Interview: Jonas Kaufmann on singing his first Cavaradossi in Tosca at Covent Garden

"I've been longing for this Cavaradossi for a long time, and now finally, for the first time, I get to sing it. It's one of those dreams come true."

7 May 2008

Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)Jonas Kaufmann is a rare breed of singer. Coming originally from Munich, he has avoided being type-cast and has a repertoire that ranges from Mozart to Wagner, encompassing many of the great French and Italian roles. This season at Covent Garden he's already impressed critics and audiences alike opposite Anna Netrebko in La traviata. His Don José in Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen (when it opened in 2006) received the kind of universal acclaim that's hard to come by in the opera world. He first made an impression at the Royal Opera House when he appeared opposite Angela Gheorghiu in Puccini's La Rondine and it's in the same composer's Tosca that he makes a role debut next week, as Mario Cavaradossi.

When we meet for our interview, I find Kaufmann laid-back and easy-going, and the conversation leads straight into Tosca. 'It's a beautiful production,' he enthuses, 'and one that, let's say, goes according to the original story, which makes it very easy to remember. It seems to be pretty easy in a positive way, not simple but not too interventionist.'

I ask specifically about the character of Cavaradossi and how he fits in with the other, flawed characters Kaufmann has played – Don Carlo, Don José and Alfredo in La Traviata. I put it to him that sometimes Scarpia, as the villain of the piece, can come across as the more interesting character, his attempted seduction of Tosca eliciting strange sympathy from the audience.

'I don't see it in this way. Of course Scarpia would love to have a relationship in this way with Tosca but I think he hasn't. It's an ongoing thing that he wants her, particularly in the sexual way. He's not an aristocrat, he's not well-educated, and therefore apart from my complaints that Tosca's jealous about everything and everybody, I think I really love her and I'm really confident that she's really with me. So it's not as though I have any doubts about the relationship or am jealous about her. Well, obviously, the whole trouble is caused by my doubts regarding her loyalty, but it's maybe just that I know her really well - that she can't keep secrets. The problems start just because I don't tell her what's going on and she's suspicious, and that's why it all ends tragically. I suppose the character's got more nobility than the others you mention: he's not as innocent, as foolish as Alfredo; not aggressively as passionate and driven as Don José. It's different, but only, I think, because he feels safe in the relationship with her and that's what allows him to keep calm.'

I mention our previous interview with Paolo Gavanelli, who will be playing Scarpia in this revival (the interview can be read here). In this interview, the baritone plays devil's advocate and talks about Scarpia as just doing his job, controlling Cavaradossi who is, after all a revolutionary. 'If Cavaradossi had been a really active revolutionary it would be different,' admits Kaufmann. 'He's obviously a sympathiser of the Napoleonic idea, of the revolutionary idea. As Scarpia says disrespectfully, he's reading Voltaire, but he's not active as such. It's not that he's in this group of people who want to overthrow the government. He feels sympathy for that idea, and it's through the coincidence that he meets Angelotti on his flight that he starts playing a more active role; that's why he suddenly needs to help.'

Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)Is he naïve to let himself get caught up in it all? 'No, I think it's a very clever plan. It would have worked. He has the house, the secret path that leads to the house, the hidden cave where Angelotti can stay and no-one will find him. It's a clever plan and a good idea, and if Tosca hadn't appeared and had the doubts after seeing Angelotti wearing women's clothes for his escape, the suspicion that there might be an affair with another girl, everything would have been pretty easy and smooth.' Is he undone by Tosca? 'More undone by himself and the fact that he doesn't tell her the truth from the start and say to her, "This is what's happening and please don't tell anyone". The moment he realises he should have told her, he doesn't have the chance: he just says in the second act, "quanto lo vedesti", so "whatever you have seen, don't say anything or you kill me" and she doesn't understand. She has an initial doubt and Scarpia feeds this as part of his attempt at making him more open to her. Maybe I disagree with that view of Scarpia but maybe you're right, we just see the opera from different angles. Let's put it this way, though: in this interpretation, Scarpia is definitely not well educated, he has no respect for art, for culture or anything apart from his own interests. After all, he's the tyrant, he's torturing the people.'

