In what follows, I attempt to unpack the weird white elephant gift that is Jonas Kaufmann’s positively bizarre Christmas album, It’s Christmas.
The album, which stretches to two full hours in length, brings with a cover of an American Christmas classic, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” that quickly became something of a meme amongst opera singers and fans. The original is part of the long tradition of Christmas songs that are actually just about boning down under the mistletoe. It’s flirty and sexy and showcases Carey’s extraordinary range and pop diva belt. Kaufmann’s performance, however, is skin-crawlingly bad. This performance is so deep in the vocal uncanny valley that it feels like it might gain sentience and kill us all. It feels vaguely appropriative, like the sonic embodiment of a slightly off-color joke. It is, as the kids would say, cursed.
After a year like this one, listening to this album alone quickly became too much to bear, so, to get me into the Christmas spirit, I invited my dear friend and colleague Callum Blackmore to listen to the album with me and talk through it. Two evenings of tea drinking and tea spilling followed, and we ended up with nearly three hours of audio, which truly took me ages to transcribe. With Callum’s permission, I will include excerpts of the (edited-we will restrain ourselves, at least somewhat, even if Jonas and Sony Records could not) transcription below. That’s right, parterre box-ers, you get two reviewers for the price of one! Merry Christmas indeed.
Gabrielle Ferrari: I feel like the big question here is: who is the audience for this anyway? Is it us, as people who are already fans? Because we don’t want this, or at least, we don’t want the pop stuff. But is it really for the lay listener, either? It’s neither for opera fans, nor is it for people who don’t already know and like Jonas Kaufmann. I feel like Mariah Carey fans would just be insulted by this.
Callum Blackmore: Is he trying to expand his market? Because if he is, it’s not working. I feel like it would you put you off opera if you thought this was what opera was like.
GF: Another thing we have to talk to about is the length, which is truly mystifying: this album has 42 songs; this is two full hours long. I mean, what the fuck? Who let this happen?
CB: For me there was just too much of everything, even the German carols, which he sings better than the pop stuff. There were just so many, and they all sort of melt into one after a while.
GF: Also, the title. The title is just so lazy. The only way this title could have been lazier was if it were just called “Christmas,” or maybe, possibly, “Merry Christmas.”
CB: Although, at least “Merry” gives it a bit of emotion.
GF: Yeah, you’re right, at least it would make it seem like he’s wishing us well. Whatever this is, I do not think he wishes us well.
CB: I think he wishes us active harm with some of these. “It’s Christmas.” It’s the most matter of fact. It encapsulates the entire mood of the album, which is that Kaufmann doesn’t seem to like Christmas very much. When I think of Kaufmann, the absolute last word that comes to my mind is Christmas. I find him quite a cold and intense person, and I think that really works for the kind of repertoire that he sings. He somehow manages to be really intense and really aloof at the same time in a way that I like.
GF: Maybe I would like to make out under a tree, with Jonas Kaufmann, sure, he’s very handsome. But he’s not…cuddly… he is not the guy you ask to be Santa at the holiday party. And when he tries to be cutesy like this, it just makes me want to scream and run. Like, I never want Jonas to blow me a kiss. That’s horrendous. I literally would rather have him punch me in the face than blow me a kiss. So, all these pop tracks where he’s trying to flirty or jazzy or whatever, they just make my skin crawl. Did he pick these songs? Or was there a manager at Sony saying “Look, it’s great that you want to sing an hour and a half of traditional German carols, but we need something a bit lighter.”
CB: And then he pulled up Michael Bublé on Spotify and did the first five songs.
GF: The pop stuff, particularly. It’s just so wrong for him vocally and so wrong for everything about the image that he publicly projects. He’s sexy but it’s the scary kind of sexy, you know what I mean? He looks like he’d be mean to you, but you’d like it. You love the danger. He is the perfect opera bad boyfriend. You know he’s kind of a fuckboy and completely emotionally unavailable, but he’s so hot that you don’t care.
CB: And it suits those nineteenth-century characters perfectly, because all of them are awful, right, even when they’re passionate. But he pulls it off because he’s so handsome and magnetic. He manages to be intense and very aloof at the same time.
GF: Somehow, he feels very “British movie hero” to me.
CB: He’s like Mr. Darcy.
GF: That’s it! It’s extremely Mr. Darcy energy! He’s kind of a dick, but he’s weirdly also very deeply feeling. And you know you can fix him. You know you can bring it out of him, if you only try. And then obviously he ruins your life. But Mr. Darcy being cutesy? No thank you.
GF: I mean, really, how can anything make this man not sexy? But here we are. This album is the least sexy thing I’ve ever experienced.
CB: Should we jump in?
GF: Oh yeah, let’s do it.
