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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann: The All-Purpose Voice

Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich, in 1969. He started his musical studies as a piano student while still a small child. He began vocal training at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich when he was 20, singing small roles at the Bavarian State Opera at the same time. He ran into vocal problems as a young singer, but had the good fortune to make friends with an American baritone, Michael Rhodes, who showed him a proper way to sing, and Kaufmann responded quickly and successfully to Rhodes' suggestions. His professional debut was in 1994 in Saarbrüken, and he was very soon invited to sing throughout Germany. International debuts followed in quick succession, and a major career soon blossomed for him. Because he is so well known and actively singing, there is no need to speak much of his career, since such information is easily obtained. In this case, we may go directly to a discussion of the artistry.

The most amazing thing about this popular and successful tenor is that he sings an extraordinarily wide repertoire, from Mozart to Wagner, and all the bread and butter spinto roles in between! This is most unusual, and made possible to a large extent by his vocal technique, which is essentially Italian. In the past, German trained tenors were often accused of throaty and muscular singing, a phenomenon almost certainly related to the German language. Most operas performed in Germany are performed in German, and that has implications for vocal production. Kaufmann, on the other hand, sings in a dark and covered way reminiscent of Domingo, and—even more—Giuseppe Giacomini. Kaufmann is basically a spinto tenor, and this has opened the whole range of popular Italian operas to him. Other German singers have managed the Mozart/Wagner leap, but fewer have, in the process, shone in the Verdi/Puccini middle. Here is an example of Kaufmann in a very light and lyrical piece from Così Fan Tutte, a repertoire more characteristically inhabited by lyric and leggiero tenors:

This is absolutely impeccable singing! It is beautiful, the line is there, the Italian is perfect, and the performance, as I see and hear it, is flawless. Yes, the voice is darker than one usually expects in this aria, but so what? I have always contended that sub-categories of voice genres are ultimately a bit silly. How about "tenor." It works for me!

As I say, the Mozart singer who can also sing Wagner is a known phenomenon in Germany, but here is what is much more unusual, and the main thing that marks Kaufmann as almost unique; his ability to sing the Verdi repertoire in Italian. This video, of  "La donna è mobile," is unfortunately somewhat out of synch, vocally, so bear with it please. It is worth it to hear the singing:

I honestly think that is nothing short of spectacular. To me it sounds essentially like Domingo, Corelli, or Carreras in his youth. It is a quintessential Italian spinto sound, and a remarkably good one at that. It is solid, it is convincing, and it is consistent all the way up to the B natural. The best and simplest way I can describe the Kaufmann phenomenon is that he is a great German tenor who sings like an Italian! And boy, does that ever cover a mile of territory in terms of repertoire!

Finally, Wagner. Here is a sample of his Sigmund, against the mighty voice of Deborah Voight:

I feel Wagner would have been pleased to have tenors who could sing like this. He is known to have wanted his tenors trained in Italy when possible, and this is why. Domingo has successfully sung Sigmund, at the Met, not all that long ago, to great acclaim. This is first rate singing, and I do not believe it can be faulted.

Finally, I think a word needs to be said about all the silly criticism that seems to abound on Youtube about this great German tenor. Most of it has no meaning. There is one thing that I very much like about opera, and that is that it is a "bottom-line" art form. Opera audiences are not stupid or undiscriminating. Any person (who is not a millionaire) who lays down the money required to see a performance at the Met, La Scala, or Covent Garden, is in love with opera, and expects to see the best. If they don't, they will get very vocal about it, very quickly. A singer who can appear week after week on the stages of great houses, in different countries, and find acceptance, even acclaim, is—in this day and age—a great singer by definition. There is simply no way to survive otherwise. Kaufmann has done this. He sings all over the world, in the world's great houses, in the wide repertoire we have spoken about, and almost always to acclaim. For me, that says it all.


corax said...

thank you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

It is a pleasure my friend! Nice to hear from you!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you! I've heard him on several occasions, and he is simply spectacular! Thank you!!!!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Rob. Yes, I hold to my final point. That many fans can't be wrong! Thanks for the comment, much appreciated.

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, he is quite good. His "La Donna e mobile" seems very heavy to me. Perhaps I have been listening to too much Gigli.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Mr. Hobbes, as always. I know what you mean, but I think it is simply from hearing tenors with more decidedly lyric voices sing it. Although, of course, Caruso brought considerable weight to the role, as did many of the spinto tenors who sang it. Whether or not he would care to make a steady diet of roles like the Duke is, of course, another matter. Getting through the beginning of the second act, with "Parmi veder le lagrime" could start to tell after while. Sustaining a high tessature might be the acid test of just how versatile he is, because Wagner, while it is sustained, is up and down, with a lot of singing in the middle. Thanks for the comment!

