When he's not treading the boards at the worldʼs most prestigious opera houses, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is busy taking neglected repertoire on the road and winning new fans for composers like Hugo Wolf and Ambroise Thomas. Earlier this year Kaufmann invited mezzo-sopranos Kate Aldrich and Anita Rachvelishvili to join him on a four-city tour of Germany performing selections from “L'Opéra,” his 2017 release of highlights from the French operatic repertoire. During rehearsals in Prague with longtime conducting partner Jochen Rieder and PKF – Prague Philharmonia, Kaufmann took a break to talk about his interest in overlooked composers and reflect on a career that has brought him to the height of his profession.

Jonas Kaufmann
© Gregor Hohenberg | Sony Classical

You've built a brilliant career on mostly Italian and German opera. What drew you to the French repertoire?

I am under the impression, and I think it's correct, that French opera is underestimated. It's fantastic music, and unfortunately not done enough. We have just a few operas now, like Faust, Manon and Carmen, but there's so much more. Many years ago, in the south of France, I did Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, and I enjoyed it very much. It's typical French music, meaning it is very colorful, with maybe a little too much powdered sugar on top. But it's very intense, with another approach to feelings than, for example, Italian verismo, which comes like a big wave, with a hammer. The French come with delicacy, very fragile, completely different.

You made a similar departure with your recent Italienisches Liederbuch, which features you and Diana Damrau singing Hugo Wolf.

Yes, Diana and I toured with that last year, and at each and every concert I got the same question: Why on earth are you doing Wolf? But you see, people pose this question because they donʼt know Wolf. They only know him in his time-frame and expect him to sound like everybody else. But the second you hear Wolf's music, you understand that it's a completely different world.

Next season we're doing Die tote Stadt in Munich, and we're having this same discussion about Korngold: What on earth are you doing? It's too modern, isn't it? Well no, not at all. It's late Romantic. But very often people who don't know the music still have an opinion.

Jonas Kaufmann
© Gregor Hohenberg | Sony Classical

How have your recital tours of French and Italian repertoire been received?

Very well, especially the French concerts, which I've done several times now. People love it partly because I don't only do arias; I invite a mezzo-soprano to join me so we can also do scenes. Arias are mostly very intimate, but you need to see the big picture to understand the depth of emotions, and this is where French opera really kicks in, like the first act of Werther, where they walk in the darkness and suddenly there's so much color, so much more richness in the sound, and you understand his feelings. My experience is that you can take the audience on that trip, and by the end of the concert they know much more about French opera than they ever expected to. It's not that I do this for educational purposes, but it has that effect.

You've talked before about the difficulties of scheduling four or five years ahead, which the major opera houses demand, hoping that your voice and interest in roles will be the same. Recitals seem to give you both more immediacy and more control?

True, absolutely true. Concert and Lieder recitals are where you have the most artistic freedom, and are not limited by other people's expectations. If you ask the average promoter or concert audience what they prefer, they probably want me to sing “Nessun dorma”, which I understand. That's what sells tickets. But if you hear the same artist doing the same arias over and over again – well, for me, I want to hear something else, to see different aspects, different angles. That's why I refuse to do an opera like Tosca over and over again. I love that music, but if I sing it too often, the quality goes down because I don't see it as something special. It becomes a routine that ultimately destroys the magic.

Jonas Kaufmann in La forza del destino
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2019)

Was there a moment in your life when you fell in love with opera, or was it something you gradually grew into?

Even as a child I liked acting, I liked to play roles. As a little boy, I would entertain my parents and their friends. And I was always singing. But I never planned to become a singer. I didn't even know this existed. I started out studying math, because that was something proper and solid with a future and maybe some guarantee for getting a job – unlike singing, where no one knows what's going to come and whether you will have success or not. It wasn't until I was 15 and had my first singing lessons, and my teacher suggested that I go to the conservatory in Munich, that I realized you could actually study singing like any other subject at university. I had no clue.

Your instincts as an entertainer are clear even today.

I'm never nervous, unlike some others who see the audience as critical, maybe even an enemy, and are afraid of their opinions and judgment. I know that they don't come to mock me. They come to have fun, and all you need to do is give it to them. I think it's quite simple.

Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann in Andrea Chénier at Bayerische Staatsoper
© Wilfried Hösl (2017)

You started out singing because it was fun.

And it's still fun, it's great fun. But even more, being a singer is so fantastic because you are the instrument. There is no other instrument in the world that has a closer connection to your thoughts and feelings and emotions than the voice. If you master your instrument, this is what you can do – constantly project your emotions by putting them into sound. No other instrument is capable of doing this in such an intense way.

Another hallmark of your career has been your refusal to be pigeonholed. You've never wanted to be thought of as, say, primarily a Mozart tenor or Wagnerian tenor.

I heard many voices that told me the opposite, advising me to specialize in something because that would kick my career further. For instance, if you're a Rossini tenor, you're one of the obvious choices for a Rossini opera, which probably helps you get more jobs.

But first, I didn't want to be that tenor. And second, I always felt I couldn't be as good in this one box if I didn't have experience from another. For example, you can turn on the power in French opera where many others don't know how to suddenly get a big sound out of the blue – which happens in French repertoire very often – because you have that ability from Wagner and the German repertoire.

Jonas Kaufmann in Don Carlos
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra national de Paris (2017)

Has a diverse repertoire also helped you keep your voice fresh?

Absolutely! At least, I'm convinced this is the case. Of course, this is not a general recipe that works for everyone. What I think is important is that you don't limit your instrument by tradition – thinking your voice is only good for this or that – but by your nature. Some roles that you're not sure you can do turn out to be door-openers that take you to the next level. When I did Traviata in Stuttgart, that was my first big Verdi role. It has these moments where you can either be careful or really dig in, like in the second act, when Alfredo confronts Violetta and pays back her money. That really opened up the Italian sector for me; I realized there were many more Italian roles I could take on.

Likewise with Florestan. I never dreamed of doing Florestan. But I was persuaded to try it, so I practiced it, I rehearsed it, I sang it through several times. And my teacher at the time said, “If you're not tired yet, that means it's probably okay for you!” So I did it, and it felt like finally someone had cleaned my throat and let me do a bigger projection of my voice. So it was not something that hurt me, but on the contrary, actually opened up my voice.

All this helped to keep me in shape and vocally healthy; and also mentally, to enjoy what I'm doing and not get bored. But again, this is something that my voice was capable of doing. You have to accept what you've got, and not just say, I want, I want, I want until it breaks.

Speaking of managing your voice properly, last year was your first without any cancellations.

Yes! Aha!

You've taken a lot of criticism for cancellations. Do you feel like last year is a vindication for how you've handled your voice and appearances?

Well yeah, but it's many different things, some of them coincidental. For example, I now avoid the stage door in wintertime. I always want to be there for the fans, I think it is absolutely important to show yourself and dedicate time to that. But if you're standing there in January in the cold after you've been sweating for two hours on stage, and everyone is coughing at you and hugging you and wants to get hold of you, you're asking for trouble. It can't work, it just can't work. So it was tough for my fans at the beginning, but ultimately it paid off.

Jonas Kaufmann
© Julian Hargreaves | Sony Classical

How do you see your career going forward?

I intend to sing for as long as possible, which I think will be another ten or fifteen years. Obviously, you have to be very critical of yourself – only holding your position because you have a name can be quite sad to watch. But at the moment I'm capable, I believe, of doing 99% of what I could do when I was young, and much more has been added. The voice is still fresh and flexible, I can do all kinds of things with it. I don't see any limits due to aging or anything like that.

So I see my career continuing in basically the same way, meaning that each season I try to add a new role. We have Die tote Stadt in the fall, and in a couple years Tannhäuser is due, and eventually Tristan will come, and maybe Palestrina later on. And maybe Siegfried, I don't know. This is not something that's an absolute must for me, because if it means that I have to limit myself in other ways, like not singing Lieder recitals the way I'm doing now, then I don't do it.

Other than that, career-wise, I'm not intending to reach any further, because that's all you can get. The challenge for me now is not to get there, but to stay there.