Jonas Kaufmann On Wagner: 'It's Like A Drug Sometimes'

Feb 16, 2013
Originally published on February 16, 2013 6:00 pm

This year is the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth. The man widely called the greatest living Wagnerian tenor is marking the occasion in style — and asking listeners who may have turned away from the German composer to give his music another chance.

The Munich-born singer Jonas Kaufmann is currently in New York starring in the Metropolitan opera's production of Parsifal. He also has a new album, simply called Wagner, that draws from across the composer's entire career. Click the audio link on this page to her his conversation with Jacki Lyden, and read excerpts — including some that didn't make the radio version — below.


Interview Highlights

On growing up Wagnerian

"My grandfather was playing it on the piano — all the vocal scores, and trying to even sing all the parts through! It was very normal for me. Obviously, if you grow up in another background and with a completely different style of music, and you get in touch with that kind of music, it could be a shock. It's so rich and deep — it's like a drug sometimes. If you give up and let go, it really drags you into a mysterious world. For me, it was the most normal thing in the world. So therefore I believe it's actually my duty to record an album dedicated to this composer."

On artistic evolution

"Wagner changed very much, like every great composer. They were born, maybe, being geniuses, but they had to discover all their abilities and their special style. What you do as a young artist is to try to imitate others — you try to do the same as others around you were successful with. Once you feel more mature and self-confident, then you try to create your own style. That's what every musician actually tries to do. Later on, you just try to sound like you."

On the dynamism of Parsifal

"You have the first act and the third act, which are very — I don't want to call them traditional, not at all — but the harmonies are, most of the time, very settled and very regular. You know in which direction he will go; [it's] a little bit predictable. But in the second act, suddenly, it's as if if somebody has opened Pandora's box, or the door to hell! It's never stable, it never stays in one key, in one harmony. It goes back and forth all the time, wildly."

On singing in his native language

"No matter what you do, no matter what you perform, [it's important] that you know exactly what the words are, and what the real meaning is — or what maybe the alternative meanings are. Very often, you have texts that can be interpreted in different ways, depending on where you put the stress, or where you put the pause. It's very sad when you have to perform something in a language that you don't speak and that you don't understand at all, so you just have to follow always what your teacher or coach told you to do, and you get stuck with one certain interpretation.

"Wagner had a tendency to actually invent things — to invent words — because he had these ideas, he had these rhymes and phrases that he wanted to fit to each other perfectly. Sometimes, he didn't have an adequate word to finish a phrase, or in other occasions he didn't have enough time or music to express what he really wanted the audience to know. So therefore he invented combination words, to squeeze as much information into a single phrase as possible."

On Wagner's dark side

"He had some troubles. He was not the easiest guy. Besides the tendency of anti-Semeitc ideas he tried to spread, but also he was so extremely self-confident. With one of his first operas, at age 18 or 19, he sent it to theaters to see if they would consider it. When they sent it back and said no he was so furious that he wrote again and said, 'You're making such a big mistake, because I am one of the greatest composers of all time. If you refuse to play my works, you will regret it forever.'"

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is - we'll say it here, building on considerable evidence - the greatest living Wagnerian tenor alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JONAS KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: His name is Jonas Kaufmann, and he's currently in New York starring in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Parsifal." This year is the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth, and Kaufmann is using that occasion to ask listeners who may have turned away from Wagner at some point to give his music another listen. Jonas Kaufmann's new album draws him across the composer's entire career, and it's simply entitled "Wagner."

KAUFMANN: For me, it sounds almost like an addiction, because I grew up with Wagner, my grandfather was playing it on the piano - all the vocal scores - and trying to even sing all the parts through. So I remember him sitting next to the piano and just listening to all that, and it was very normal for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: This exquisite recording you've done, 11 different works here from Wagner's career, and it features music from the beginning, from the opera "Rienzi" in 1842. You sing the part of "Siegfried" more than 30 years later. Talk to me about how he changed as a composer.

KAUFMANN: Well, Wagner changed very much, almost like every great composer. But they were born - maybe - being a genius, but they had to discover their special style and everything. And what you do as a young artist, you try to imitate the others. His first operas, they're very much in the traditional style of: now comes an aria, now comes a duet, now comes a trio, here comes another aria. From then on, he started to, like we say, he composed through. So it's - the flow of the music never ends. There's not one number, and then there is a little gap, and then comes the next number.

