On a rainy morning in Munich, I sat down with two of the biggest names in the opera panorama today, both in town performing in the Bavarian State Opera’s production of Don Carlo. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and bass René Pape arrived with German punctuality looking fresh and very relaxed in jeans despite a grueling 4 1/2 hour-long performance just the night before. In this industry where the top voices are all too often accompanied by foul personalities, diva-esque behavior and eccentricities, Kaufmann and Pape are surprisingly down to earth for their level of fame. With these two, there are no egos and no airs. They are also the biggest goofballs. Jonas, an engaging conversationalist who loves to laugh, is easy to talk to and answers questions with great enthusiasm and eloquence. Unlike some singers who I call “jock-pera singers” (beautiful voices, dumb as a jock), Jonas is an intelligent artist who possess a deep, comprehensive understanding of the many other elements that feed into the Gesamtkunstwerk that is opera including history, literature, politics, etc. He also speaks French, English, and Italian with great proficiency. He attributes his knack for languages to his foundations in ancient Greek and Latin which he studied as a youth at his Gymnasium in Munich. Pape, tall and strikingly handsome with an old-world elegance about him, is really a comic in disguise. Though he comes off as taciturn and pensive, he injects his dry sense of humor from time to time, catching both Jonas and me off guard and sending us into bouts of laughter. Together, the German duo makes a terrific team: their combined artistry on stage sells out every single performance while their off-stage charisma and camaraderie is priceless and endearing. This week they appear in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, Kaufmann in the lead role and Pape as King Heinrich, which opens Teatro alla Scala’s 2012-2013 season celebrating the dual bicentennial of the births of composers Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.
I’d like start with a topic other than opera. We already know you two can sing. Let’s talk about fashion and menswear. How would you describe your personal style? I know that René, for instance, likes to accent his look with splashes of bright colors.
JK: There, there! (pointing at René’s bright red socks) It’s always there, the spots of color.
And Jonas, you’re always very well put together. What is your relationship with fashion?
JK: For me the story if very simple. I’ve been connected with a fashion label for many years, which makes dressing much easier. Now I’ve stopped shopping and looking for the newest items since I’ve got an endless supply of fashion.
JK: It’s a German tailor who is more popular for women’s clothes than menswear. Women’s fashion is worldwide and menswear is only in selected countries. I like it very much.
How would you describe your day to day style? Are you more of a blazer, sport coat kind of guy or do you prefer jeans and a T-shirt?
JK: Well, you see when I started out and had my first engagements, I came just the way I always walked around – very sportive, only with jeans and sneakers. And then, I think it was somewhere in Italy, I found this amazing shirt tailor and they had all these brilliant colors, and I love color! So I bought a huge selection of shirts there and I wore them to rehearsals everyday because I was proud of my new shirt collection; every day a new shirt. And in this production, I tell you, the director treated me as if I were two classes higher. Suddenly, you show up not just like a youngster with broken jeans and chewing gum. I thought: it’s not about your singing quality, it’s not what you’re doing on stage and your acting, it’s more about the way you are dressed. All of a sudden [the people I worked with] were much more respectful than before. So from that moment on I dressed more formal and it worked very well. Now I can go back to jeans and sneakers, because obviously, if you have a suit you can’t kneel down and roll on the floor!
You get beat up by René! I saw him throwing you across the stage.
JK: Yes, I ripped my jeans and got a huge hole in one of my sweaters during rehearsals.
From him?! (pointing at René)
JK: It’s always him, of course! I mean… just look at him!
He’s such a bully, this guy! (René mumbles something inaudible in German. Laughter) Okay, and René?
RP: I’m coming from the other side of The Wall (East Germany) and had nothing growing up. I never had money, I never had access to nice things. So when I finished my studies and became a member of the Berlin Opera House, I got all of a sudden a pay raise from two hundred East German mark of study fee to five thousand – the same pay as a chief doctor. It was a huge jump. And then I went crazy – I wanted this, and this, and that. I was looking in the magazines and wanted to buy everything. So I became a fashion maniac for many years. Then I realized my closet was going to explode so therefore I stopped buying things and now I’m wearing things I bought ten years ago because they are still brand new and have never been worn. Like shoes. I have millions of shoes, some I’ve only worn once and then they are still fresh.
JK: And they don’t even smell after ten years.
RP: There was a time I was going to rehearsals in a nice jacket or blazer, but dressing that way made me hesitant to get down and dirty, like rolling on the floor. I was rehearsing in a different way. So now, I wear sneakers and dress much more casually for rehearsals and it’s good because I can move and be much more comfortable without being afraid of destroying my clothes.
Do you have a favorite tailor?
JK: He has this fantastic coat, for instance, from a tailor in Dresden.
RP: Yeah, I have a good tailor in Dresden who is actually from Italy. I was completely addicted to Etro and bought all the shirts I could find. It didn’t matter if they fit me or not, I just had to have them! And now that I’m getting older, I’m more Ralph Lauren Purple or Black Label.
But you’re still not afraid to wear splashes of color.
RP: No, not at all.
Wait, I need a picture of those socks! They are so cool.
JK: They’re pac-man!
RP: I’m from East Germany; that means I have to wear red socks!
JK: Hahaha, rote Socken!
RP: I am a fashionista. I am a total fashion addict! I would love to open my own fashion label and I would also perhaps like to be an interior designer if I had the time.
Ha, perfect, you just answered one of my other questions which is: “What would you do if you weren’t an opera singer?”