And how does Kaufmann assess the challenge of singing the role? 'Oh, it's just great, great music. You've been mentioning other parts – Don José, Don Carlo – which are beautiful to sing, but I've been longing for this Cavaradossi for a long time, and now finally, for the first time, I get to sing it. It's one of those dreams come true, because Tosca is such a beautiful opera. From the very first to the last note it is so rich, so...' Words fail him at this point. 'Aaaah! So great. And I'm very happy to be doing the first production in a relatively traditional, non-interventionist way; if you start in one of those turned-round productions where you can't follow the plot, it's very difficult to do it for the first time.'

Although Kaufmann has established an enviable reputation in French and Italian opera, he is also moving into the German repertory, having sung both Walter in Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, as well as Florestan in Fidelio (a role he reprises at the Paris Opera in the Autumn). He's already booked in to sing Lohengrin in Munich in September 2010. I ask him if he feels himself, as German tenor, being pulled inevitably towards the bigger Wagnerian roles, but he makes it clear that he never wants to be pigeon-holed in terms of his voice. 'Once you start singing this repertoire, once you step into the box called "Wagnerian tenor", especially if you're a German tenor and have a certain success in singing that, there's such a longing for those kind of voices that everybody wants to force you to accept almost only German repertory. I think this is a big mistake since you're losing a lot of your qualities if you concentrating only on this pretty heavy stuff. So I try to avoid that. I love Wagner, I have to say, I really like to sing Wagner, but I don't want to miss out on the others. I don't want to miss out Puccini or Verdi or the French composers.'

And Lohengrin and Walter are still roles in the Romantic tradition? 'Yes, I think even Wagner himself had the idea of an Italian-style singer performing his operas. He didn't agree at all with having Sprechgesang where it's more talking and speaking than singing, and where you're losing the lines and you're losing the warmth of the voice. Again I think it's a mistake and it can happen if you always force yourself to do the same things; the voice will not only get heavier but also less flexible and hard, and maybe less pretty, and I worry about losing those qualities. I should add that it's also not just a purely logical and practical thing to save the voice: I would simply miss the other things so much, like Cavaradossi. And there are so many other things to do, like Butterfly, which is coming soon. I can't name them all: everything up to Otello, so Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, many, many beautiful operas, and later maybe also Aida.'

So he sees himself going towards the heavier Verdi too? 'I see myself going towards the heavier roles but in all the repertories: the French, the German and the Italian. And I'll try to keep as much of the lighter things as possible in between, just to keep the voice in good shape, to keep its flexibility and to be able to sing Lied, which I adore. I don't want to miss out by screwing up or fooling about with the voice. The problem in our business is that you plan so far in advance; there are so many decisions you have to take now for things that come in six or seven years and it's ridiculous because you're not a machine or some sort of medium who can see the future. You're dealing with more human material and it's a good thing that we grow with the things we do, that we change slightly, develop, increase, Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)whatever you want to call it. But it's change, and sometimes you change in directions you don't expect and then you're screwed because you made the wrong decisions years and years before. Therefore, I hope that I've made the right decisions and that as far as I see now in my schedule, I'll keep all those things: I'll keep the Mozart and I'll keep the lighter Verdi but I can feel also that my voice is going in this direction. With the breaks in my hand I let it go but not maybe as fast as it wants to, or maybe as fast as the opera world wants it to.' I mention how the opera world is always longing for the perfect Tristan or Siegfried and he interjects, 'Or Otello. There's always a discussion about Otello. I've already had many offers for the role and it's difficult to say no because it's such a beautiful opera and such a great role, but…' he laughs. But there's plenty of time, I suggest. 'Exactly'.

I bring up the rumours that about him being involved in Les Troyens at Covent Garden in 2012, suggesting that the role of Enée in the Berlioz opera would tie in with his vocal game-plan. He reacts to the rumour with well-rehearsed evasion. 'I heard so,' he laughs, but goes on: 'Exactly, and in 2011, I'm going my first Siegmund [in Die Walküre] at the Met in New York. So yes, step by step, one after the other. But again, I try to avoid having too many heavy things at the same time, so it's one or two productions per year of this type and the rest is French or Italian repertoire. So I'm going to be debuting at the beginning of next year as Roméo [at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice], because I've never done it and I want to do it now because it's more than time to, and Werther will come in 2010 for the first time. So there are many other things of the not-too-heavy repertory that have to be done too.'