And "Rienzi" is, again, the last example of having a real aria. And after that, you really have to take a sharp knife and cut out from barre, I don't know, from barre 340 to barre 620 and call it an aria. Between the "Rienzi" and the ring cycle, he really created something really new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: Do you think that it's helped to be German, to know German, to grow up listening to it? You know, you're talking about having it sung into your ears as you're a child at your grandfather's knee. Does that give you, do you think, more richness and artistry in singing these lyrics?

KAUFMANN: I'm not sure. I don't know. I think very important, obviously, is in every language, no matter what you perform, that you actually know exactly what the real meaning is or what maybe alternative meanings are. Because when we have a production with several Germans, we always have discussions on what these words actually mean, because Wagner had a tendency to actually invent things. He invented the words because he had this idea that, obviously, he had always the rhymes or he always tried to make two phrases fit to each other perfectly. And then sometimes, he just wouldn't find the adequate word to finish a phrase, so therefore, he invented combination words.

LYDEN: I hope I won't be putting you on the spot, but is it possible for you to give me an example of some invented Wagnerian phrase that he uses? Do you have any of those on this album?

KAUFMANN: Let me think - on the album. There was one in the "Siegfried" scene. He's talking about his mother - how his mother would have probably looked like. And he says (German spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

Well, rehe is a deer, and hinden(ph), I never heard. I know hunden, which is a female dog. So I thought, a dog deer? I don't know. What is that? And then I looked it up, and I found that hinden is actually a very, very old word for a female elk. So he combined it. He said, well, it has maybe the statue and the proud figure of an elk but also the beauty of deer. The only problem is no one in the audience will understand when you sing that phrase what he actually means. So...

LYDEN: Unless you think of old fairytales. I remember from my childhood where, you know, the deer, the stag and sometimes called the hind in English, H-I-N-D. There you have it.

KAUFMANN: Oh, OK.

LYDEN: Maybe.

KAUFMANN: Oh, yeah, yeah. Exactly.

LYDEN: Maybe we even...

KAUFMANN: So probably...

LYDEN: Maybe we dream this up. I don't know. People will let us know. I'm speaking with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. His new album is called "Wagner." And I think a lot of people are less familiar with the nonoperatic works. Please tell me about those - I'm going to mess up the name - "Wesendonck-Lieder?"

KAUFMANN: "Wesendonck," exactly. There was a lady called Mathilde Wesendonck, a married lady, who he - they had kind of a relationship. Nobody knows exactly. I mean, you can say...

LYDEN: Infatuation.

KAUFMANN: ...she probably was his girlfriend. So she wrote some poems, and he composed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WESENDONCK-LIEDER")

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

There's one song called "Im Treibhaus," "In the Glass House," when he describes the suffering of this plant. Even though it has warmth, it has the sun, it gets watered and everything, but it's homesick, which is kind of weird for a plant. But if you then think of the situation of Wagner, who was in kind of exile in Switzerland at that time, you can understand why he was so attracted to these ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IM TREIBHAUS")

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: Why was Wagner in Switzerland?

KAUFMANN: He had some troubles. I mean, besides, what we all know, he had a tendency of anti-Semitic ideas, but also, he was so extremely self-confident. When you read the very first opera - I think it was the scene that (unintelligible) he wrote, and he sent it to theaters. And they sent it back, and said: No, we're not interested.

And he was so furious that he wrote again, and he said: You're making such a big mistake because I'm one of the greatest composers of all time. That's being said by an unsuccessful, 18-year-old, want-to-be composer. So he didn't make friends so much with all his ideas and habits and everything.

LYDEN: The whole notion of the anti-Semitism that is still difficult, has - have those wounds basically healed?

KAUFMANN: Well, it's difficult to let the wounds heal because we're not only talking about Wagner in his time. We also talk about the abuse of that music during the Third Reich. But it's a pity, I have to say. It's really a pity. I totally understand that, for instance, Holocaust victims never, ever want to listen again...

LYDEN: Just can't hear it.

KAUFMANN: ...to his music because it reminds them on all the terrible things they combined with this music. But it's one of the greatest composers of all times. Unfortunately, now that I just mentioned that he said it himself, 200 years later, we have to confess it's true.

LYDEN: Jonas Kaufmann. His new album is simply titled "Wagner." And Jonas Kaufmann is currently starring in "Parsifal" at the Met. And if you can't make it to New York, they'll have a live broadcast in hundreds of movie theaters around the world on March 2.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. Or you can follow me on Twitter @nprjackilyden. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.