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In conversation with Jonas Kaufmann

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 16 January 2013 | 11:30:00 am

Jonas Kaufmann on his Wagner album

In conversation with Thomas Voigt

What images do you associate with Richard Wagner’s music?

Most vividly of all, an intimate scene from my childhood: my grandfather sitting at the piano and playing Wagner. He was a true Wagnerian, who had vocal scores of all Wagner’s operas, and when he played from them he sang all the parts, from Hagen to Brünnhilde. As we lived in the same house, Wagner’s music was more or less part of my daily routine. I grew up with this music. I was fascinated by leafing through my grandfather’s vocal scores. These were lovingly produced editions, beautifully illustrated with old stage designs and a summary of the leitmotifs. Getting to know the magic of Wagner’s music this way was fun. The path from there to my first Wagner performance as a soloist, of course, was a long one, but my enthusiasm hasn’t diminished over all the years. On the contrary, the more often I’m involved with this music, the more I love it.
Wagner partly related these texts by Mathilde Wesendonck to himself, especially the following lines from “Im Treibhaus”: 
"Well I know, poor plant,
we share the same fate:
though bathed in light and splendour,
our home is not here! " 
That is precisely Wagner’s situation in his Swiss exile. Objectively things were going well for him, yet he didn’t feel at home. Doesn’t that lend itself to being sung by a man?

What were your criteria in choosing the pieces for this Wagner album?

The basic idea was to present a survey of Wagner’s development as a composer, beginning with Die Feen. This appealed to me because it was the first Wagner opera I performed in, as the youngest member of an additional chorus at Munich’s Gärtnerplatz Theatre. But after listening to Die Feen again, I scrapped that idea and decided to start with Rienzi.

From Rienzi to Siegfried — that’s a long distance, not just in Wagner’s composing career but also in a singer’s development.

Quite true. It spans an incredible range of styles. Rienzi’s prayer is constructed like a classical Italian aria — a singer needs to work out a conception of this music in order to bring it to life. Siegfried’s music is in a completely different style, like recitative throughout: instead of arioso and legato, mainly parlando. It has to sound as natural as spoken language, which is not be confused with what George Bernard Shaw branded the “Bayreuth bark”. This parlando must always emerge from the music, as though there were a single giant legato slur over the text. That doesn’t reveal itself at first glance. You really have to come to grips with the piece first.

Strictly speaking, the album contains only two pieces that you’ve already sung live: the “Sword Monologue” from Die Walküre and “Am stillen Herd” from Die Meistersinger.

Everything else was new territory for me — even the “Grail Narration” from Lohengrin, because we’ve recorded the complete version with two stanzas. There’s a beautiful old record of it with Franz Völker from 1936. Although I can understand why Wagner cut the second stanza at the last moment — he was apparently afraid it would have a detrimental effect on the audience’s concentration — I still think it’s a pity to leave it out. First of all, it explains an important part of the action, and, secondly, it is really beautiful music. That alone justifies including the “original version” in this album.

Up to now, you’ve only done Die Meistersinger in a concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival. Why not on stage after all this time?

That’s just the way it is in life: when I had the time, there wasn’t a suitable production, and vice versa. But the piece is at the very top of my “to do” list, and the first stage production is sure to come along soon. I can already hear a couple of critics muttering: after a heavy part like Siegmund, can he still muster the lightness for Stolzing? I could counter them by pointing out that after my first Siegmund, my next part at the Met was Faust. And since that went very well, I’m not fretting over Stolzing.

While we’re on the subject of vocal demands made on singers: what distinguishes a part like Siegmund from Stolzing or Lohengrin?

Most of all the low tessitura. Siegmund lies almost entirely in the baritone range, which is why even some baritones coveted the role — most notably Ramón Vinay. His vocal resources extended from bass-baritone to Heldentenor, and he took full advantage of that. What makes the part especially difficult is that high-lying phrases keep coming in after long stretches in the baritone range. And the first act calls for everything. It takes a lot of energy to keep up the tension through all the narrations in recitative style and the “duet” with Sieglinde.

On this occasion you haven’t selected “Winterstürme”, the role’s popular highlight, but instead the “Sword Monologue”.

This monologue contains much more of what characterises Siegmund — his suffering, his struggles, his hope for a better life. Another incentive was, of course, the “Wälse” outcry. The standard for this was set by Lauritz Melchior, especially in his live recordings from the Met. His calls of “Wälse” are endlessly long and endlessly big — extremely impressive for any listener and a special challenge for any singer coming after him.

How was your first experience with Tannhäuser?

Surprisingly good! Being a rather cautious singer, I’ve so far turned down all offers to sing the part on stage. For that reason, I wasn’t sure at first about whether I should record the “Rome Narration”. But the longer I worked on the piece, the more I found that it was vocally a much closer fit than I’d imagined. And so it turned out that the one piece I had worried about initially was my biggest treat at the sessions. This upswing from depression and despair all the way to the ecstasy of the orgiastic Venus music is just as exciting to me as a singer as it is to me as a listener. After this experience, Tannhäuser has moved way up on my wish list.

There’s a surprising bonus on this album: the Wesendonck-Lieder, designated by Wagner “for female voice”.

In the text there isn’t a single indication of the gender of the “narrator” — just the opposite of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben and Schubert’s Winterreise. And now that men have recorded Frauenliebe and women Winterreise, it should not seem sacrilegious for a man to sing the Wesendonck-Lieder; in fact, Wagner partly related these texts by Mathilde Wesendonck to himself, especially the following lines from “Im Treibhaus”:

Well I know, poor plant,
we share the same fate:
though bathed in light and splendour,
our home is not here!

That is precisely Wagner’s situation in his Swiss exile. Objectively things were going well for him, yet he didn’t feel at home. Doesn’t that lend itself to being sung by a man?

Jonas Kaufmann, Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper of Berlin — has this combination ever happened “live”?

No, it was our first collaboration, and I hope it won’t be the last. It went brilliantly. We understood each other without a lot of explanations. It was the first time that I’ve ever made an opera album with an orchestra that performs opera every day. That isn’t meant in any way to belittle the achievement of the previous orchestras — God forbid! — but there is a big difference between having to explain the dramatic context before starting work on an aria and, for example, when the musicians can play the “Rome Narration” from Act Three of Tannhäuser already knowing what happens in the first two acts. We were in “stage mode” from the very first note, and that helped incredibly. I was also extremely positively surprised by the acoustics in the broadcast studio of the old East Berlin radio building. It’s a long way out, between Treptow and Köpenick, but the fantastic acoustics are worth every metre of the taxi ride. Not as dry as most studios and not as reverberant as an empty concert hall, this is concert-hall acoustics without audience noise but with studio quality — an ideal combination. I very much hope this hall will still be around for a long time and that I can continue to record there often.

Kaufmann's new album "Wagner",  will receive its international release on the DECCA label, February 2013. Full details - including detailed track listing, can be found here:  Kaufmann: Wagner