Obviously Kaufmann's versatility has given him the opportunity to pick and choose, but judging from our conversation, there's one role that is testing his resolve to be sensible with his voice. 'One of the very finest houses offered me Otello and I really struggled to decide whether or not I should do it. I said I need to do Trovatore and Ballo before. At least those two, and we're only talking about the Verdi repertory. There's not time to do that in the next four years so it just has to wait.' But it will come? 'It will come; the problem is not that I'm dreaming of things that will never come, the problem is different. I always compare it to the child in a candy store, where you see that and you want this and that and you can't do it at the same time without ending up with a stomach ache. So you have to be patient and you have to feel the joy of waiting for something beautiful to come: that's what I'm doing now, which is great.'

With such a wide repertory and no obvious desire to specialise in any particular area, I ask Kaufmann if he sees himself as an old-fashioned singer. He agrees but adds: 'Usually "old-fashioned" has this dash of not being really attractive, let's put it that way. I see it in this case as being very positive. In the singing tradition, in the singing technique, we – humanity – did much better in the past than we do now. If you listen to old recordings, to the old Italian traditions of singing, you can hear how solid their technique was, how much care they took and how they covered their voice in cotton wool just to protect it. You can hear that in the singing, that they really were careful. They got to the stage where they were able to sing everything. And now you're supposed to concentrate on something. Sometimes it's not your fault, let's say, tastes also change, which means today you don't want a Lohengrin to sound like a light Mozart singer, but there was a time where that was absolutely acceptable. Of course, if your voice is limited to a certain volume, you can't sing everything, you can only sing as much as you're actually allowed to without being covered by the orchestra. But if you have a voice that can get through the orchestra, even if it's the heavier one, for me it's a better choice to do everything - to do the lighter as well as the heavier things. That's better than just saying, "The heavy roles are my speciality, I can get through everything, just squeeze it out and let the turbo run every time," because that's not interesting. For me, it's not interesting. Sometimes now you hear voices, especially in the Wagnerian repertory, where there is no beauty in the voice, the voice is loud, the voice is digging through everything like a drill and you lose the musicality. You don't have the big phrases, you don't have the big bows, the intimacy. And it's really a pity.

Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)'For instance, when I did Parsifal for the first time, I'd never expected there to be so much piano in this piece because you always hear them,' here Kaufmann makes a straining, groaning sound, 'All the time. There are so many passages where a Lied voice is not only enough but is really needed, because it's written in a way – so soft, so intimate – that this sort of sound, this light sound is ideal. But of course, there are some points where you can't avoid singing really loud, so in Parsifal in the Second Act if you sing 'Amfortas! - Die wunde!' softly, you might as well sing it at home because no-one will hear you. But the ability, the flexibility to have both, is so important and so interesting to hear. By specialising you lose quality and you lose certain abilities. I've been doing this job for quite a while now and whenever I'm doing a new part I discover something new; I always find some new colour, phrasing, something technical, whatever it is, and I add that to the collection of possible varieties and I can use it in other interpretations. Even with things I've already done many times I think, "Oh well, why don't you do that like this, why don't you try this sound in there?" And that also helps you to keep it interesting for yourself, because if just you keep doing the same things it's such a stupidity, it's easy to fall into routine, which then can't transmit as many emotions.'

And that's the whole point of live performance - that you have these option to call upon each time? 'Exactly. But sometimes you hear singers who, when they repeat three recitals in a row, sing every phrase in the same way: every tempo is the same, even the gestures are the same. I like to be able to choose spontaneously, and that's the main reason I do recitals: I'm the boss and I can decide and choose spontaneously to do this piano or to do an accelerando here. I don't want to miss out on that. It's a way of interpretation that you need in the singing world because you usually always have an orchestra with you, and with an orchestra you can't be that flexible. You have to agree that you're not alone and even the best conductor, like Tony Pappano here, who's so great and follows you so much, it all has to be done within limits. Even he isn't able suddenly to go into double tempo or to introduce a sudden piano where the orchestra's always played forte. He can go "sh! sh!", but fifty percent won't look at him because they don't expect him to do that. So, more or less, you have to do the same. Of course you can do some rubato and there are sometimes little details you can do differently but it's limited. Whereas in a recital you can do everything you want.'