DanPloy said...

For once, Edmund, I think I have to disagree with you.

I am not sure about your comment that the masses cannot be wrong. The most popular newspaper in the UK is the Sun and the US voted Bush in for 8 years.

To be honest, I found his voice without personality. If I close my eyes can I recognise him from other 'good but ordinary' tenors. I am not sure I can. In the La Donna e Mobile he did the things he had to do but the last note was not 'ringing' or held particularly long, he softened the note towards the end but not with any particular beauty and he smiled without having any particular joy in his voice. (I have no objection to singers taking liberties during events such as this - although maybe this is a tad too far :-)

So he did everything right but I can immediately think of ten other versions I would rather hear; (although I don't think any of the singers are still alive!).

G. Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Thank you for this article Edmund. It is true, his stage Italian, close to as good as Tucker's, is impressive for a German singer.

These comments about Duca interest me. Rigoletto is a such a popular opera it makes Duca seem easy, but it is in fact a difficult role for even naturally higher voices like Peerce or Pavarotti.

As usual, Edmund, your intelligence serves you to refer to Duca as a complement, not the core, of his repertoire.

Another superb article, a pleasure to read. Thank you Edmund.

But again Edmund, you hit the truth of the matter when you

Verdiwagnerite said...

Excellent presentation. I have not heard him live - only what is available on Youtube (I live in hope).
I saw the Met HD broadcast of Die Walkure - he was a very convincing Siegmund, I thought. He has good stage presence, too. Let's hope he has a solid career and doesn't overdue it too soon.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate. I appreciate your comment. Yes, he is still reasonably young, and the danger is that he could push a bit too hard, too often, and we know where that can lead. Let's hope he doesn't fall into the trap that so many others have fallen into! thanks again!

Edmund St. Austell said...

For G. Fiurezi-Maragioglio. Thank you very much, my friend. You make good points, as usual. Yes, he would be well advised to take great care with roles like Il Duca. He can do them now, it appears, but they are full of pitfalls. Questa o quella is easy enough, La donna e mobile is easy enough if one has the B, but arias like Parmi veder le lagrime are a minefield. So many tenors die on that aria, which is so difficult. It's like the very end of Lucia, when Edgardo, after singing the entire opera, finds himself hammering away at "O! bel' alma innamorata, bel al-ma in-na-mor a-ta....!! I've heard more than one tenor screaming by that point, in a supposedly bel canto opera, so yes, great care indeed with the "lyric" roles! Thanks again for your comment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Dan Ploy

You disagree with great elegance and knowledge, my friend, and that is more than ok! :-)

Your points are good ones, and I both respect and understand them. Yes, I knew the La donna e mobile would raise eyebrows. It is unusual, certainly, for a tenor whom many consider a Wagnerian, to sing Il Duca. I wanted to stress the rather extraordinary range of his repertoire. You may well be right about that; perhaps it is not something he will wish to dwell on. Bush and there's a thought:-) I guess my hope would be that most opera goers were a tad more refined in their taste, but.....well......I don't know:-) Thanks for your comment, it's a good one; very reasonable.

kati said...

I have followed Kaufmann's career closely since his debut with Traviata at the MET, always worried that he was taking on too much too soon but admiring every new role he took on, and all my concerns were washed away when he triumphed as Siegmund last year. He is obviously a singer of great intelligence who knows exactly what he can and cannot undertake. I am not a singer and my understanding of what makes a singer be able to go from heldentenor to light lyric roles and back is limited, but knowing that singers like Alfredo Kraus never moved beyond the lyric French roles, and Pavarotti barely managed Radames, it is amazing to me that Kaufmann moves with such ease from Siegmund and Lohengrin to Faust and Des Grieux. I am very grateful for what he has given me and look forward to much more.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kati, for a very well written and interesting comment! You go right to the heart of the matter. What the future may hold is unknown, but at the moment he is quite a remarkable singer, for all the reasons you point out. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

This is Aaron from youtube, Edmund. I agree in general that Kaufmann is an excellent spinto (I knew you would classify him correctly!) who has performed a wide range of repertoire. I think your Cosi clip is a little misleading because he cannot sing like that now. He has changed his technique since then to be much darker and heavier, so it is not representative. Perhaps a clip from a more recent recital where he sang Dies Bildnis would have been more fair?

