On the evening of Sunday, March 13, LCU and UO attended the highly anticipated song recital of internationally acclaimed tenor, Jonas Kaufmann. Co-presented by Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera, the performance took place at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. What follows is a discussion of the performance between LCU and UO.
LCU: Kaufmann is typically very expressive in his operatic roles and I was surprised that he employed minimal facial expressions and hand or body gestures with this program. It was pure, honest singing; not mawkish or overly theatrical, which is often the danger when opera singers attempt the German Lied - they can't seem to leave the drama at the door. But Kaufmann sang with disciplined restraint, relying solely on the nuances of his voice to articulate the emotions and meaning of the songs. His delivery was lean and exact, with that touch of German austerity. Now UO, I understand that last summer you sang with Kaufmann in the Bayreuth production of Lohengrin. How does his style and vocal technique on the opera stage compare with what we saw tonight?
UO: Well, I think it all boils down to one thing: Kaufmann knows how to act with his voice. He trusts the material he sings and knows that if he delivers it in a straightforward way, masterpieces such as Dichterliebe will speak for themselves. In this day of live HD transmission and emphasis on extreme naturalism and cinematic facial expression, I think singers feel compelled to exaggerate their facial gestures and body movements. Even when he sang Lohengrin, Kaufmann generally did what was required of him by the director, in terms of gestures and movement around the stage, no more, no less. Certainly he didn't change his technique. That's what makes him so unique. For instance, he sang Lohengrin's Grail Narrative in Bayreuth with all the nuance that he brought to tonight's lieder recital. He isn't afraid employ the entire dynamic spectrum of his voice, from ultra-soft to ringing, metallic forte. He's one of the few singers out there today who has the ability to sing through an entire spectrum of loud and soft, in a way that reads in large halls. And it all carried beautifully, in part, of course, due to the wonderful Bayreuth acoustic. It worked well tonight, in a hall that isn't acoustically as generous.
LCU: As a singer and voice teacher, could you explain the technical challenges of Schumann's Dichterliebe for the tenor voice despite the fact that Jonas made it look so effortless? He sings with the ease of Fritz Wunderlich!
UO: Two of the highest vocal hurdles of Dichterliebe occur in the very first song. The "strong, weak" stresses of the words "aufgegangen" and "verlangen" are situated right in the tenor's so-called "passaggio," right where the voice has to negotiate a register shift that is quite challenging. Then just look at the word, for instance, "verlangen." The pitch change from G to F# -moves through two liquid consonants ("l" and "ng"), so a seamless vowel connection in this tricky part of the voice is quite difficult. Also, most of the songs are set quite low. This is partly in order to accommodate a high note in "Ich Grolle Nicht" that is not so stratospheric that it becomes an quasi-operatic acrobatic feat, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for the poor guy to crack! Of course, I think we would both agree that Kaufmann could have managed this with no effort at all, but the tonalities of all the songs have to have a coherent relationship to one another, and not be transposed all over the place. So the cycle is quite "range-ey." You also have potential pitfalls in intonation, particularly in the song "Am Leuchtenden Sommermorgen," where there are a lots of really radical modulations. Coming to Wunderlich: he had a very different, very sweet and less baritonal quality to his sound when you compare him to Kaufmann. You really never think of technique when you hear Wunderlich, it's all like child's play to him. Kaufmann came close to this ease of delivery last night, I think.
LCU: In one of his interviews, Kaufmann said that there is a huge difference between singing and speaking the German language. Kaufmann's diction is deliberately round because he chooses not to 'spit' his consonants, allowing for a smoother legato line. You mentioned that he has been criticized for doing this and for sounding too Italianate as Lohengrin (even though Wagner himself considered it his most Italian opera). However, does the German Lied call for a distinct German sound with all of its idiosyncrasies intact? At Bryn Terfel's recital just a few months ago, I noticed that he was very emphatic with his consonants and even though he's Welsh, Terfel sounded more German to me than Kaufmann. Does the mellowing out of the harsh and choppy qualities compromise the rugged beauty, character, and integrity of the German language?
UO: I think we'd agree that in Lieder, especially, text and music have to be co-equal. You can't have one at the expense of the other. But there are choices to be made; do you maniacally over-pronounce at the expense of vocal quality? Believe me, a lot of German coaches want just that! Zellerbach Hall seems to me to be one of those places that swallows consonants, so perhaps that accounted for a certain loss of clarity. It's a big question, especially in opera: when do you modify text and vowels in order to allow the voice to be free? Kaufmann seems to me to be one of those singers whose credo is "prima la musica, e poi la parola", in other words, music first, then text, to put it a bit simplistically. My impression in Bayreuth was that those who didn't care for his approach to Lohengrin felt that it was too human, not "knightly" enough. It wasn't so much about lack of clear diction or a matter of style, as I recall. But believe me, the supporters of his Lohengrin there far outweighed his detractors in number!
LCU: I have to tattle on myself - I shamelessly hooted and hollered and cheered like I was at a Michael Jackson concert. At one point George Hume, who sat across the aisle from me, even flashed me a dirty look. I was having a religious experience and just couldn't help myself. What do you think of the Berkeley audience? How do they compare with the audience at the Met and Carnegie?
UO: I guess you didn't see me sinking lower and lower into my seat! What's wrong with enthusiasm? I believe European artists in general are gratified by our American, somewhat over the top applause. I thought the Berkeley audience was just terrific -- absolutely silent during the singing. I saw a woman following along with a vocal score, and most people didn't turn the pages of their programs in the middle of a song, causing a rush of brittle sound to interrupt the music. Many times I have the feeling that, at the Met and other big venues in New York, and particularly on Broadway, people leap to their feet in a robotic, automatic standing ovation. Maybe that's just to convince themselves that the evening was great, because the ticket prices are so high! I enjoyed the respectful, informed Berkeley audience – very European – informed, respectful and quiet.