BERLIN-BASED FILIPINO baritone Jonathan Zaens appeared in an important segment of a contemporary opera by Karlheinz Stockhausen last April 9 and 10 at the Cologne Opera.
Zaens appeared in the opera “Sonntag aus Licht” by Stockhausen, considered by critics as as one of the most important composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries and “one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music.”
A prizewinner of the 7th Sylvia Geszty International Voice Competition, Zaens was a finalist at the Bach International Competition and Mendelssohn Voice Competition.
After finishing his studies in Voice/Music Theater at University of the Arts in Berlin, he was heard at Prague State Opera singing the Mozart roles of Leporello and Guglielmo on top of guest appearances in the Berliner Chamber Opera and other opera houses in Germany.
Zaens earlier figured in the world premiere of Stockhausen’s “Duffe Zeichen” (Scents-Signs) in the 2003 Salzburg Festival, making him the third Filipino singer to invade the festival after soprano Evelyn Mandac and tenor Otoniel Gonzaga.
The Opera Cologne production of the Stockhausen opera was conceptualized and directed by the famous Spanish group La Fura de Baus, known for spectacular productions.
Interviewed by the Spanish journalist Ismael José Gonzalez Cabral of the Spanish Post, Zaens said his first encounter with the controversial German composer’s music was shortly after finishing his studies at the Academy for the Arts in Berlin (Hochschule der Knste). He was then offered the bass role in Michaels Jugend from “Donnerstag aus Licht,” in a production for the Maerz Musik Festival 2002 in Berlin.
Zaens confided: “I may have done before works of contemporary composers like Frank Martin and Judith Weirr in small student recitals in the Academy, but Stockhausen was my first hardcore, large-scale contemporary work. I was such a neophyte in this genre at the time, that it took me almost a year to learn my part in Michaels Jugend. But that paid off because I got a personal telephone call from Stockhausen after our Berliner premiere, engaging me to sing the baritone part in Duffe Zeichen’ for the Salzburger Festspiele.”
The Filipino baritone also admitted his first telephone encounter with Stockhausen was also one of the most embarrassing moments in his life.
“When Mr. Stockhausen called, he introduced himself only as Stockhausen,” Zaens said. “I thought it was a friend making a joke on me. I asked back in a mischievous and almost irreverent tone: ‘Do you mean Karlheinz Stockhausen?’—using the informal form of you in German. The moment he confirmed it, I suddenly realized he was the real one! If there is one thing I’ve perfected in the German grammar, it is the big difference between tu and usted!”
In the same interview, Zaens complimented the German composer for his sensitivity to the human voice. “He had a natural instinct and the knowledge as to how this human instrument functions and of its capabilities and limitations. I bet he sang what he wrote himself! As a result, his vocal lines, in spite of different levels of difficulties, are always singable. Unlike some other contemporary composers, he doesn’t demand vocal acrobatics which are impossible to sing and, to some extent, would even do damage to the voice. In that famous telephone conversation, I remember him asking specifically how high I could sing as a bass-baritone, while he was working on the part for Dfte-Zeichen. I told him it depended on how I got there. When the score came and I started learning my part, I was so happy and actually relieved to see that my vocal line was manageable, that it was well thought of, that it was singer-friendly, and that he carefully took into consideration my vocal capability as well as limitation.”
Zaens described the most striking aspect of the Stockhausen opera as developed by La Fura del Baus: “Honestly, I didn’t know of La Fura del Baus until this production. But true to their reputation, they have made a spectacle out of ‘Sonntag aus Licht.’ I am so amazed with the dimension of ideas they have integrated into the work. The lights, the water, the fire, the dancers, the costumes . . . Wow, indeed! How I wish we had more rehearsal time so that these spectacular ideas could have been executed in detail and integrated to further enhance and really support Stockhausen’s music even more.”
Another Stockhausen work, “Orvonton” (a Klang cycle), was also written with the Filipino baritone in mind.
“I am of course, thrilled and very honored that Stockhausen practically wrote ‘Orvonton’ for my voice! In ‘Orvonton,’ the singer describes and explains in detail how the piece is actually composed, how the rhythm, melody and harmony go. This entails a lot of text, and because of this, Kathinka Pasveer was telling me, Stockhausen purposely assigned this particular piece to me because of the clarity of my German diction. One can’t have a better compliment as a singer! Me, being a nonnative speaker at that! Stockhausen wanted and really demanded for the clarity of each word. So I am thankful for he has trusted me and deemed me worthy of this task. By the way, the baritone in ‘Orvonton’ is required to perform the piece by heart! It’s just a pity that I wasn’t able to work with him personally on this piece.”
Zaens has also recorded the CD “Kundiman: Philippine Art Songs.” He was accompanied by pianist Abelardo Galang II, also based in Berlin.
Produced by Sundro Keller and recorded in St. Paulus Germende Grosser Saal in Berlin, the CD features kundiman compositions of Nicanor Abelardo, Francisco Santiago, Mike Velarde Jr. and Resurreccion Bunyi.