Now, I will not torture you all with the full transcript of our listening session. Instead, I’ll just give you a quick and dirty tour of the album, hitting only the highlights (or lowlights as the case may be). Most of it is depressingly boring and unmemorable.
GF: Now that we’re listening to this, I have to say these arrangements are really doing him dirty. They are so terrible.
CB: They’re so heavy handed. It’s something about the fact that the melody line is always doubled with something.
GF: Yeah, as if he can’t…sing. As if he can’t carry the tune. Come on.
CB: All we need is a few nice little chords under there.
GF: Okay, who did these? Jochen Rieder. Wow. Herr Rieder really has a lot to answer for with these—42 terrible arrangements, lord.
CB: He sounds like he is attacking the reindeer. He’s trying to wrestle them. It is so aggressive.
GF: First of all, who did not tell him or coach him about the word “horse?” “One whore’s open sleigh.” I mean, really. Friends do not let friends do this. Is he trying to sound American? I’m trying to think what else would make anyone lean that hard in the “r’s.” There’s also something about hammering on all the diphthongs; it’s so extreme that it goes into parody.
GF: James said this when I was talking him about this, but I will say it again because it’s completely right: you know this is how we sound when we sing in other languages So, everyone, take our judgements here with a big grain of salt, because, really, who are we to judge. Good for everyone for not laughing at us openly whenever native English-speakers sing in other languages, because I am not a good enough person to not laugh at this openly.
CB: The idea that I have an accent in another language for some reason really freaks me out because you don’t know how you sound.
GF: Yeah! Obviously, I accept the fact that I do have an accent, but I like to think it’s the kind of accent that when French people have when they speak English. One that makes me think, oh how lovely and charming…
CB: But I suspect my accent is probably really broad and ugly.
GF: Yeah, and then you hear Jonas singing in English and you think, “Oh no, I know I sound like that like.”
CB: And his musicality just goes out the window and he just hammers on everything. It just doesn’t sound easy.
GF: Can you imagine it sounding easier for you to sing Wagner than it does for you to sing “Jingle Bells?”
CB: You listen to him sing Siegmund and you’re like, this guy can sing anything. Clearly, he can’t. He can’t sing “Jingle Bells.”
GF: It sounds stressful, like he’s kidnapping you and the sleigh is the getaway car.
“Still, Still, Still”
CB: He really took the “still” very literally. This is a little bit Peter Quint from Turn of The Screw, like, “Come here kiddies.” That is too much.
GF:. God, it’s terrifying. The way it’s mixed sounds like it’s from a different universe. nothing else on this album so far has sounded that close to the ear, and here you can hear all his breathing, like he’s called you at one a.m. and is breathing through the phone at you.
CB: It sounds like he recorded it on his iPhone in his bedroom
GF: The sound quality changed so radically. It sounds like the microphone is inside the harp. I don’t actually mind it in and of itself, but how different it is from the rest of the album is really striking in a bad way.
“Still, Still, Still (pt. 2)
GF: Wait, is this one here twice? Why is this on here twice?
GF: What the hell? This and “Silent Night” are both on the album twice. I didn’t even notice because you have to scroll down like 20 tracks to even see the repeats.
CB: This version is a little less creepy at least.
GF (under breath): God, this is boring as hell.
CB: He takes it real slow.
GF: Okay, there is simply no excuse to have double recordings of this same piece on the album, one of which is one full minute longer than the other but otherwise not that different in arrangement.
CB: They obviously haven’t heard of the cutting room floor. I mean kill your babies, kill your darlings.
GF: They don’t even feel like darlings. It’s like they were asking, “which one should we do?” And then someone else was just like, “I don’t know, put them both on I guess,” and no one remembered to go back and make a decision.
CB: I mean the real winner here is Jochen Rieder, who gets double the commissions.
GF: Yeah, I mean, who asked for this? Right? What, was Jonas like “‘Still Still Still’ is mein lieblings Christmastune. I’d like to sing it twice.” It feels like an error!
CB: Same with “Silent Night.” The arrangements are just too similar to justify this.
GF: Yeah, it wasn’t like he was like “and now I will do it *jazzy*” Thank god, I guess. He certainly didn’t need to insult all of jazz.
“Es wird scho glei dumpa”
CB: He sounds like he could sing this one in his sleep.
GF: This absolutely gorgeous. I would really like Jonas Kaufmann to be teleported here to sing this for me.
CB: He should have done everything with the harp, or at least with the piano. It would sound so much more authentic these Disney arrangements.
CB: It’s always like he’s really thought through how the German ones are going to sound. He has a really clear like artistic vision for them. Even in “Still Still Still,” which for me is too much artistic vision, you can really tell that he was thinking, “I want to shape my phrase like this.”
GF: Why on earth did he not just do an album of German Christmas songs. He sounds great on this!! I would have bought that!