Kaufmann first came to the attention of a wider audience away from opera with his Gramophone Award-winning disc of Lieder by Richard Strauss. Is song always going to be an essential part of his work? 'Definitely. First of all, I really would miss it and it would also be a mistake because you're using part of your voice that you would probably never use in an opera performance: because of the orchestra you wouldn't be heard, but with a piano you can do different things. I'm not saying that you're using a different voice for Lied singing. I remember when I did Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. He wrote it first of all with piano accompaniment. And it's really difficult to play, which is why it's not done very often, but I've been doing it with Violeta Urmana (whom we interviewed here) – who has a really large voice – and people were upset that we were singing it so loud. But I'd say, "I'm sorry, but if Mahler, a quite intelligent composer, writes ffff, he wants it loud!"' And he wasn't writing for small voices at the time, I point out. 'Exactly, they'd go from Pamina to Brünnhilde, everything was possible. And I've a lot of respect for a lot of Lied singers, but I think it's a mistake to use a completely different voice. You can use part of your voice, you can do a piano if you can do it, that's almost impossible on the opera stage.'

And the same is true when specialising on the big operatic roles? 'Exactly, then you can't go back down. But there are parts of Parsifal, as I've said, like the "Karfreitagszauber" in the Third Act, "Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön". Or "Parigi, o cara" from La traviata, where there's nothing in the orchestra, it's all so soft, you can whisper and everybody can hear. And you should. You should do it as softly as possible. Because it's a very intimate moment when he creates this dream for her to forget that she's about to die; he's not singing that to the audience, he's just singing it to her, and that's why I always love to sing it very softly. But if you don't do the Lieder you're not experienced enough, maybe, to use this part of your voice at the opera. So, all those different styles, all those musical parts, they all come together to bring out the full range of the voice, and I think it's healthy to do that. If you only always stick to the same thing it's not good. Like a motor, if you're only driving in town it's not good, nor is it if you only drive on the motorway, it's the variety that keeps the engine alive.' Of course with the Strauss, I point out, there are plenty of chances to sing out, too. 'Exactly, they're like operatic arias but they also have intimate moments.'

This brings us on to Kaufmann's most recent disc, Romantic Aria, the first product of an exclusive contract with Decca. The disc was extremely well received and features Kaufmann in several of the roles he's performed on stage. I ask about his plans with the label and whether or not they include, at this stage, complete operas. 'Yes and no' he answers. 'We haven't agreed 100% to complete operas but I'm sure we will. We're concentrating now to find recording possibilities for more solo albums. Now after the mixed album we're looking at ones specialising on the subjects like Italian, French, German, maybe verismo, maybe Mozart - stuff which is becoming more and more difficult to find time for, unfortunately, the more and more people are involved. I'm doing a Butterfly with Angela Gheorghiu and Tony Pappano this summer, but it's not with Decca but with EMI. The agreement is older than my exclusive contract. Yes, there are plans, though, and I'm hoping to record several things because as much as I like this life performing, at the end you realise that this form of art is a very instant thing. It only lives on in people's memories. You perform, and the performance is over and it's gone, so recording is the only chance to keep it alive.'

So he sees it as important to be recorded for posterity? 'Yes, it may be selfish, but you wish that something might stay. For a painter or a sculptor, whatever they create is there for ever. With us singers, though, everything goes except the recordings. Of course I know people now who say, "I've seen these famous singers live" and they can say, "This phrase he did like this or that," but still it's not the same as if they'd done a recording and I have it there to listen to myself. It's the only part of a career that stays and it would be great to do more, and I think we will.' These are difficult times for the record companies, though. 'Yes, but they're also difficult times for me because I started this more or less now in a phase of my career where I'm already so busy performing all over the world that it's really hard to squeeze out some more time. It's already at a limit, and I have a family - and I like to see them occasionally!' he laughs. 'So it's really difficult, and frustrating sometimes too when you realise that you'd love to record much more and both sides – me and the record company - agree that it would be a good thing to do.' He lets out a sigh at this, a dilemma that most singers can only dream of. 'But I just can't find the time. I've got plenty more years, though!'

Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)I return to his references to older singers and mention his well-documented admiration of Fritz Wunderlich. Does he himself listen to recordings of other singers? 'I have to confess, now, for instance, that I've been listening to a recording that was released here at the Royal Opera House [on the ROH Heritage label] with Zinka Milanov and the debut of Franco Corelli at Covent Garden, with Guelfi as Scarpia, which is incredibly good. You can talk about the tastefulness of holding some notes forever but it's really, really impressive. There are some great moments but you can hear it's live, because sometimes they screw up, which is good because you can really feel that it's live. You can listen to it and it's almost like a movie. I had a friend who told me she loved a recording with Domingo, Sherill Milnes and Leontyne Price, which is a great recording. But if you listen to the live recording it's like' - he acts scared - 'ah, ah, God! She's going to kill him! It's so, so…' It's the difference between a well-polished product of a recording studio and a warts-and-all record of a thrilling live event, I suggest. 'Exactly. I remember that Claudio Abbado said he hates recording in the studio now - he always wants to make a live recording and then maybe go to the studio to edit parts if something really terrible happened. I can totally understand that, because you can feel so much more atmosphere in a live recording. And I bought that Tosca on purpose also because Corelli was, I think, thirty-four or thirty-six when he sang that here. I'm thirty-eight now, and I was interested to hear how he did it. Again, some things are "no-goes" these days, but other things are still great, even to our modern ears.

'Talking about Fritz Wunderlich, there are so many things I adore about him and he recorded lots of things, it's just the repertory I'm doing now he didn't sing or record most of it so I can't say I'm studying that. What I admire, though, is a basic thing, especially with Wunderlich, about how you express emotions. It's about how there can be a direct link between your diaphragm and the gut of the audience, so that people can have a real connection with your emotions. Wunderlich was perfect with that - whether it was joy or sadness or frustration – and that's really unique.'

Talkng of Wunderlich brings us back to an area in which his recorded legacy is probably richest: Lieder. I ask if Kaufmann too has plans for recording Lieder with Decca. 'Yes, we definitely want Lieder, that's something we agree on and we already have cycles and things in mind. I thought it would be much easier because it's just with my pianist, but I still need to have the time. It will take a while, but we have three or four albums in mind and we plan over the next three or four years to record several Lied albums. So it's not over with the recording of Lieder now that I've signed with Decca. Actually, that was not only my idea, it's not as if I forced them or convinced them to agree to it - they had the same feeling too.'

I ask there are any cycles in particular, but Kaufmann's answer studiously avoids any definite statements. 'There are some that can wait even if I've sung them often. An example is Winterreise, which is something I've been performing, not excessively like some. I mean, I always have the comparison with Herman Prey, whom my pianist Helmut Deutsch worked with for several years. He would do one recital tour in just Germany with 36 recitals, one day after another performing only Winterreise, so you can imagine how many of those he sang! I've done maybe ten or twelve now, but it's something that still can grow and the older you get, the more experienced, not only vocally but in terms of life-experience. For instance, with Die Schöne Müllerin you have to be young because the guy's really innocent: vocally younger and more flexible, more light, less sadness. In Winterreise the story's over and you start suffering from the first song, whereas in Müllerin the first half is positive before it starts going down. I think this must be a young man because he's much more naïve, and falls into this trap as a result. We tried to divide them into what's really essential to do now and what can be done in five or six years, and this is a cycle that needs to be recorded earlier rather than later.'

Kaufmann's own song recitals are relatively rare events so I ask if this is a conscious decision or simply dictated by a full operatic schedule. 'Lieder tours are impossible to do now, there just aren't the opportunities any more. They don't sell as well as opera and therefore many producers struggle to put very many recitals together. Of course here in the Wigmore Hall there's a pretty solid Lied cycle, but even in Vienna they've had to cut down and Munich just doesn't have it any more. There's one in Carnegie Hall in New York, but there there's just a few. Then there are the festivals, but they're only over a short period so it's impossible to do a Lied tour like they used to. I mean, they [Prey and Deutsch] did a tour of North America going to many, many cities and Japan, they were crazy about it there. That's pretty much over now, I think.'

