A profile of the star tenor about to make his debut with Opera Australia in August.

The first visit to Australia by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is one of the most anticipated events in this yearʼs performing arts calendar. Widely regarded as the finest tenor in the world today, Kaufmann, at 44, is in his prime.

Many operatic tenors have enjoyed highly successful careers based largely on the brilliance of their vocal technique alone. The ability of these singers to inhabit a character and act a role is sometimes quite limited. For Kaufmann, who has the typical curiosity and creative instinct of a born actor, it is the most natural thing in the world. He believes passionately that opera is, above all, a theatrical art in which the drama is conveyed by a singer-actor.

The journey to the heart and soul of a character fascinates him and gives his vocal and dramatic performances a resounding authenticity and emotional impact . As he says: “If you donʼt act based on the feelings you have it will never be real and it will never touch the audience.” No director could ever ask this artist to “go deeper!” Richard Eyre, the former Director of the National Theatre in London, a man more used to working with actors than singers, has recently spoken of how rewarding it was to work with the tenor in a production of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Kaufmann, a thoughtful and articulate man, shows all the signs of being a successful opera director himself should he wish to take that up later in his career.

Throughout the history of opera there have always been artists, like Kaufmann, who have had the talent and ability to blend the vocal and dramatic arts to maximum effect. Artists like Maria Callas, perhaps the greatest singer-actress of the last century, immediately come to mind. Plácido Domingoʼs long and ongoing career, also provides an outstanding example of the singer-actor. His Otello in the Zeffirelli film of the Verdi opera is one of the finest portrayals of the character to be seen in any medium, according to John Bell, one of Australiaʼs finest Shakespearean actor-directors.

Artists like Callas, Domingo and Kaufmann bring the operatic art form to its highest level of achievement and produce a complete and emotionally satisfying experience, sometimes even a transformative one, for both artist and audience. Domingo has spoken of losing himself so much in the character of Otello that he has quite often forgotten about the huge technical challenges there are in actually singing the role. There is an increasing demand nowadays,from audiences and critics alike, for opera singers to look and act more like the characters they portray and no doubt this demand will enrich and strengthen the art form in the future.

As a young singer, Kaufmannʼs voice was relatively light – light enough for Mozartian repertoire – but there were obviously some shortcomings in his training, and in his own approach, because he soon found himself in the middle of a vocal crisis and was in danger of losing his voice, his confidence, and maybe even his career. He was rescued by an American vocal coach, Michael Rhodes, who encouraged him to relax and stop trying so hard; to find his own natural voice and to trust his instrument. After his work with Rhodes, and with further experience and maturity, his voice took on a darker, deeper and warmer quality which gave it added versatility and range.

He no longer sounds like a typical tenor though he can ring out the thrilling top notes with the best of them and can summon incredible energy and vocal power when he needs it. At other times he is capable of the most affecting mezza voce and pianissimo singing imaginable. One of the most beautifully sung and acted examples of this is his performance of the Flower Song from Carmen. At moments like these Kaufmann has the ability to break your heart in a single aria. His vocal technique is now so secure that he can bring forth great emotion without losing control of the vocal line, though it is likely that it would not bother him at all if he did lose a little control,as his priority is to give a performance which touches the emotions of the audience.

Vocal versatility has given him access to an unusually wide range of the Italian and French operatic repertoire as well as some of the big Wagnerian roles. Few tenors have been able to range so successfully over such a wide and varied repertoire. The one role that Opera House managements want him to undertake is Otello. Kaufmann himself is just as keen but he will not perform it until he he thinks he is ready. He sees it as one of the most complex and interesting roles in the entire operatic repertoire. It is also, he thinks, the most demanding and dangerous; a risky high wire act both emotionally and technically. It may prove to be the one role that will stand above all the others when the assessment of his career is written in operatic history. He has already recorded two arias from Otello and indications are that it wonʼt be too long before he is seen in the full opera, on stage. Vocally the recorded excerpts are stunning; the impact of his future peformance in the theatre can well be imagined.

Kaufmann is committed to keeping alive the Lieder or solo form of recital, believing it to be the purest, most intimate and direct expression of feeling, through the vocal art. It is also, perhaps, the most exposed and challenging area of performance as whole worlds of differing emotions, vocal colours and dynamics have to be created by voice and piano only, throughout an entire eveningʼs programme. All of this taps into Kaufmannʼs strengths and provides him with rich opportunities. He also loves the idea that the act of singing – like dance and acting – uses the body itself as its primary instrument. In singing, there is nothing in between the source of the emotion and the delivery of the sound.

In his recitals in Australia Kaufmann will sing with a full orchestra but audiences will not have the benefit of seeing him in his natural habitat which is in a fully staged opera, in the theatre. However, according to the conductor Antonio Pappano who worked with the tenor on a recent album of verismo arias, Kaufmann can create his own artistic environment wherever he is; even in the relatively sterile context of a recording studio: “When he sings, the whole recording studio is instantly transformed into a stage. He doesnʼt just sing notes; he acts with his voice. When you hear him, you have the whole scene in full detail before your eyes.”

As good as it will be to see Kaufmann here in a solo performance, the hope is that Opera Australia will be able to present him as a guest artist in one of its productions, a highly challenging task given the extent of his international commitments in the years ahead. There could be some hope. Artists like Kaufmann donʼt generally come to Australia at this stage in their careers, so his acceptance of Opera Australiaʼs offer for this concert tour is encouraging.

Kaufmann has been a star of the opera world since his breakthrough performances as Alfredo in La Traviata at the Metropolitian Opera in 2006. He has gathered many superlatives for his performances since then, and won several international awards. His fame is growing apace, though he has not yet achieved the kind of widespread recognition among the general public that Pavarotti and others have managed to find for themselves in the past. He would probably have to sing at the World Cup or the Olympics to achieve that! Nevertheless, given his talent, charisma and good looks, a crossover into a more popular stardom could be his for the asking if the right opportunity presented itself at some time in the future. For the moment, there is no sign that this holds any particular attraction for him. He is, by instinct and inclination, an artist of the theatre; one of the most complete of his generation.

Jonas Kaufmann sings in Sydney on August 10 and 17 and Melbourne on August 14.

Photography Credits
Article cover: J. Kaufmann/G. Hohenberg
1. Jonas Kaufmann © Lena Wunderlich
2. Jonas Kaufmann with Anja Kampe in Fidelio at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
3. Jonas Kaufmann with Anja Harteros in La forza del destino at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
4. Jonas Kaufmann with Anja Harteros in Il trovatore at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich