“60 Minutes” has always had a soft spot for song plots. Maybe it’s because, like us, opera is a storytelling business—with big, comprehensive, incredible stories and characters.
Tonight, we’ll introduce you to one of the star storytellers—a 52-year-old tenor from Germany named Jonas Kaufmann.
Critics praised Kaufman’s vocals, range and swagger on stage. Others point to his history of high-profile cancellations.
Affected by the pandemic, we have been following this tenor for years. Now, we’ve finally pulled the curtain so you can hear Jonas Kaufmann compose one of the opera’s most famous arias, his own.
Even if you don’t know its name, you’ve probably heard of it and maybe even hummed “Nessun Dorma” along.
Jonas Kaufmann: It’s hard to describe — or define the magic of this song.
In the first year of the pandemic, Jonas Kaufman drew crowds eager for live performances at the Vienna Philharmonic Summer Nights concert.
Jonas Kaufmann: If you look at the song, it’s simple. Because you have (sing). Like, “Okay,” like a child’s melody. It’s not a complicated m – but that’s the trick. The best hits aren’t too complicated. It does – its magic every time. Also for me. I’ve b– been performing this-this- aria many times. And the chill is still there.
For his fans, the chill remains, and also. It’s not just his good looks – he’s been compared to George Clooney – but his wide vocal range. Jonas Kaufman has a talent for roles, not just singing. Audiences line up to hear Kaufman perform lesser-known works. We joined him on his US tour last fall.
At the Kennedy Center in Washington, he offered an evening of poetry—poetic German songs—with only piano accompaniment.
Nora O’Donnell: You’ve been performing in America for three years. How does it feel to be back?
Jonas Kaufman: Well, it’s nice to be back with at least a part of that spirit that I used to see here. You see the audience become more cheerful, very emotional, and start crying.
Nora O’Donnell: Opera is always emotional. But even now you notice the audience even more so.
Jonas Kaufmann: It has a much stronger impact and impact on people now. But I’m actually pretty selfish, and I’m doing this mostly for myself, because being able to make a living off of what I’ve always dreamed of is a dream come true, so I thought, “Yeah, have an audience and everything, but — if — if only I and they’ll still pay me, I mean — (laughs) they — can too.” Big mistake — big mistake, because now, after doing a lot of these virtual concerts , I had to struggle to understand the importance of the audience.
Norah O’Donnell: Without live opera, audiences don’t just lose something. You are missing something.
Jonas Kaufmann: More than just applause. It was – the energy in the room changed instantly. If there are thousands of people attending something, watching, witnessing, holding their breath, you feel their presence. And — that’s what we’ve been sorely missing.
Such a huge Kennedy Center audience requested eight encores.
Kaufman’s breakthrough moment came with his 2006 Metropolitan Opera debut. One critic noted that he displayed “a big, loud voice”. Another said he looked like a rock star.
When we saw Kaufman backstage at the Met in 2018, Kaufman was swaggering through the outlaw character in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
Having played over 70 roles in German, French, Italian and English – all of which he is fluent in – Kaufmann is quintessentially Teutonic in his methodical approach to music.
“Opera is a competitive sport,” he likes to say. And his voice is as precise as a Porsche at Le Mans.
At the Bavarian State Opera, we watched Kaufmann warm up before the game – preparing his gear for the three-hour match against Verdi’s “Aida”.
Nora O’Donnell: We saw you with a towel in your mouth. (laughs) What’s the matter? (laughter)
Jonas Kaufman: Yes. This is a very special thing. Sometimes the sound is there, yes. You wake up and you think (singing), “Ah.” It’s all set. Then another day, it only took a while for the sound to wake up and get rid of all the dust. So when we want to wake up our voice, when we start to warm up, how do we do it? We change things to make them sound the way we want them to. This is wrong. We are impatient. But if we have towels in our mouths, you can’t hear them. You can’t hear the difference. You just let the sound do its thing. Once it’s ready, it’s ready.
Kaufman’s confidence in his own voice allows him to focus on shaping the characters he plays. He is recognized as a better actor than most opera stars.
Jonas Kaufman: I’m trying to master my — my vocal technique so I can open my mouth and sing like I can talk, focus on the emotion, focus on the — the layers below, the subtext . And — for me, acting isn’t contrived.
Jonas Kaufmann: I want to know more about the person standing behind this armor, maybe it feels completely different. So that’s what I’m interested in.
The tenor’s voice inherently requires heroism…and a will of steel — something that took him years to develop.
Nora O’Donnell: Why do you think tenors capture people’s imaginations?