Jonas Kaufmann (Photo: Decca/Uli Webber)Does he think more people have shifted towards opera, or has the audience just dwindled? 'No, I have the impression that it's just disappeared. Opera is powerful because it has more glamorous stars who are better-known, whereas Lied singers are now specialised. Herman Prey, also, wasn't only famous for his Lieder but for being Figaro in Barbiere, Wolfram in Tannhäuser and so many other parts as well. He performed so much opera at the same time and was one of those all-round artists. Like Brigitte Fassbaender or Christa Ludwig, all those famous singers that were also very famous Lied singers. Maybe Fischer-Dieskau is an exception because he was much more famous for his song recitals than he was for opera. But almost all the others you have in mind for thirty or forty years ago were opera singers who were great Lied singers, but they did both.'

Does he see the fact that there are now so many Lied specialists as having resulted in their audiences being more specialised but smaller? 'Exactly, that's it. I think it's a mistake, because they're so specialised and they're so concentrated on that that they lose the wider context.

Media attention is always particularly fierce when it comes to tenors, with fickle commentators always keen to find the natural heir to the famous 'Three'. I ask Kaufmann whether he feels any of this media pressure but his answer is typically relaxed and straightforward and he comes across, again, as neither egotistical nor falsely modest. 'I don't think there's a special gap. There aren't that many tenors of a certain level nowadays. Well, there are maybe more tenors who are well known than there were when it was only those three, but even then there were also many others. Now it's more spread out, there are not only one or two or three. The categorisation, the new successor, of whomever, I'm not really interested in. If I did have to choose anybody I'd say probably Placido. Because of the three, Domingo was the one with the widest, still has, the widest repertory. He's sung Wagner, he's sung French and Italian repertory and if there's no classical German or French song, the Zarzuela is also a very soft and intimate way of singing. So that's maybe the closest but I think it's a big mistake to think of yourself as the next 'X' or 'Y'; you are you, and I'm the first Kaufmann and not the second Pavarotti or Wunderlich or whoever. And for us who are doing the job now on this level there's enough work, so there's no competition. It's not like I wish Rolando [Villazon] bad luck for whatever, or he for me. We joke around and he said to me once "Ja, ja, you should do more Wagnerian stuff" and I said, "It's ok, I'll stick with it all". But that's only joking and especially for tenors, luckily for us, there aren't that many so we're not competitors but friendly colleagues. It's not like with some other repertories and voice types where there are so many that they really have to fight against one another.'

I point out the fact that Villazon will be Don Carlo in the Royal Opera's new production of the work this summer and that Kaufmann is rumoured to be singing in the production's first revival. 'Someone even sent me an article in a British opera magazine with the rumour that I was even going to do this run because Rolando was cancelling because he had to cancel a production in New York! I don't see that as a competition or challenge, though, whoever did the production before, in this case it's Rolando. It's no secret that I'm doing the revival. Which is fine. I've done Carlo before and I love this part. It's like Marcelo Alvarez did the revival of Carmen here which I did the first run of, so what? He's Marcelo, he does his own thing, you've always got to bring your own character to it and not imitate anyone else who was in the production. And that's what I'm doing in Tosca, I'm trying to create my own Cavaradossi - within the limits, of course, of this production.'

Finally I ask how Kaufmann will want to look back on his career. His main concern seems to be that he will know when to stop. 'Everybody has to stop singing at some point. Several other young singers I studied with and I, we have an agreement that we'd tell one another when it's time to go. Because we had several occasions when we saw the older generation of singers - who we adored - make fools out of themselves by singing in very bad condition just because they couldn't give up, they needed it. And I can totally understand that. Therefore we said we'd be honest with one another and say, "OK, that's really enough now". Although I hope I will be able to decide myself.'

By Hugo Shirley

Jonas Kaufmann stars as Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from Monday 12 May 2008.

Read our interview with Paolo Gavanelli, who will play Scarpia in the same production, here.