Even in 2015, seven whole decades after the war ended, the fact that a German tenor is to lead the Union Jack-waving faithful through Rule, Britannia! at the Last Night of the Proms invokes a frisson of intrigue and surprise.
“C’mon, it’s an old song but a great one and if they don’t have a problem hiring a German to sing it, why should I have a problem myself?” Bavarian superstar Jonas Kaufmann responds cheerfully. “I’ve never performed it before. I’ll have to study hard in advance, of course; everyone watching will know the words so much better than I do.”
And back in his homeland, what have they made of the news that their famous son will sing this nationalistic British anthem? “Disappointingly, no one seems to have noticed so far,” he chuckles. “But transmission of the Proms extends far beyond the Channel so I guess they’ll hear it when it happens. Let’s see then what they have to say.”
In demand throughout the world and with a schedule planned as far as six years ahead, Kaufmann now frequently attracts the label “the world’s greatest tenor”. “It’s flattering, but I was frightened the first time I was described that way,” he admits. “What seems an honour can also quickly become a burden. For decades people have been prophesying the end of opera so the arrival of any new star means fresh hope. But it’s too much for one person to carry that flag on their own. And anyway opera will never die. If we treat it carefully and don’t try at any cost to drag it into the modern world, it’ll be just fine.”
It was as a teenager on holiday in Norway that Kaufmann got his first taste of the Last Night experience. “We switched the TV on and there was this cheering, swaying crowd. I assumed it was a pop concert. But no, Pomp and Circumstance was being played. How lovely to remove the crust of formality and tradition and to see classical music being enjoyed for what it can be, just fantastic entertainment. I’m extremely thrilled to finally be a part of it.”
Praised not just for the beauty and versatility of his singing voice but also the strength of his acting, the 46-year-old father of three has been hailed as the best tenor since Plácido Domingo — and his natural successor.
The two men are close and recently Kaufmann was asked to present his friend with a lifetime achievement award. “I wrote the speech myself. Afterwards he said to me with tears in his eyes, ‘Everything you just said about me, I could so easily say about you too.’ So wrong. I have yet to earn that reputation, that respect. But I think my voice is getting stronger, richer. And I’m of an age where I’m growing towards some of the big male operatic roles. In two years’ time and at the Royal Opera House I will do my first Othello. Then in the years ahead I hope there’ll be some other tricky parts to come, my first Tannhäuser and my first Tristan. In six years I’ll be 52 and I think by then I’ll be about ready for them.”
Rule, Britannia! aside, Kaufmann’s Proms programme has yet to be finalised. But released this month is his new album of Puccini arias, so yes, he’ll be performing Nessun dorma from Turandot. Could anything be more guaranteed to bring the house down?
“Well, let’s hope they’ll like it,” he smiles. “Even in a totally silent hall, you know if the audience is with you. There’s a certain energy in the air that is palpable and inspires you. And the Last Night crowds are anything but silent so it should be quite an experience.”
Last Night at the Proms is on BBC1 tonight (Saturday 12th September) at 7.15pm