CB: I think a lot of German people would have bought that. A lot of English-speaking people would have!
GF: I can only guess that this has to must have to do with some kind of market forces thing because this is just a completely incoherent aesthetic.
CB: It’s so strange how seriously he takes these German Christmas carols and how little thought has gone into everything else. Even when he when he sings one verse in German and one verse English, the German verse is beautiful and musical, with all this shaping. But all the musicality that he’s known for goes out the window when he switches to English. It’s all scooping up and down, and everything’s uniform and bland.
GF: The thing is, the kind of people who were going to listen to or download or purchase the Jonas Kaufmann Christmas album, the Venn diagram between that group of people and the group of people who would be absolutely and completely satisfied with a twenty-track album of German Christmas carols,–it’s a circle. It’s the same image.
CB: André Rieu has already cornered the market for bad classical crossover and he’s much more charming than Jonas Kaufmann in this album.
CB: I prefer this one to the other English ones.
GF: I mean, other than that doesn’t sound like him anymore. It’s at least a good other person.
CB: Yeah, there’s something a little more Sinatra about it.
GF: Okay, I think he likes this song. I think he likes this one.
CB: There’s something about the Irving Berlin style of cheese that really suits his kind of awkward, gawky English. And he’s not doing all the weird stuff he does in the other English tracks.
GF: Same with the arrangement. The arrangement is awful like all of them are, but it works in this.
CB: Yeah, I could actually kind of imagine Jonas walking around L.A. singing this.
GF: This is kind of a sleeper hit, I really like this.
CB: This should have been the ending. Oh my God. he somehow manages to make it feel like tropical and sunny.
GF: But I think we’re getting kind of Stockholm-syndromed with this album. Like, the good ones are even *that* good, they’re just better than the bad ones.
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”
GF: Oh, oh my God.
CB: Oooh, a little 60s styling here.
GF: It’s elevator music.
CB: This is how I sound when I’m walking back from the martini bar and I’m about to fall into the pool.
GF: This is when we’ve gone to Don’t Tell Mama with my mom, and it’s already 3 a.m and we’ve had 12 cocktails each and she heckles us into singing. I think I may have actually delivered a performance of the Bangles that was of similar caliber, but I like to think it was more charming than this.
CB and GF: * snickering*
GF: This arrangement is a hate crime. I don’t know who it’s a hate crime to, but it’s a hate crime. Wow.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
GF: I take back that thing I said about him not offending all of jazz. He’s doing it.
CB: I don’t know how White Christmas sounded charming, and this just sounds drunk.
GF: Can I remind you of the literal Martin Luther chorale that appeared on this album only minutes before this? What is going on.
GF: This makes me want to sink into the earth. What is happening with “faithful friends”?
CB and GF, singing: “Fäth-ful frænds?”
CB: He sounds like Borat. Jesus. (as Borat) “Mah fethful frands!”
GF: Oh my god. I want to see Jonas Kaufmann do Borat. Do you remember that full body thong from the first movie? Jonas Kaufmann, to atone for this song, we’re going to need you to do a penance walk wearing that. That is what the gods require for you to be clean of sin.
“All I want for Christmas is You”
GF: And then oh my gosh, I mean we have to talk about the elephant in the room.
All I want for Christmas is for him to have…undone… it. It’s such a strange choice.
CB: It’s so culturally bound up in a very particular voice. Mariah Carey has such a distinctive way of performing that is so foreign to opera singing.
GF: It almost feels disrespectful, which I know is pretty dramatic, but there’s just something about it. It’s like: you did not get this, Jonas, and the amount to which that you don’t get it is suspicious. If you don’t get it this much, you should not have done it.
CB: No, it feels like he’s missed the aesthetic point of the song.
GF: This song is so fun and flirty and the whole point is that it’s cutesy. You’re there in your little short skirt and your knee-high boots, and you’re dancing. You’re flouncing around and rolling on a white shag rug. And Jonas Kaufmann just does not project flirty and fun, as we discussed earlier. This doesn’t make any sense for his public personality at all, let alone for his voice. And for someone who’s been in the business for this long and is this famous, to not have a sense of your own brand is not good. This displays either the egoism of “I am so good that I can do anything” or a variant on the same egoism, which is “people are going to buy this whether it’s good or not because it has my name on it and I’m just here to collect a paycheck.“ Or it’s just completely foolishness and lack of self-awareness.
CB: Utter cluelessness!
GF: Does he just have no idea how he sounds? He doesn’t seem to know what his brand is, or know why people like him and like his voice in the first place. That is really mysterious for someone who’s at the level that he is, who absolutely has managers and agents and people who should have talked him out of some of these tracks.
CB: Surely you would have had a music director on this album or someone who is overseeing that side of things.