Jonas Kaufmann: The tenor range is a very unnatural one. That’s pretty high for a male voice. You can’t just switch to, say, the soprano range and – and – sing ha-ha-ho-ho or something. Let’s say it’s easier. But you—you have to use your whole voice. There are so many factors that have to be put in place to make this happen, such as singing on stage with, say, a full-body high C – there’s always a bit of a risk.
Nora O’Donnell: You can’t pretend.
Jonas Kaufman: You can’t fake it. Because of you—you failed, and everyone saw it. Everyone hears it.
In 2015—a few years ago, gray-haired—we went to Kaufmann’s childhood home in Munich.
Nora O’Donnell: Looks the same? Have they changed a lot?
Jonas Kaufman: No. I mean it’s another yellow.
It was here that he began his love of classical music by sitting under the piano while his grandfather played. Kaufman joined the choir early, when his hands were too small to play the keyboard.
Jonas Kaufmann: I still remember that feeling when I first got there, like, bathing in the sound.
Nora O’Donnell: What does “bath in the voice” mean?
Jonas Kaufmann: No, you see, you are surrounded by sounds. through harmony. by sound. If you are – sitting as the audience – as the audience, then – the sound comes from one direction – but it is – it is not the same as if you are just in the middle of it. I got goosebumps instantly. Because I — I love it so much. So I–
Nora O’Donnell: So how old are you?
Jonas Kaufman: Five. so –
Nora O’Donnell: (laughs) You’re five and you’re getting goosebumps?
Jonas Kaufman: Yes. (laughs) I mean, I’m — I’m so excited.
Now 52, the father of four performs mostly in Europe to stay close to his family. When we were with him in Munich, he wanted us to experience the century-old Oktoberfest tradition. This tenor may be protecting his voice…but he still likes to have fun.
Nora O’Donnell: But as a tenor, you can’t drink that much beer. Can you?
Jonas Kaufman: No, no. I mean, if you have to sing the next day, at least not. But as far as I know, beer won’t damage your voice. So, you can drink it if you want.
Nora O’Donnell: Doesn’t beer damage your voice?
Jonas Kaufman: No, not at all. on the contrary. It helps.
Not all schnitzels and encores. In 1995, early in his career, after repeatedly forcing his instrument into where it unnaturally went, the tenor lost his voice on stage—and his confidence in his career.
Nora O’Donnell: You want to resign?
Jonas Kaufmann: Of course, I want to resign. If you’re doing a job so risky that when you step onto the stage, you never know if you’re going to end the night in glory or pain, why would you do it?
Nora O’Donnell: But you like it.
Jonas Kaufmann: I only love it when I know what I’m doing, and I’m — I can say — I’m on top.
Jonas Kaufman needs to ditch all the wrong tricks that nearly made him lose his voice and start over.
Nora O’Donnell: How did you recreate your voice?
Jonas Kaufmann: Well, I — I found another teacher — who taught me a completely different approach — a different approach, a different technique, a different breathing, a different mouth position.
Nora O’Donnell: How has your voice changed?
Jonas Kaufmann: I always say, if you — you compare — you’ve been driving a Mini, and then all of a sudden you — go — drive a 40-ton truck. And (laughs) — you think you’ve never driven a car before. Because it’s just steered alone – so weird.
Nora O’Donnell: But it’s stronger?
Jonas Kaufmann: It’s very powerful. The sound gets bigger, darker, rounder, bigger.
With this deeper, louder voice — and a heightened sense of discretion — Jonas Kaufmann rose to the top of the opera world when he hand-picked work…in his voice ready Before taking on the challenge, he withstood the pressure of taking on the role.
Jonas Kaufmann’s career is reflected not only in the moments he takes the stage, but also in the moments he doesn’t. To protect his instruments, he often cancels reservations, leaving opera houses scrambling and disappointing ticketholders.
Nora O’Donnell: Have you ever worried about gaining a reputation as a canceller.
Jonas Kaufman: Yes. certainly. That’s the risk. And – there was a time when you would Google – Jonas Kaufman, the next word was “cancel.” (laugh)
Nora O’Donnell: Can you laugh?
Jonas Kaufman: I can laugh. Because it doesn’t change – a hair. You see, I wouldn’t do anything different.
Jonas Kaufmann: It is my responsibility to protect my instrument. I love this job so much that there is no money in the world and I want to give it up. So I want to sing for as long as possible.
Produced by Kelly Tully. Associate Producer Eliza Costas. Broadcast Assistant, Olivia Rinaldi. Edited by Patrick Lee.