Arriving early at the Stage Door of The Royal Opera House, there can be no mistaking the clarion tenor voice echoing from the loudspeakers - I take a peek at the monitor and witness the last few minutes of a stage rehearsal of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, it looks great but sounds even better which is not surprising really as the unmistakable tenor voice belongs to Jonas Kaufmann, one of, if not the world’s most sought-after operatic tenors.
He is about to make his role debut as Maurizio in David McVicar’s highly anticipated new staging of Cilea’s melodrama which has not been seen at Covent Garden since 1906 and with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, who incidentally also sounds ravishing in rehearsal, these Autumn performances have proved to be the hottest operatic ticket of the season so far, and it’s not hard to see why.
Once Jonas has changed out of costume and make up and we start talking, he is charming, forthcoming and like many opera singers I’ve spoken to never initially set out to have a career as an opera singer although grew up in a household where classical music was an important part of his childhood: “ My parents and grandparents loved classical music so I started listening at home, then I began playing the piano and went to everything that was going on culturally in Munich - concerts, the opera and theatre and I always loved singing but never thought I would become an opera singer. I thought that I would never give up singing, but now I have the perfect combination as I can combine my hobby and my profession and make some money from it.”
When I ask where the grounding to get to where he is today came from, he puts it down to the fact that he “did it the right way. I chose the right roles; my foot was never on the throttle. You can never jump into certain repertory without being prepared, as building a career in opera takes various steps of heaviness. You can’t start with Otello then go back to other roles which are ‘below’ it. Like building a house, you need to start at the bottom and build a solid base – it’s very logical but not easy to achieve. I took decisions not to take on roles that would have pushed me into the limelight earlier as I wasn’t ready. You need a solid base and experience to sustain the pressure as everyone is observing you, there’s almost a super-heroic expectation of you which is very difficult to fulfil but at the end of the day we are all human. As you gain in experience you are able to prepare, pace yourself and live with pressure, and that enables you to make sensible decisions.”
When you take a glance at the roles he has sung throughout his career you can see how his decisions have indeed been sensible. His progression from the Mozart tenor roles and the smaller role of Cassio in Otello through to the heavier roles of Don Jose in Carmen, Alfredo in La Traviata, and Don Carlos has been a steady one and in recent years he has added Puccini’s Rodolfo and Cavaradossi to his repertoire and given that he has also sung the roles of Walther, Parsifal and Lohengrin to huge critical acclaim make him pretty much unique in that he is equally at home in the Italian, French and German repertoire.
One might have expected being Munich born and bred that the Bavarian State Opera would have become his operatic home but despite being given a few small roles during Sir Peter Jonas’ time as Intendant, offers for bigger roles were not forthcoming. Jonas is at a loss to explain why: “I sang three performances in Munich during Peter Jonas’ 15 years in charge, but since Nikolaus Bachler took over I have sung 24 performances from May 2009 until now.” There’s no hint of bitterness or resentment on his part but Munich’s loss was Zurich’s gain as he became part of the company in 2001 and over the years made many notable role debuts for the company including Parsifal and Don Carlos.
In a career that has seen many highpoints Jonas counts his Metropolitan Opera debut as Alfredo in La Traviata opposite Angela Gheorghiu as a milestone in his career. “As a young singer you dream of singing at the Met, so this was important personally to me but equally it was important for my career as I found out that all the major opera houses in Europe would treat me differently once I appeared at the Met.” He also counts his Bayreuth debut as Lohengrin as one of his career defining moments as he sees it as recognition of his talents that he was worthy to sing Wagner in Wagner’s own theatre.
He also cites The Royal Opera House as one of his favourite houses. He is full of praise for all the staff “who really make you feel welcome. They treat people really nicely and make you want to come back”, and although we may have to wait to hear him in the German repertoire we’re lucky that he has chosen to make his role debut as Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur with the company. He is astounded that the work has not been performed here since 1906 and he can’t praise the work or the cast, conductor (Sir Mark Elder) and production team too highly. “It’s a beautiful piece, lovely music and really, really, really great. The story is good too – it’s not one of those crappy storylines like Ernani for example where you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. And the production has been brilliantly realised by David and his crew, so I think it’s going to be a huge success.”
He can’t be pushed on his future plans at Covent Garden although he is appearing as Enée in Les Troyens next season and says there will be more “gorgeous, yummy Italian parts” and when I ask if we’re going to hear him in a Wagner role he replies, “Yes – I think so. We haven’t finalised anything yet but I really hope we can find the time to do it.” On the horizon is Andrea Chénier and he also wants to sing Otello, Tristan, and Tannhäuser but not for at least another five years. Fingers crossed he’ll sing all of them at Covent Garden. The prospect is mouth-watering.
Jonas Kaufmann sings the role of Maurizio in The Royal Opera’s new production of Adriana Lecouvreur which opens on 18 November.