GF: Who could hear this version and not say, “We are going to cut this?” Especially in an album that has forty-two songs. Why did they not just cut out the 20 worst songs?
GF: Okay, I think we have to start wrapping this up. How can we summarize this experience?
CB: It’s really an un-summarizable album because it’s really long. And it’s just all rolls into one after a while, despite being totally random.
GF: I’s kind of a feat that it’s both as incoherent and also as boring as it is.
CB: Usually variety is interesting, but this proves that that’s not always the case.
GF: It just screams “Bad first draft “and in some ways the way you can tell that is because there are tracks that are good, and that fact made me hate this more. It wasn’t just a whole album of embarrassingly dumb and bad arrangements and horrible singing, with Jonas Kaufmann taking a nose dive off a cliff into a totally different public persona. it was only like that some of the time. 10 of the 40 songs were that, embarrassingly off-the-wall—
CB: Career-endingly bad!
GF: Exactly! For anyone else these would be career-endingly bad! 10 of the songs were like that, just incredibly awful. 15 of the songs were just so boring and forgettable that they left my brain instantly. Another 10 were only pretty bad— not egregiously bad in the fun way, but still bad— and then there were 5 that we both thought “this is actually good.”
CB: You know when you were saying that it feels a little bit lazy? It feels both a little bit lazy and like it took too much effort at the same time. Think about how much it must how much time it must take to arrange like 40 songs. Jochen Rider had his work cut out for him.
GF: If you’re going to make a Christmas album, and you have even one slight care about it being good, you have to figure out how to strike a balance between sincerity and camp. And he just doesn’t do it. He doesn’t even try.
CB: It’s like they were all thinking, “The unwashed masses will consume anything with Christmas in the title!” It’s too disparate to put on in the background of Christmas soiree. I could understand if you were aiming for something that was just like bland background music…but it doesn’t make sense for that!
GF: In order to make something like this work, you have to sell the product. As the singer, you have to believe. To me, this album has no sense of “I, Jonas, am here to sell you this product.” You get random flashes, but the vast majority of these are just boring and soulless.
CB: It’s so strange because this man could sell me any obscure French grand aria. He could sing whatever random nineteenth-century piece he wanted, and I would literally be salivating at his feet. But he can’t sell me “Jingle Bells.
GF: To get more probably high- horsey (HA! High whores-y as Jonas would say) than I should be getting about this dumb album: we do not need anything that contributes to the endless perpetuation and commercialization of Christmas in Western culture, especially in America, and if you’re going to do it, please do it right. Please do it sincerely. Inject some charm.
CB: Whereas, the arrangements are so dull that afterwards I just feel groggy. I feel like I need to like blow my nose or something, maybe get an enema.
GF: And vocally, it is just so uneven and unacceptable. Sometimes he sings things with his real voice, and it’s gorgeous. But then there are all these tracks where he is just scooping and sliding all over the place. Is this how he thinks pop singers sing? This man who spent decades of his life developing like a pretty extraordinary technique and working on his artistry…
CB: Is this a conscious decision to make it so boring?
GF: Maybe he thinking that, “oh because it’s popular music, it doesn’t need all these operatic touches,” but it’s the lack of any true artistry that’s the problem. He’s not even doing what he does well…well.
CB: Honestly, it sounds like he’s like an ice cream truck or something. It’s just mechanical. Yeah, it’s so strange. It also kind of sloppy, with the scooping and the lazy approach the language, with the lack of emotion.
GF: It feels like Jonas Kaufmann has never listened to popular music in his life.
CB: It sounds like he’s never listened to Christmas music!
GF: Yes. It’s as if he checked out a book from the library, Pop Singing for Beginners or something, and is trying to do it from the book as opposed to actually listening to pop artists. It all smacks of someone who has absolutely no idea of what sound he’s even going for, someone who’s only read about pop music vocality. “What do pop singers do?” “Oh, they scoop and swoop a lot!” And Jonas is nodding, like “cool, cool, got it,” and he’s writing it down in a little notebook. And then he just sprinkles that in every English song completely indiscriminately. It’s just completely out of touch.
CB: It’s so forced and inauthentic.
GF: And it’s all just random. Can you imagine playing this album on shuffle?
CB: Oh my God, I mean playing the album straight through was already like playing it on shuffle. I mean, there’s no logic to how its organized. There’s no arc to it. This is not like Winterreise. This is just random. I mean, to call it a smorgasbord would make it sound appetizing. It’s more like a junkyard!
GF: I am cracking up over the thought of this as a sort of Coronavirus Winterreise….
CB: Oh God. It’s the sleigh ride from Hell.
GF: The sleigh is taking you straight to Hell and Hell is ‘All I Want for Christmas is You. ”