Wednesday 22 November 2017

'Rock star' looks and a voice to match – how Kaufmann is living the dream

George Hamilton

When Jonas Kaufmann opens his mouth, opera fans fall at his feet. That was the German news magazine Stern introducing their top tenor some years ago.

He's one who can reach deep into the bass register as well, his voice strong and dramatic, rich as the finest chocolate, yet nuanced and evocative, too.

Tall and slim, dark and handsome, he has, according to New York magazine, "the looks and nonchalance of a rock star". That can be no disadvantage when it comes to putting posteriors on the plush seats.

With his 44th birthday coming up in just a couple of weeks, Kaufmann is at the height of his powers, and very much in demand, rave reviews following his progress across the great stages from the Met through Covent Garden to La Scala and beyond.

His is the story of a singer whose dreams have come true. He grew up in Munich, in an apartment block in well-to-do Bogenhausen. His grandfather lived in the same building, and through his and his parents' love of classical music he was regularly exposed to the finer side of the aural experience.

There was no inner international footballer in the young Jonas; a singer is what he wanted to be. He joined the city's children's choir. A highlight of his time with them would come every Christmas when they'd gather in the Marienplatz in front of Munich's iconic Rathaus (or City Hall) and sing carols.

Jonas followed his star through secondary school, taking music as one of his subjects, and earning a place in the chorus at Munich's second opera house.

But on leaving school, a reluctance to believe he could make a career in music, and a father who felt he needed proper qualifications, led to two frustrating years studying maths before he took the plunge and enrolled at the city's University of Performing Arts.

When he graduated, he got a contract in Saarbrücken, a small city on the French border by no means in the operatic mainstream.

He could have stayed there, but a crisis with his voice led him to turn down a renewal, and he struck out on his own. It was a brave gamble, but it proved pivotal for it freed him from the pressure to perform as the stereotypical young tenor, and gave him the opportunity to develop the sound that makes him unique.

His big breakthrough came with his New York debut as Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata in 2006, and within two years his debut CD – Romantic Arias (Decca 475 9966) – had been released.

Performances opposite Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu and Cecilia Bartoli have thrilled international audiences, and the recordings have kept on coming.

His latest – his fifth – is a Wagner compilation to tie in with the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. Kaufmann Wagner (Decca 0289 478 5189 9) would have delighted his granddad, whose love of the great German composer was a seminal influence.

Kaufmann's year has proved significant, too. In April, he was named Best Male Singer at the inaugural International Opera Awards.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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