviews of his work.
    Happy holidays to you, too!

  6. Well, I am glad you are now among the converted...May he give you — and all of us opera lovers — many many years of wonderful singing!!!

  7. Happy for you that you finally appreciate the Jonas Kaufmann's voice. I discover him in january 2010 on tv in Werther and since this day I follow him the more I can in theaters in Europa.I can recommand you a very good site about him "Jonas Kaufmann unofficial web site" and enjoy...

  8. No I think opinions about singers have to be made by watching them live on stage. The stage-presence is a very important point in the today socalled "Regie-Theater".
    But besides that: I love your blog, great! I'm also a big opera and music lover, and I write a blog a about culture, opera, music and my other passion: fashion.
    If you are interested in watching opera, you shouldn't miss my post today, the bavarian State opera munich is making live-streaming in january of the operas l'elisir d'amore and don carlo (and here you can see Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlos!). I put all the links on my site if you are interested!
    xxx Anita

  9. Anita, you make a very good point about stage presence. There is a certain something that can't quite be captured on film. And thank you for the compliment! Now that the kids are back in school and life starts to return to normal, I will definitely visit your blog! I would love to see Jonas Kaufmann sing Don Carlo. I have heard some snippets, and he seems very suited for the role! Thanks for the info!

  10. Loved your post! That is what opera is to me in a way too, a voyage of continuous discovery :-) And it is a matter of taste, so we can all like and dislike as our hearts and ears dictate to us :-) And if you are up to more Kaufmann i'd say give that Werther DVD a try, i don't think you will regret it. And maybe the Carmen from the ROH to, but i think if i personally had to choose just one of his recordings, even though that Tosca is indeed excellent, i would choose Werther :-) And if you happen to like it, then try seeing him live sometime, voices sometimes "feel" different when you hear them live.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful blog..i love opera..keep it up regards and have a good one!

  12. I found your journey an interesting one, though I think that your initial instincts about JK were correct: his attempt to sing bel canto is especially misplaced--his mezza voce is odd, to say the least, and he has no squillo. You were right in your original assessment of his "muffled" sound.

    I find JK a tenor for those who don't really like tenors.