RP: I would definitely be a designer.
AZ: René, what do you think when you look at yourself in the mirror?
RP: The first thing I think is that I should buy a new mirror.
RP: The mirror is never as good as I am, so gotta buy a new one.
Oh, come on! That’s not what you really think, is it?
RP: I see imperfections just like anyone else – there’s a little spot there and and dark puffy circles under my eyes, and you should take care of yourself a little bit more. The mirror always tells you the truth. When you get up in the morning or you look at in the mirror in the afternoon or at night, it’s always your double. Years ago I was very much like – okay this mirror tells me I have to change. But now I consider the mirror my friend. It’s the guy who always goes with me telling me: “okay René, take care a little bit more,” or “oh, René, you were great tonight!” or “René, you really screwed up tonight, but take your sleep and come back and let’s talk again tomorrow.”
So then you don’t really want to throw your mirror away if it’s your friend.
RP: No, of course not. The mirror is your mirror, and everybody needs his mirror.
Jonas, do you have any superstitions or rituals you always perform before going on stage?
JP: No. I do some yoga before, that’s the only thing that I do regularly. If it’s a very demanding role, I may have a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes I may even warm up in the late morning, around 11am, just to have the voice already prepared. But this is not a ritual – I only do it sometimes. If there is something like a ritual, I’m always late for the performance. Well, not really that late where I can’t make it on stage in time, but I’m always much later than most of my colleagues. I know singers who arrive at the theater three or four hours before to warm up and read or sing through the entire part. Last night, for instance [before Don Carlo], I came 35 minutes before the beginning and I’m the first on stage, but for me it’s just the time I need. The performance prior to that, I arrived 45 minutes before the because I had two TV interviews to do. After that I went into the makeup room and disturbed my dear colleague. (pointing to René)
RP: No, no, I disturb you!
JP: That was funny. The camera team followed me into the makeup room and then they didn’t want to let him in and he was like (imitating René’s deep voice): “Wait a minute, I don’t care about interviews, I need my makeup now!!! Just let me in!!”
RP: Hey, I didn’t do it that way! (Imitating Jonas’ grumpy imitation of him) I said, “I don’t give a shit!”
AZ & JP: AHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!
(René flashes his best devilish Mephisto grin)
Ok, here is a very important question for both of you. Do opera singers snore louder than the average person? Do you employ your operatic technique while you are sleeping?
RP: I don’t know. I do snore.
JK: Well, you have to ask our partners. So far, I’m not snoring.
You don’t snore? Really?!
JK: Nope. I swear. It happens maybe once a year when I’m really drunk, but apart from this I’m not snoring. But I think that singers have the physical ability to snore louder than others, that’s for sure.
(René starts making snoring noises)
RP: Relaxing. Some people call it snoring. I call it relaxing.
JK: Oh yes, soft palate exercise.
RP: I even sing during the night. (starts humming) I mean, not really singing, but making noises and in the morning I don’t have to warm up. The first thing when I wake up I go, “mmmmmmMMMMMM.” (swoops from high to low) If this works, I know the voice is good.
JK: A long time ago, I had a master class and the teacher asked us, “How much time do you spend working with your voice?” and they were saying an hour, ninety minutes, something like that. And I said, “What?! I spend the entire day with it!” I wake up and the first thing: “Is the voice still there?” (makes random noises testing the voice).It’s true.Obviously we rely on our instrument, we cannot do anything without it.
In your opinion, which country or city has the most discerning audience? I noticed here in Munich the audience is very gracious, staying long after the performance for countless curtain calls. The applause just went on and on last night, but obviously they recognized it was a world class performance. I’ve been at other venues where the audience didn’t have a clue and would give standing ovations and shout “Bravo!” for even very mediocre performances.
JK: Well people say that Parma is the most difficult audience, not in a negative way, but if someone is really butchering an Italian part somewhere in the world, they would say “Ah… if this would happen in Parma they would probably kill him!” So there must be some truth since everybody says that the audience in Parma is very critical. They applaud for everything they love and they will really crucify you if they don’t like you. I’ve never sung in Parma, so I cannot tell by experience, but that’s what people say. It is true that in different countries and in different theaters, the reaction is varied. Interestingly, for instance, everyone might expect that in England the people are more reserved and more held back, but the Covent Garden audience is one of the warmest audience I know. In Zurich, on the other hand, at a theater where I sing very very often, and you get used to the amount of applause that you get, which is not much, whatever happens. And whenever a colleague comes and sings for the very first time, they would say, “Was I really that bad?!” And I would say, “No, you got great applause!” “Yeah, but they stopped…” “Yes, that’s just the way it is here.” That’s the mentality. So it’s different everywhere, but I personally prefer an audience who are discerning – when they applaud to you hopefully they really mean it because you personally did something great on that night. And that’s actually something I admire about the American audience. I know they are also very fast – they have three or four curtains and then everybody is running to get a taxi. But, when I appeared there for the very first time, I’m certain that 99.9% of the audience had no idea about who I was and still I got a great applause I got hundreds of bravos, people were standing up and cheering at my very first performance. That is something different from many other countries where the first ingredient to get good applause is to have a name.
René, what is your proudest moment in life thus far and what do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
RP: My proudest moment is every morning when I get up, and every single day when I go to the theater to make music and to make the people in the audience happy. I am always happy when I can make other people happy. And what I hope to do in the next five years is to be able to continue that; to be able to sing and to deliver music to the people.