The La Donna is a better example, he still sounds like that today as he is singing Wagner. Overall I thought that was excellent singing. A few vowel issues and pitch issues, but it's a fast aria (taken slowly there, though) for a larger voice. However, the amplification annoyed me. That microphone was definitely not "for recording purposes only". It is much easier to show dynamic contrast and to have a big dark voice if you are amplified in that fashion. I have heard, and believe, that he is amplified in opera performances as well (as are most of the other singers today). How can this not be a consideration when evaluating, if true?

My last beef may be more with opera listeners than with Kaufmann himself. But, since he's been singing Wagner, he is now called a "heldentenor". Repertoire, of course, does not make the fach, though often the reverse could and should be true. But if I were him I would sing as much as I could anywhere that makes a living, so I guess my issue there isn't with Mr. Kaufmann. However again the microphone issue plays in here. Can he sing Wagner against the orchestra without a microphone on his clothing or hair, as King/Melchior/Vickers/Svanholm and other past greats have done? Are those days of opera over? That would make me sad.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Aaron, for an interesting comment. You make a good point: the lyric roles such as Ferrando may be the first victims of time, although Tamino is still in the essential fach. I tend to suspect the miked voice in performance story. Largely because other singers, were they not similarly miked, would complain. Makes duets a little dicey:-) Thanks again for the comment; always appreciated!

Jim N said...

Ah, finally I get to read a blogger who agrees with me about Kaufmann. I first heard him two years ago next month when he sang Werther in Paris and it was webcast That is now available on

If I didn't know better I would have thought he really did commit suicide in Act 4.

What appeals to me is the color he brings to his vocal technique,even in Wagner, just like the best female singers and Thomas Hampson. Why do we let the "stand-and-bleat" kind of male singing continue? Pavarotti, Vickers, James King, Siegfreid Jeruselum are guilty of this testosterone technique: bluff-and-bluster conquerors all? To me, it seems like faulty musicianship and technique.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another interesting article. I didn’t expect that you would include Kaufmann in your list of brilliant singers, but I agree - he is great. I noticed that in his latest recordings his voice became less smooth, but anyway, he is very skillful. His timbre is beautiful and unique, as it seems to me. He is almost a baritone, who can sing “La donna e mobile’ very convincingly. His voice was gorgeous in this recording, though sounded unusual.
It seems to me that Wagner is absolutely ‘his’ repertoire . There is something ‘very German’ to him, which makes his performance so natural. He is a heldentenor without any effort:) Maybe his voice flows so freely in Wagnerian repertoire because of its ‘baritonal’ timbre?


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my dear friend, for another fine comment. I think you have hit the nail on the head, characteristically, when you ascribe to him a "home base" in Wagner. Probably right. That is a repertoire he can continue to grow in, and one where the need for a good tenor is ALWAYS there. I think it likely that his voice flows so freely in the Wagnerian repertoire because of his training and voice production, which is more Italian than Germanic (at least traditional Germanic). Time will be the test. If he continues to sing this well, and does all the Wagner tenor roles (easier said than done!) he will certainly establish himself as a great heldentenor. Thanks again for your comment!

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Jim N. Thank you very much for your comment. Welcome to Great Opera Singers. Feel free to drop by any time! I appreciate your comment, and you raise a very interesting point that no one else has mentioned; his stagecraft. Even if one judges only by the many Youtube videos, it is apparent that he is a gifted and realistic actor. What is more, his characterizations are reflected in his voice, which supports the acting. An unusual gift, as you point out. He takes a more nearly "Netrebko" approach to it all, which is not only admirable, but, I suspect, increasingly necessary in the more cinema-driven operatic productions of today. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I think it likely that his voice flows so freely in the Wagnerian repertoire because of his training and voice production, which is more Italian than Germanic (at least traditional Germanic)./

Yes, of course, this is the main reason. I only wanted to say that I heard that low voices are not easily worn out in comparison to high voices.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, yes! OK. Fair enough:-)

The Balch said...

Hi Mr. St. Austell,

Thanks for this article. I'm so glad that you don't confine yourself to discussions of artists who are no longer with us; after all, great singing is great singing, time and place notwithstanding. I remember having seen the first clip quite a while ago, and being pleasantly surprised by the beauty and sensitivity of his interpretation.

Whether or not he has since moved on to more "dramatic" roles, I would like to think the Mozart aria proves that the deployment of a voice, rather than its weight, size, or timbre, is what really makes a performance work. I can't imagine that all the singers who performed Mozart's works during his lifetime had the same vocal characteristics; for all I know, 18th century audiences may have heard voices Kaufmann's sing Ferrando all the time.

