In Sydney for Parsifal, Kaufmann talks about Wagner, upcoming roles, and his withdrawal from The Met’s Tosca.

At a press conference today, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was interviewed by Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini. Kaufmann is in Sydney to star in a concert version of Wagner’s Parsifal for Opera Australia, opening at the Sydney Opera House next Wednesday.

He laughed when he admitted that the thought of doing Parsifal in Sydney so soon after his Otello debut for The Royal Opera – not to mention performances of Andrea Chénier and La Forza del Destino in Munich – was “not that easy”. Striding onto stage with hat and bag, Kaufmann was switched-on from the word go, answering Terracini’s questions, and questions from the audience, with warmth and humour.

Jonas Kaufmann is in Sydney to star in a concert version of Parsifal. Photograph courtesy of Opera Australia

In light of recent news that Kaufmann is no longer taking on productions that require lengthy rehearsal and time away from his family, some have suggested that this could be his last trip to Australia. Asked by Limelight whether this might be the last time we see him here, he reiterated that working closer to home was on the horizon for him, but that it did not necessarily rule out travelling for concert performances like Parsifal. On this particular occasion, he has brought his children with him to Sydney, he revealed.

He also addressed rumours surrounding his withdrawal from The Metropolitan Opera’s highly anticipated new production of Tosca in 2018.

“I can assure you that I offered them part of the shows, I wanted to sing there and I didn’t want to disappoint my fans in New York. I just didn’t want to be there for such a long time, so I said I’m offering part of the performances to someone else so that I can come later to rehearsals and not do all of the rehearsal process, whatever the deal would have been, whether it’s 50/50 or 60/40 or whatever, or whether I sing the first shows or the last shows – this was all on the table. And unfortunately, The Met decided to not take any of it, but take somebody else instead, and luckily they found someone, or they probably had him already in the pipe.”

“But we spoke also for the future, because obviously it wasn’t the only contract I had at The Met, and for the next things we found a solution, so I will come and perform at The Met, but I will not be there such a long time. This is all,” said Kaufmann.

Speaking about Parsifal, he described the opera and the experience of performing it as a “transcendent journey”, his enthusiasm clearly expressed in his choice of words – Wagner’s last work takes audience to an “extra-terrestrial place” and is “just magic”, he enthused. Along with Otello, Kaufmann considers the work “one of the perfect operas”, with Verdi and Wagner bringing their considerable experience to the works composed in the autumn of their lives.

“[Parsifal] is just so incredible. It takes you by the hand and brings you to a new world…and you feel so much peace, and it widens the world. I don’t know what it is, I don’t mean it in a Christian way, it’s just musically how he [Wagner] put the thing together”.

Terracini asked whether Kaufmann needed to warm up during performances of Parsifal, as his character is offstage for long stretches of time. Kaufmann compared it to the character of Alvaro in Forza, who after the first act has “a good 90 minutes before you come back and then it never stops”.

“I really have to warm up again, because you cannot just be 90 minutes on alert all the time, so it’s really almost as if you do two productions. I can’t complain. In Parsifal, Gurnemanz, that is the waiting one – you have two intermissions and an entire act to await. I remember Hans Hotter, one of my teachers telling me this story when he sang that [Gurnemanz] in Bayreuth, they always have this each break being one hour, so you get the two hours plus the hour and ten minutes I think, so over three hours time. And so he went to his dressing room after act first and got rid of his makeup and costume and drove home, and walked his dog, and then went back to get another performance, which was act three of Parsifal”.

Asked by Limelight whether a concert performance of Parsifal differed from one that was staged, the tenor explained that although he had done a staged performance at The Metropolitan Opera, the power of the piece ultimately lay in the music.

He joked that the perks of a concert performance also involved “no arguing with directors, not bothering with costume fittings – for Otello I think I had five fittings. But all kidding aside, it is challenging on one hand because you want to give people the real thing, and yet you can’t just act for real all the time, because it would look odd. But whenever I did a concert performance of a great opera, it turned out to be the best option, because if you have people that know their parts, if you know the words, know the meaning, you don’t need much. If the music is great, and this piece obviously is…the less you do, the more the music will have an impact”.

Moving onto Otello, Kaufmann joked that he had been the Cassio to many a tenor “struggling or fighting” to meet the opera’s demands, part of the reason why the role remained on the backburner for so long. Explaining that he felt he needed “more years, more experience” before taking the plunge, Kaufmann added that having frequent collaborator Antonio Pappano at the helm was also part of his decision-making.

“You can only predict and try to guess whether you’re going to be ready or not, and I was sure I was ready, but still I have to say that during the rehearsals and you’ve sung the part so many times in the room, and then suddenly you’re onstage with the others and the orchestra kicks in and wow, it was exactly what I said before, that it would just grab you so much and would force you to give more than you were calculating on beforehand”, he said.

Limelight also asked whether Andris Nelsons, another conductor with whom Kaufmann has formed a close relationship, played into his decision to debut act two of Tristan und Isolde in concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2018.

“Everything that I’ve done so far with Andris Nelsons has been wonderful. As a musician, you’re always on the hunt for partners that seem to imagine, to think similar in interpreting music, and Andris Nelsons is certainly one of those…I’ve done a few things with Andris, and I like working with him, and so we came up with this idea to do it with his orchestra”.

Kaufmann added that doing act two in concert was a typical move for tenors trying out the part, but admitted that he was also thinking of doing act three in concert, due to the amount of time spent onstage and the difficulty and vast nature of the text Tristan has to deliver.

“Once I do that, I’m sure I’ll do it onstage. Again, you need to find the right conductor and the right partner…what I can tell you is that I’m 99 percent sure that we found the right conductor, the right place, and the right soprano to do it with”.

Asked by Terracini what he is considering next, Kaufmann laughed, asking whether Terracini was implying whether that he will soon take up conducting and become a baritone (clearly alluding to one of his role models, Plácido Domingo). On a more serious note, he said that he hopes retirement is a long way off, and said that roles he is considering next include Tannhauser, Pelleas, Samson, and Paul in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

Kaufmann also referenced an upcoming production of Don Carlos by Paris Opera, whose stars include French baritone Ludovic Tézier and Bulgarian rising star Sonya Yoncheva. In news that will thrill Sydney audiences, Terracini let slip that Yoncheva may be performing here in the near future. Kaufmann spoke generously of his colleagues, and took questions from the assembled media before shaking the hand of Terracini, beaming.


Read Laura Tingle’s interview for Limelight here.