Jonas Kaufmann, tortured artist

With a pair of albums and two Met appearances, the German sex symbol is all about fourplay.

To know Jonas Kaufmann’s immediately recognizable dark-chocolate voice is to love it. And to know the sensuously scruffy Munich-born tenor, who sports romantic, dusky locks and permanent weekend stubble, is to love him. Yet Kaufmann needn’t worry about being seen as more of an operatic sex symbol than a legitimately talented singer: He’s been widely hailed as the first major tenor to come from Germany since the late Fritz Wunderlich. That comparison does cause the tenor some concern about being pigeonholed as a strictly Teutonic singer. Call him contrary if you will; he prefers balanced.

“I’m fighting a lot against this fact to be put into the German box,” Kaufmann explains on the telephone from his home in Zurich. The irony there is that his two latest CDs, released in tandem in the U.S. this week, are love letters to the German repertoire. “It was obvious for me, since I grew up in this culture, to do as the first album a German one,” he says of his Wagner, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven compilation. The disc highlights his strengths as Lohengrin and Tamino (which he sang at the Met), while also showing off some rarer gems. The Schubert theme continues with Kaufmann’s recording of the song cycle Die schne Mllerin, which speaks both to Schubert’s famous talent as a lieder composer and to Kaufmann’s lesser-known talent as a lieder performer. For someone used to the emotional volcanoes of opera, the intricacies of the lied can seem like a break.

Or a challenge. “[You] see every emotion you can imagine in it from beginning to end,” Kaufmann says of the cycle, which documents the shifting of a young lad in the throes of his first love, from ecstasy to suicidal desperation; it’s a classic story in the German Romantic canon. Yet, he continues, “it’s not extremely expressive because it is still within the limits of a lied, accompanied by a piano, where something like Parsifal—obviously with that huge orchestra—can do much more harm to that poor soul who discovers in that moment what sin means.”

Kaufmann guarantees, however, that his next CD (which he has finished recording but can’t yet talk about) will be “something completely different from the German repertory”—a testament to how meticulously choosy the singer is with his roles. “The thought behind it is kind of selfish: I’m getting bored very easily, I have to confess, so I try always to keep this joy and this happiness that goes along with the job I’m doing,” he says, hopeful that the freshness of his rep choices will also benefit audiences.

It doesn’t get much more fresh than Kaufmann’s future Met engagement as Siegmund in the new Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which promises to be literally off-the-walls. The fourth major Wagnerian role for Kaufmann (who already has Lohengrin, Parsifal and Stolzing from Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg under his belt), it will also be his last—for a while. “The Siegfrieds and the Tristans are really, really heavy, and you’ve got to be careful to not do that too early and too excessively, because that could shorten your career quite a lot.” At 40, Kaufmann still has plenty of time; meanwhile, he’s keen to focus on his upcoming appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in the replacement casts of Tosca and Carmen.

While Kaufmann may be especially looking forward to Tosca’s dramatic music—“I’m always saying that the composer of the James Bond melody must have stolen it from Puccini,” he says of the score—as an actor he prefers the more complex role of Don Jos for all of its vocal and dramaturgical possibilities. Could it be he also has trepidations about stepping into the critical disaster that is the Met’s new Tosca production? “No, no, no, there’s no worries at all,” he says reassuringly. “It wouldn’t be the first time that a production not well-received at the very beginning at some point becomes popular.... It’s just gorgeous singing from the beginning to the end—both arias, both beautiful big duets.” Certainly, the role of Cavaradossi, the artist and revolutionary, also offers some dramatic meat: “When he’s tortured, that’s so much fun.”

Tosca opens at the Metropolitan Opera Wed 14.

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