Jonas Kaufmann never had a chance. From childhood, his future as a world-renowned opera star was almost a given.
Classical music was always a part of Kaufmann's life. Music from his father's record collection filled his home: Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff. For relaxing, Mozart, Schubert or Haydn. And, yes, there was opera, too. What's more, Kaufmann's grandfather played Wagner on the piano and would enthusiastically sing along, performing all the parts - both men and women's - while his grandchildren sat on the sofa shouting out requests.
"My parents knew that it was very important for us to hear that music," Kaufmann fondly recalled. "It was something normal, because they had experienced this with their own parents. It was something they loved and were passionate about. And they wanted to share that with us - without knowing that it would spread that virus that brought me here."
Kaufmann began attending Munich's Bavarian State Opera productions at an early age and joined the chorus in elementary school. He first stood on an operatic stage when he joined the extra chorus at Munich's Gartnerplatztheater, the city's second opera house.
Yet, wanting to follow his parents' advice to learn something "sensible," something that he could use to get a job and earn a "decent income," Kaufmann enrolled as math student at the University of Munich.
"I held out for a couple of semesters," Kaufmann said, "but the certainty that I wasn't born to be a theoretician, a desk jockey, weighed heavier and heavier."
So, Kaufmann auditioned for a slot as a vocal student and was immediately accepted. In the summer of 1989, he began training at the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich to become an opera and concert singer.
Kaufmann is now recognized as one of the world's leading tenors, one of just a few opera singers who can be described as great. On Sunday night he will stage a concert to benefit the Vilar Performing Arts Center, one of only three stops Kaufmann will make while in the United States to perform in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Parsifal."
"There are many ingredients to becoming a great opera star," said Kaufmann, thoughtfully. "Of course you have to have talent. That's number one. It's not possible to have a long career without talent. It's only one ingredient. You need some intelligence, you need some connections, you need friends, you need people who support you and you need luck to be at the right spot at the right moment to meet the people that can bring you to another level.
"Very often I turned something down and then began to think, 'Is this really a good decision?' And then something else much more important came up. And I was free to do that instead. So it's really a kind of destiny thing. How can that be? Like a cat that always lands on its feet."
'The singing button'
Early in his career, Kaufmann had a problem with his voice. Constant hoarseness was part of his everyday life, sometimes during a performance. Once, singing a small part in "Parsifal" he didn't think he could make it to the end of the evening. At one point, he thought he should quit the theater and go back to a career in mathematics. Fortunately, he met Michael Rhodes, a voice teacher who "unearthed" his natural voice and taught him how to relax while singing.
"Many of the muscles that you're using cannot be easily controlled," explained Kaufmann. "They just work for you spontaneously, say, when you yawn, when you cough, when you inhale. And you have to combine several of these natural movements of you body to a technique and make this package, again, something natural. And, you push the singing button and it adjusts everything to the right status.
"It's very difficult to describe. We're always working with images and picture. You need to find the teacher who not only knows your technique, but who also knows the right language that you understand. And he describes the technique to you with all kinds of images and doesn't say anything. And then, suddenly, you get it. And you say, 'Ahh. That's it. It's amazing!'"
What's even more amazing is that it only takes Kaufmann just a few days to learn a part.
"But that means working hard, reading and studying it for hours a day," he said. "What you usually do is get some coaching from the pianist and sing through it three or four times. Then you let it sit and you come back about 10 days later and you begin to think, 'Okay, I know this bit.' And your brain starts to put the bits and pieces together. I'll be in the car and start singing some lines and, maybe, I'll forget a word and make a note to remember it when I get home and I'll look it up and think, 'I know this bit already.' It's like a puzzle and suddenly, the parts all fit naturally."
'Taking care of your instrument'
Kaufmann admits to knowing at least 50 parts. And there are so many more to come. Yet, in a way, Kaufmann is like an athlete that is getting ready for a major event - contemplating just the right time the make "the" move.
"Everyone is asking me to do Othello," he said, "but I just have to wait. And I just have to be careful. I'm getting closer and closer to the moment when I have to say 'yes.'
"You know that there's a certain point coming when your voice is ready," he continued. "But at the same time, experience is something that is extremely important for parts like Othello because not only are they vocally demanding, but also the characters are strong and wild and the music is also driving you. It's very easy to lose control and just go for it and that is dangerous. Then you can hurt yourself if you do too much and are not taking care of your instrument."
"There are many good opera singers, but only a handful of great ones!" wrote Margarida Mota-Bull, for MusicWeb, Seen and Heard International. "Jonas Kaufmann possesses one of the most exciting voices on the planet. No other tenor is capable of expressing the overwhelming emotions of the heroes he personifies on stage in such a credible, vivid way."
Indeed, Sunday night's audience will be privileged to see the singer perform. It's an evening that Kaufmann is looking forward to as well.
"I can choose the program. I can say 'Let's put this next to that. ' And, of course, you can't do that in opera," he noted. "You have only one pianist with you and you can do whatever you want. With an orchestra, with a set, with the costumes, with the lights and with the chorus on stage, you can never do what you really want to do. You always have to take care of the others. You have to compromise. In a recital, there is no compromise. You and your pianist decide what is the best."
Yet, Kaufmann is not sure that it's best for his children to do anything in the music business.
"It's a tough job," he said. "I enjoy it very much, but I am lucky. I'm on top of the hill. The view is nice up here, but it's also very slippery."