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When Jonas Kaufmann made a triumphal return to the opera stage in January after a long lay off with throat troubles, it was as Lohengrin on the massive Bastille stage of the Paris Opera. The huge production – which first debuted at La Scala in 2012 – featured enormous sets and choruses but, perhaps more notably, in yet another marker of how far the staging of opera has moved from the days of the ‘singing sofa’, the world’s greatest tenor sang one of the most haunting moments in the opera, Mein lieber schwan, lying in a foetal position, facing the back of the stage – and it worked.
When Kaufmann returns to the Sydney Opera House to perform Parsifal in August – and for what could be the last time we see him here – the dynamics will be very different. We will not just have moved from Richard Wagner’s middle period to his final opera, or from the story of Lohengrin to the story of his father Parsifal, but to a concert performance of an epic five-hour opera.
Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Photo © Ken Howard
The man frequently described as the greatest tenor in the world contemplated those differences when he sat down to talk to Limelight at length earlier this year, backstage at the Bastille, fresh from his triumphal return in Lohengrin. Bounding into the room full of energy and enthusiasm, he engages thoughtfully in a survey of his recent career travails, all things Wagner, and the transitory nature of performance. He happily breaks the strict time limit put on our interview by his publicity team, and things only really wind up when the equally renowned bass René Pape – who is playing the King in Lohengrin – comes in wanting some decisions from Kaufmann about which pastries they are going to indulge in for afternoon tea.
To Kaufmann, performing Parsifal in concert format hardly matters, given the material he will be working with: an opera which he says is probably the perfect one. “I mean every chord, every bar is just placed in the right place, time and moment,” he tells me. “At the time, Wagner was very interested in different religions and the idea was to do an opera on each of those – an astonishingly wide look from him compared to the other strange thoughts that he had!”
But do we lose anything by watching a semi-staged production? Kaufmann doesn’t think so. “The music is so descriptive. You see all the images without seeing anything. So I don’t feel at all that it could be a problem and I’m very much looking forward to it. Honestly, there is not much action in Parsifal. I mean, I probably could describe in less than ten sentences all the action that happens on stage in those five hours... because there’s nothing. It’s the ritual…The kiss is the one thing that is missing if you don’t have any contact with Kundry.”
Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini agrees, saying Parsifal is “some of the most sublime music ever created by a human being. You become so absorbed you don’t want to be distracted... The kiss is obviously one of the most sublime moments in the opera. It’s really up to Jonas and Michelle [DeYoung, the American mezzo-soprano who will sing Kundry] if they do.”
Jonas Kaufmann with Tomasz Konieczny in Lohengrin at Opéra national de Paris in 2017. Photo © Monika Rittershaus
Parsifal is a role Kaufmann enjoys. “There’s a big development between the three acts which is kind of fun because most of times you don’t have that in Wagnerian parts. There’s usually not so much of the change throughout an evening,” he says. “But here you have this super innocent, fresh, young guy that doesn’t care, that doesn’t know any rules, any society and it’s just fun for this first act to just be super straightforward. This idea – to go on this mission and see what happens and ‘maybe I can succeed’ – this naivety makes it easy for him to enter the castle and ultimately face Kundry. It’s difficult then to have this moment of the kiss of knowledge... all the data is suddenly there – it’s a very interesting moment.”
“The last time I did it was in New York in this spectacular production at the Met. I described it as this transcendent journey and it was. Being on stage you were carried away and you had no sense about time and location or anything. When I looked at it later – I watched the DVD – I only realised how super slow everything was. I had no clue! I didn’t feel it at all. It felt just perfect! And it was, probably!” he says, laughing.
I am talking to Kaufmann as he finishes his run in Lohengrin in late January. By the time he takes the stage at Bennelong Point, he will have debuted in Otello at Covent Garden, sung La Forza del Destino and Andrea Chénier in Munich, and Tosca in Vienna. In March, he announced that he is going to largely restrict himself to European stages to minimise his time away from his family (to the deep chagrin of the New York Met given his withdrawal from their highly anticipated new Tosca, which is a centrepiece of the 2017/18 season). So Australians can count themselves doubly lucky that he is coming to Sydney for Parsifal.
The demands of Lohengrin and Parsifal on a singer are very different. In comparison with the gradual development of Parsifal’s character, in Lohengrin “the tricky thing is probably all this on and off,” says Kaufmann. “You have a chunk of the First Act, then you have a long gap. You have a chunk in the end of the Second Act and it’s not easy. I mean you don’t sing much but what you sing... it’s never something mediocre! It’s something heroic – ‘pa pump um pah!’ – then suddenly ‘hmmm’,” he says making soft singing noises. “You don’t have any time to warm up.”
Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal at the Met. Photo © Ken Howard
Coming back to the same production, does his view of a character like Lohengrin change? “It does. It changes constantly I would say. There is always something to add, always another level and another angle that suddenly you discover. When you do a role too often or in too short a time there is no time to mature and to digest. You just duplicate. You over and over repeat the same thing. If you have a gap of a year or two then come back, it’s a different story.”
He likes the Claus Guth production in which he has just sung Lohengrin. “I had some difficulties [at first] because the problem is at the beginning – you play this fragile person and at the same time sing so heroically. It’s tough to bring the two together. The idea is that he doesn’t know himself, or isn’t quite sure how he ended up coming there and just has bits and pieces in his memory left... He’s all the time reacting, thinking, ‘oh God, is it really true?’, ‘is it magic? It is only in Act Three, once everything seems to be smooth and he remembers everything – my personal opinion is he remembers because he’s actually showing off to Elsa – and this is the big mistake.”
Kaufmann’s extraordinary versatility across the German, Italian and French repertoire means he doesn’t necessarily return to roles as often as he might otherwise. So does the fact that he may only sing any particular part on stage 20 or 30 times in his career increase the sense of the transitoriness of the performance?
“This is one of the advantages when you try to keep your schedule as versatile as possible. Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know how many times I will sing it again. I don’t recall how many times I’ve done it so far. I would estimate maybe around about 25 or 30 shows? But you are right, each of those is precious and, especially if you have the right ingredients, you can be as satisfied as the audience by just being able to perform it in this environment.”
There is also a constant demand for Kaufmann to move into other repertoire, and that must ultimately mean having to give up some roles in order to take on others. “Lohengrin certainly not. I just spoke last night about the possibility to maybe do a Magic Flute again. I mean, there are parts that I will probably never touch again: Così Fan Tutte? Stuff like that, or the whole Rossini repertoire. But Lohengrin…”
For Kaufmann, it’s not just scheduling, but also if a part is so demanding it could “ultimately change your instrument so radically that unfortunately you turn around and you realise that some other parts have become impossible.”
“I always tried in my career so far to open new doors without closing the ones behind and it worked very well… but the advantage is that I’m in the luxurious position of having convinced opera directors and managers to let me have a career in the Italian, French and German repertory, and not only concentrate on one of those, which usually is the case. ” In fact, he argues, “the versatility in the repertoire helps me to keep the flexibility in the voice.”
Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal at the Met. Photo © Ken Howard
Of course, the big Wagnerian question for Kaufmann now is when he will take on Tristan und Isolde. He announced earlier this year that he would begin what he tells me is the path to the full opera, a concert version of Act Two with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Many tenors before have done the thing – and I will do it as well – of singing a concert of the Second Act of Tristan first,” he says. “Act One – I don’t want to say it is non-existent, but it’s really not much. Act Two is a beautiful endless love duet more on the lyrical side than on the super-hard heroic side. Act Three is just crazy. It’s long, long, long and no one can help you there. So Act Two is a good start. I think this is one I will have to start earlier to learn and think about because it’s psychologically a very interestingly put together text.”
“In general, I have a very good memory so learning is usually not an issue. It comes very natural and very fast. Also, absorbing the information is very easy. For instance, when we talk about Otello now, learning the part is not the point,” he says. “It’s much easier to find an appropriate interpretation once you have the ingredients – when you have a partner and when you are on stage. If you have mastered it vocally you can follow your instincts as an actor and it makes it much more vivid and alive than if you would come up with a plan and try to follow the theory.”
“When you read a line from a Verdi opera, and you are good enough in Italian, you know immediately what it means and what the intention is – and maybe you even read between the lines what it ultimately means. But if you read a Wagnerian text as a German, I guarantee you read it a second and a third time before you get an idea of what he actually wants to tell you! Not every line, obviously. And Lohengrin is an exception. It is a super-straightforward text.”
“But in the Ring, for instance, the constructions that he makes – sentences that never end, words that Wagner created himself in order to describe things where he believed there was no word, or where all the words that would be appropriate didn’t fit into his rhyme! It is sometimes really tough even as a German to fully understand what he means.”
So, with all his current success, why tackle the Everest that is Tristan? “There are so many parts that I have done already – like this Parsifal – that I don’t do often enough and I ask myself sometimes – only because I am capable of doing these things – do I really have to do them all? Because it would be such an easy out to do [only] what you’ve done so far and it’s good for the voice. But it is those challenges that also keep me alive and keep me fresh and focused.”
Jonas Kaufmann sings three concert performances of Parsifal with Opera Australia at Sydney Opera House from August 9 – 14.
Kaufmann's new CD of French operatic arias is released on Sony in September.