The classical music world often over-hypes artists beyond their talents. Will this be the case with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann?by Martin Kettle / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…