Performance notes

The classical music world often over-hypes artists beyond their talents. Will this be the case with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann?
November 17, 2010
The special one: tenor Jonas Kaufmann may live up to the hype

Anyone who writes about the performing arts longs for the moment they can sit down, with thrill in their hearts, and write the words: “Every now and then a special one comes along. On the basis of what I heard tonight, so-and-so is such a one.”

In the classical music industry, unfortunately, these words have long been a debauched currency. As its business prospects worsen, the hype about new talent has got grosser and harder to sustain. Today, the next superstar comes around more frequently than ever as record sales slump and competition gets tougher. Good-looking wunderkinds are discovered every year, often in time for Christmas. Many in the media fall for the PR. It’s hard not to be cynical, and foolish to be anything else.

Every time I see a picture of a nubile violinist or a handsome young tenor in the music press, my heart hardens and I look away, holding firmly onto my wallet. I can’t be alone in this. The consequence is bound to be that some extremely talented artists, who through no fault of their own have also been blessed with good looks and winning personalities, get an unfair deal.

Hype is not always wrong, though. The media love affair with Daniel Barenboim is almost half a century old now, and still as justified as ever. There have been others, too. No pianist has arrived on these shores for his first recital amid greater expectations than Sviatoslav Richter did in 1961 and no tenor than Plácido Domingo a decade later. They didn’t disappoint.

But marketing, fatally, looks to repeat its successes. There have been dozens of “new Barenboims” who have not stayed the course, and Soviet unknowns who should have remained so.

Sometimes the craving for a new special one can have poignant consequences. More than 40 years ago, Decca put its shirt on a young Greek soprano named Elena Suliotis, who was inevitably dubbed “the new Callas.” Her first opera recording, of Verdi’s Nabucco, was tremendous. I heard her sing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth as a student in 1969 and it was stunning. But she was pushed too fast too soon, her voice failed and she burnt out.

All this is a preamble to a consideration of the German tenor of the moment, Jonas Kaufmann. At 41 he is no longer a wunderkind, and he began his professional career in 1994. But he has only become prominent on the international circuit in the past five years. More money is being staked on his talent and development than on any singer since Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli first emerged two decades ago.

Kaufmann is a very unusual tenor. His voice is a mix of light and lyric on the one hand, which enables him to sing Italian roles with style and aplomb—as he is doing at Covent Garden in November and December in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. On the other hand he has a much darker, more dramatic lower register, almost baritonal at times, suited to the German repertoire. Moreover, although he is predominantly an operatic tenor, with a large voice to match, he can restrain and discipline his sound sufficiently to be a serious recitalist, as he reminded London audiences on Halloween in a gripping performance of Schubert’s song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall.

Vocally, it is hard to know who to compare him to. In his range of voice and repertoire, which is still broadening, and in the artistic ambition which appears to lie behind it, the nonpareil example of Domingo is not unreasonable, although Domingo has more evenness of voice and built his career in the Italian lyric and “spinto” tenor repertoire, before moving into a darker, often more Germanic repertoire later in his career. In other respects, Kaufmann is better compared with the great but critically controversial Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose roles also stretched from Verdi’s Don Carlo, through Bizet’s Don José to Beethoven’s Florestan and Wagner’s Siegmund, all of which Kaufmann is singing over the coming months.

Immense expectations are riding on Kaufmann, especially in the works of Wagner. He sang Lohengrin at Bayreuth in July, and adds Siegmund at the Met in the spring. Judging from his fine 2009 CD of German arias, Parsifal and Tannhäuser cannot be far behind, and then Siegfried and perhaps even Tristan, too—not even Domingo or Vickers had all these roles in their grasp. If that were not enough, Kaufmann is also due to sing the tenor songs in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under Claudio Abbado next summer—a ticket to die for.

Has Kaufmann got what it takes to bear this weight? He is not a conventional singer, so perhaps some of the normal rules do not apply. The fact that he came relatively late to the international stage is also in his favour—he has had time to build his technique. For now, he is the special one.