In Praise of Kaufmania

A regular bloke from Munich is taking the operatic world by storm. And he’s doing it by word of mouth

Music

Fifteen minutes before Jonas Kaufmann’s Wigmore Hall recital began on October 31, the entire queue outside the ladies’ room was smiling. In the auditorium, so was most of the assembling audience. Getting into that Central London concert had made everyone feel as if they’d snaffled a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Kaufmann, the new great tenor of the moment, singing Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with his mentor Helmut Deutsch at the piano, could have sold out a venue five times the Wigmore’s size. 

 
Jonas Kaufmann accompanied by Helmut Deutsch at the Wigmore Hall

A few years ago, few people who were not regulars at the Zurich Opera had even heard of him. Today, though, self-styled “Kauf-maniacs” follow his career, and the man himself, from country to country, from opera to recital. And I can’t blame them. For once, there’s fire behind this smoke. 

Jonas Kaufmann is not a manufactured record company sensation. Instead, he is a consummate performer who brings to his roles the authenticity of empathy, intelligence and culture (in the educated sense), with the beauty of his voice always serving the larger picture. In Die schöne Müllerin words, character, phrasing and tone fused into a Wigmore-sized Gesamtkunstwerk; the authenticity of the emotional life he conveys is the core of it. But it’s the final, indefinable quality of spine-tingling truth that tells you you’re listening to something that’s not just good, but extraordinary. 

He has made a select handful of recordings thus far: repertoire is chosen carefully, promotion is not remotely excessive. The latest CD is of verismo arias, including a harrowing account of “Vesti la Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. He has a book out — but only in German. His official website, too, is in German alone. (It’s a moot point whether this tells us much about international cultural expectations of English-speaking countries. These days, many CD booklets place their notes in German before those in English, which might conceivably indicate that we are now regarded as philistines.) 

Kaufmann first leapt to attention in the UK with his debut CD of Strauss Lieder (on Harmonia Mundi) four years ago. I was sent the recording to review and put it on without expectation — only to find myself struck speechless by the magnificent Zueignung that opened the disc. Here was that longed-for rarity, a real, heroic German romantic tenor. It must have had the same effect on someone at Decca, which soon snapped him up, and on Angela Gheorghiu, who borrowed him to record Madama Butterfly with her for EMI. He is not confined to German music but equally fabulous in Italian and French repertoire, with Cavaradossi, Don José and Werther among his most celebrated operatic roles, besides Lohengrin and Beethoven’s Florestan.

But Kaufmann does not go in for image-making. For him it extends little further than posing as the central figure of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape on his album of German romantic arias, Sehnsucht (“Longing”). Neither picture nor title was exactly calculated to appeal to the Simon Cowell generation — and the English edition removed “Sehnsucht”, putting the word MOZART first. There’s been promotion, but of a restrained, tasteful and delightfully old-fashioned kind. Kaufmann has no need for crossover nonsense or PR in overdrive. Indeed, it is likely that “Kaufmania” is a genuine word-of-mouth sensation. 

I’ve been told repeatedly in the publishing industry that launches, advertising and press coverage make no difference to sales: apparently all that counts is “word of mouth”. This can set off the bullshit alarm — it seems obvious that a book will sell better if its image is plastered across a bus. But there’s a kernel of truth nonetheless: nothing sells a product as reliably as a personal, heartfelt recommendation from a friend. So the manner in which the music industry has mass-produced “stars” for the past 25 years is in serious danger of having its bluff called by Kaufmania. 

We want great artists. Yes, we do. Honest. Forget the women musicians draped over sofas, pouting; the purveyors of miked-up classico-lite who are passed off, ridiculously, as opera singers; and the artists for whom the ratio of sales to story increases the more the latter tells of mental illness or reality TV. All of that is disposable fast-food wrapping, discarded for recycling when there’s no enduring artistry to sustain it. It’s worth noting that Nigel Kennedy is still going strong because under that punky image is a passionate, devoted violinist with a technique to die for and an insatiable hunger for music-making. 

Kaufmann, 41 and originally from Munich, is to the best of my knowledge a regular bloke and devoted father of three who has worked his way steadily and sensibly up the operatic tree. Rolando Villazón, younger still, should have been his chief competitor but has already been chewed up and spat out, his career effectively wrecked, by the industry. Kaufmann’s magic exceeds Villazón’s in any case. He can pack a punch with voice size when he wants to, but he saves the impact for the moments when the music and the character truly require it. In Die schöne Müllerin it was the quiet moments you had to watch, the nuances of colour that revealed the hero’s psychology — such as the shock, a few songs in, when we understood how he was building the tension and just how much it was going to hurt when the tragedy struck.

Artistry of this quality speaks for itself, and word spreads quickly because it’s so rare. We wouldn’t value it so much if it were commonplace. But it throws into sharp relief the phoniness of others. Much excessive promotion is there because the artists’ musicianship is not strong enough for word of mouth to do the trick. And to be fair to the companies, which can seem desperate, they have to push comparatively indifferent artists because usually that is all they have. Meanwhile, other performers, often fine musicians with all the humility in the world, moulder away in their practice rooms because they lack the necessary extra milligram of compulsive inspiration. In both cases the best is the enemy of the good.

“Kaufmania” brings hope that great musicianship will out. So why not stop the hype, shut down the marketing, save on the advertising budget? Just let people hear the reality. The music — and the truth behind it — will do the rest.