Criticism on Fridays: The Societal Problems Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Tristan’ Revealed

The Opera World Turned Out To Be Morally Lagging In the Reality & It’s Time to Learn to Respect and Love Again

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo C.W. Hoesl)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most essential topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

It comes to everyone in a different way. The inner voice, friend’s suggestion, family talk, and the therapist session, but in recent years, we all slowly accepted — to do our best and to be the best is amazing but hard, and it’s our natural need and right to step back sometimes, feel comfortable, and save ourselves for a better future and a better us. The phrase “mental health” is finally gaining positive traction in society.

And recently, we all saw it at the highest level, when at the 2020 Olympics, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the competition after an unsuccessful attempt. She didn’t try to hide behind physical trauma, but instead clearly stated that she had concerns about her mental health. 

Behind all the praise Biles received, she also continued to develop the topic and explained that this year Tokyo is a huge challenge for all the athletes and that the decision to not go might actually be of greater service to the development of world sports than any gold medal. 

Citius, Altius, Fortius is now not enough. For big sports, I guess, this is undeniably a win.

But unfortunately, while watching sports change, I’ve noticed the opposite trend at the highest level of the opera industry.

This summer was meant to bring relief and joy to opera fans, totally broken by the second wave of the pandemic. And in view of the uncertainty of the new season, this summer became the peak moment of audience anticipation. So people rushed to consume high-culture presented this summer (And I’m actually going to keep this word “consume” as the main verb describing the approach of many, sure not all people, who had a privilege to enjoy exceptional pieces of art).

To be an opera star is a hard everyday challenge. Maybe they don’t attract that as much attention as pop stars, but the attention of their fans is way more detailed, and the expectations are the highest. It starts with the audience, but then it always affects the inner feelings and requirements of the singer. 

There’s a huge difference between these two inner questions:

  • How should I approach and perform this role? — Strong, searching, developing.
  • How should the best tenor in the world approach and perform it? — Self-doubting, looking around, seeking one’s approval.

This summer, among his numerous engagements, Jonas Kaufmann took an epic challenge in debuting the role of Tristan in a fully-staged production of not only one of Wagner’s most difficult pieces, but one of the titanic works in the entire repertory. And the preparation process, I think, was a positive challenge for tenor, so approaching the premiere, he was fully concentrated on his role, technique, interpretation. The only important and valuable external interference was his need to meet the high standard of other participants. And as we could see on the first night, they all managed this part brilliantly. 

But soon after the rave reviews, the wave of pressure hit the debutants. After only modestly asking about a potential broadcast, the public started demanding it furiously. 

“How dare you not to share Kaufmann’s triumph?!”   

But you could notice this even before the premiere. People did not doubt in the slightest that the broadcast would take place, from the very beginning they only asked “when?” Like it was someone’s duty. Like the Bayerische Staatsoper owes them this entertainment.

Well, it doesn’t, and it never did. 

And when eventually it was announced that the broadcast this year wouldn’t take place, the rage and discontent swept over social media. So after a few days, the Bayerische Staatsoper released the official statement, explaining:

 “Have you ever thought why many artists always choose the Bavarian State Opera for big role debuts? Today we’re revealing the secret: you’ll feel particularly comfortable at our house! And why do they? Because we don’t apply pressure. Because we leave space and air for everyone involved to breathe, in rehearsals, and to prepare. A first ascent to Mount Everest” (Jonas Kaufmann singing Tristan and Isolde) needs a relaxed preparation and rehearsal phase in a protected environment. This is what we want to be for all artists, and we ask you to respect the understandable desire of all participants!”

A few silent nods in the audience, and a quiet displease whispered across social media: “How dare they hide behind the names of our beloved.”

No one loudly praised the great professional decision and a brave move by Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, who wanted to keep their debut more private and wanted to learn and evolve from it, instead of experiencing extra pressure about performing voice-killing roles in front of hundreds of thousands of demanding and cruel critics.

But not only did the audience not praise this decision. They continued to demand it more vociferously.

And perhaps, the pressure didn’t come only from the audience members. BMW obviously didn’t want to miss a potential gem for its OPER FOR ALL project, an annual event it does with the Bayerische Staatsoper. And eventually, the intermediate solution was confirmed — the performance would be shown to more people as a part of OPER FOR ALL on the big screen at Max-Joseph-Platz. 

Any relief, joy, gratitude? Nope, not at all.

“If I cannot see it, it doesn’t matter! You will film it anyway, why don’t you show it to everyone?”

And nobody thought, “Ah, it will totally change the experience of the last performance for singers, who will now be forced to take the cameras and pickups into account.”

And eventually, the Bayerische Staatsoper, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Kirill Petrenko, and the entire brilliant cast caved to the demands.

Our beloved ones. How did they feel? Sure, they succeeded with the performance. The product was a success.

But was it a successful experience for the singers? Maybe, but now that it was shown and gone, can we consider what we, as an opera community, showed them in return?

“We showed how we valued them.” But did we? Or did we only care about our amusement? 

With Kaufmann and Harteros challenging themselves with such roles in this hard time, I believe that they deserve the comfort and the freedom to decide what parts of their art could be shown and when. And they deserve our respect to make these decisions freely and comfortably as befits their abilities and art. 

One night after the performance at the Bayerische Staatsoper, a woman at the backdoor was waiting for Jonas Kaufmann with flowers. She was proud of herself.

“I don’t want to bother him, I don’t need his autograph. I want to show my love and respect with these beautiful flowers for him to take home, on the backstage they often leave it,” she said.

At that time I thought, would he appreciate having no choice but to take those flowers home? Now I ask, do you really think it’s easy to appreciate thousands of “Thank you!” on Facebook from an audience who prevented one of the greatest singers in the world from having a comfortable role debut. An audience that showed no care or understanding, and always demanded more. A selfish and rabid public who treated Kaufmann and Harteros as pawns that owe us entertainment. 

I guess it’s time for the opera industry and all of us too, to rethink what real success is, and how we show love and respect and give back to the artists we supposedly admire for what they give to us.