That being said, I had several questions. Were opera-goers always so picky about whether or not voices were too big or small, dark or bright, for certain roles? Your article on Georges Thill gave me the impression that his repertoire was pretty diverse; did people who saw him sing Wagner complain that he was out of his element?

Nicolai Gedda is another person who seems to sing EVERYTHING. What do people have to say about the fact that his repertoire includes Donizetti & Mozart as well as Verdi, Strauss, and Shostakovich? I suppose that making a recording and making a GOOD recording are two different things, but I still wonder.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much; I appreciate your comment. Regarding Thill and Gedda, I think it is safe to say that they were both greatly appreciated for their work in a diverse repertoire. Thill sang Wagner, in French and almost always in Paris, to great acclaim, along with the lightest of bel canto roles. Gedda sang light roles with a very big voice. I heard him on two occasions when he drove that amazing voice right up to a high C, and it was something to hear! I remember one concert in particular, about 55 years ago, if memory serves, when he sang Salut, demeure with so much voice that he turned red as a beet on the high C. The audience was amazed and applauded him very enthusiastically. The widest possible repertoire was sung in Russia by Leonid Sobinov and Antonina Nezhdanova. The list goes on. Super specialization did not begin until approximately the second half of the twentieth century. It's not that singers couldn't do a wider repetoire, it's simply that there were so many of them, and they were so good, that the competition was ferocious, and people usually only wanted to hear the very best operas in any given singer's repertoire. It's all a result of what might be called "an embarrassment of riches!"

Anonymous said...

Since he is pushing continuously in the high register and he is throaty. No good recommendation.

FanaticoUm said...

Great text and great singer. I agree with you. I had the luck to see Kaufmann live several times and I think he is one of the best on stage in present days. I have written a lot about him in our blog.

I have just found your interesting blog and I am now following it.
As we have common interests, I invite you to visit and follow our blog “Fanaticos da Opera / Opera Fanatics” that is also written in English (the “possible” English):
Regards from Portugal

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! And be assured, I will check into "Fanaticos de Opera" right away!

Ashot Arakelyan said...

Hello Dear Edmund. I Wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year 2012!
All the best

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, my friend, and my best wishes for a Happy New Year to you and your family! Edmund

Tenorcritic said...

I have watched about a dozen clips of Mr Kaufmann now and my verdict is overall positive.

-strong voice
-decent passagio
-good legato
-good acting
-he knows how to sing italian roles

-his mezza voce sounds like an
old man's voice. Basically he
can't sing real mezza voce, but he
croons. I would not consider it Bel
Canto. The sound is constricted and
rather powerless in mezza voce.

-The voice is too heavy, the push
element is there, but not much.

Overall an exciting tenor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you. A very thorough evaluation! Most interesting!

HASHATZ said...

I like your articles. They provide a good deal of information and give me food for thought and an opportunity to rethink some of my opinions on the singers you write about.You might find some of the ideas I've written in my blog Psychodynamic Opera of interest. I'd welcome your input. Thanks. Shlomo

Edmund St. Austell said...

I will be more than happy to have look at your blog. Thank you for mentioning it to me!

rupertswyer said...

I totally agree. I saw him singing Werther at the Paris Opera a couple of years ago, with the lovely Sophie Koch. The voice, the line, and most of all the characterization, were beautiful. Invites comparison with Kraus, though the voice sometimes reminds me a bit of Vickers.
I have never seen a Paris audience explode into applause as it did that night. We all came out of the Bastille walking on air.
I wondered what his Siegmund would be like, and saw that broadcast live from the Met. Again, a very moving performance. Am I alone in thinking he was "bulking up" his voice for this, if one can say that? Anyway, how often do you see such a good looking Siegmund with a voice like that?

rupertswyer said...

The Balch wrote of Georges Thill: "...did people who saw him sing Wagner complain that he was out of his element?"
A France Musique program to mark Schwarzkopf's 75th birthday asked her to listen to Thill singing the Prize Song from the Meistersinger in French. She enthusiastically declared him a "Meistersinger": a German artist found him to be perfectly in his element despite singing Wagner in French.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty obvious that Kaufmann sings with muscle added to the tone. He was pretty flat in Ferrando's aria.

Oopperafani said...

Kaufmann has beautiful voice. I think that problem with him is lack of squillo and real force. Even in forte he sounds some what forceless which is strange for spinto. Voice sounds hoarse and I have heard it doesn´t carry in theater. His mellow sound is good for recordings and closeup microphone.