German tenor Kaufmann to make Bayreuth debut

German star tenor Jonas Kaufmann is to make his debut at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival this week, amid hopes the charismatic 41-year-old will ring in a vocal renaissance on Richard Wagner's fabled "Green Hill".

Munich-born Kaufmann is to sing the title role in a brand-new production of Wagner's romantic opera "Lohengrin", which opens the annual month-long summer festival dedicated exclusively to the composer's works.

The singer, with his unruly mop of hair, designer stubble and Latin-lover looks, already sang the role of the Swan Knight in the Bavarian State Opera of his home town last year to sensational reviews.

And so critics, who have long complained that the world's best singers are absent from Bayreuth, are pinning their hopes on Kaufmann to bring back that extra touch of glamour to the world's oldest and most famous music festival.

A so-called "lirico spinto" tenor (a voice that has the basic characteristics of a lyric tenor, but can push into a more powerful and dramatic climax), Kaufmann has worked patiently at building up his voice since studying at Munich's Hochschule fuer Musik in the early 1990s.

He attended master-classes by Wagnerian greats Hans Hotter and James King and was a prize-winner at the Nuremberg Mastersinger Competition in 1993.

Kaufmann joined the ensemble of the Saarbruecken opera house in 1994 where he sang all the major lyric roles. And it was here that he began to come to the attention of much bigger, more important houses, including New York, Vienna and Zurich where he made something of a name for himself in Mozart and Verdi roles.

Nevertheless, being a member of an ensemble enabled him to sing a wide repertoire and his first CD for his current label, Decca, was a disc of romantic arias, ranging from Berlioz and Bizet to Gounod, Massenet, Puccini, Verdi and Weber.

"I've already sung perhaps 50 different roles. They weren't easy to choose," Kaufmann told AFP in an interview in 2008.

A fluent Italian speaker, the polyglot musician is almost equally at ease in English and French and is constantly alert to language and words.

"A famous tenor once told me he drew little faces on his scores - smiling or crying - to give him a general idea of how to sing the role. That's not how I go about interpreting a character," Kaufmann said.

"Opera is not just about singing beautifully, it's about investing emotion in a character to give them meaning."

Kaufmann's rich, gleaming, baritonally-hued tenor, with its solid technique and shining musicality, is a perfect vehicle for doing just that.

And he has a very natural stage presence and is a highly intelligent actor.

Given the dearth of good Wagnerian singers nowadays, it could be difficult for a singer of Kaufmann's calibre to resist pressure to take on Wagner before his voice is really ready.

But Kaufmann has been extremely careful so far. On his second disc for Decca entitled "Sehnsucht" (Yearning), he takes on the roles of Parsifal and Siegmund, in addition to Lohengrin.

He sang the role of Parsifal in Zurich in 2006, Walther von Stolzing in "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" in Edinburgh the same year and he is set to sing Siegmund at the New York Met in 2011.

But Kaufmann says he is not ready to jump into the heaviest Wagner roles just yet.

"Of course, the great dramatic Wagnerian roles appeal to me greatly. But they lie much further away in my future," he writes in the booklet to "Sehnsucht".

"You will have to wait quite a long while for the Siegfrieds... even longer for Tristan and Tannhaeuser!"

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