Oh, What Fun
Considering the bleak happenings that have defined 2020, we can all be thankful for one grand unifying event that restored a little bit of our faith in humanity: Jonas Kaufmann released a Christmas album. Not just any Christmas album: a two-hour, 42-track deluxe set of everything from traditional Alpine tunes (“Es wird scho glei dumpa”) to 20th-century standards (“White Christmas”) to… Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
It is, as one might expect, a glorious overstuffed train wreck of gingerbread men, gumdrops, and frankincense that oozes figgy pudding and whose scent (somewhere between peppermint schnapps and Douglas fir) lingers for days. God bless us all, everyone.
In the spirit of coming together in the most socially-distanced of ways, we set up a Zoom listening party for “It’s Christmas!” with two people we knew would be ideal sleigh ride partners: musicologist Aksel Tollåli and retroviral immunology PhD candidate, violinist, and Mariah Careyologist Kevin Ng. Alcohol was the fifth guest.
Olivia Giovetti: Before we start, do you all normally listen to Christmas music? Is that part of your seasonal thing?
Aksel Tollåli: I do, but I also sing in a choir, so Christmas music just happens from October onwards and it’s that very moody Scandinavian stuff about how your soul is inherently sinful and you’re gonna die soon.
Jeffrey Arlo Brown: So you’re kind of the typical audience for this album.
Kevin Ng: I do not listen to Christmas music, actually. I think it’s a holdover from too many years in youth orchestra, where you always had to do that awful Christmas concert where you play “Sleigh Ride” at the end. Since then, I’ve just loathed Christmas music—apart from Mariah Carey, which I will blast very regularly out loud at work starting from late July.
JB: I’m Jewish, but I have been to a Mariah Carey Christmas concert live in Berlin. So I can get into it. There’s a Christmas CD that my aunt and uncle play at their house every Christmas Eve that always feels cosy and nice. I don’t put it on at home, but there are occasions where it feels right.
KN: I do also listen to “Christmas in Vienna” whenever I’m sad.
JB: Thoughts on the cover?
KN: “Aging uncle who thinks very highly of his appearance.”
AT: I just love how clearly it plays into this middle-aged, female, mitteleuropan opera-goer thing, which he’s been flirting with for all of his career but is now just sort of fully going for it. Which, to be honest, I’m here for.
JB: There’s a demographic of “People who Are Attractive to Your Aunt,” and I feel like he’s really going after that market.
KN: But two albums ago, he did that Mahler, where he recorded both parts, no? Which is a completely different clientele altogether.
AT: Except the Mahler was seven albums ago now.
KN: Is it? My God, I have not been keeping up.
AT: There is a lot of “Attractive Older Man Who Your Aunt Fancies” in between.
KN: Ooh! You can tell he’s singing in English because he’s overdoing every R so aggressively.
AT: I can’t wait for his Peter Grimes.
OG: I have so many questions about the diction in this. He’s sung in English before, and I don’t think I’ve heard him do this much over-correcting.
AT: I get it if you’re doing Mariah Carey, right? But when you’re doing Christmas carols, you can just stick to your standard BBC English, and that’s how everyone does it.
JB: When you were listening to this, did you feel like you were getting into a cozy Christmas mood?
KN: You know when you’re at a work holiday party and they try slightly too hard by just putting everything merry in your face? “Assaulted” is the wrong word, but it was aggressive.
JB: Like the over-alcoholized boss wanting to get to know you?
OG: Your weird, slightly drunk uncle at holiday dinner.
JB: Okay, so is it just me or is there something tense going on in this album? One of the reasons I find it hard to imagine this as cosy Christmas music with a fire going is that he sounds like he’s singing Strauss. There’s a tension, a wide vibrato.
KN: It’s a very wide, very fast vibrato. I think it was particularly apparent in the Mariah Carey track where he literally sounded like someone had a gun to his head and he was being forced to sing it. But yes, there are hints of that elsewhere as well. Foreshadowing, one could say.
AT: Yeah, it almost kind of works in the more straightforwardly classical stuff. But then it just goes horribly wrong in a lot of places.
OG: But isn’t that the thing with so much Christmas music? Many of the settings as we know them were set by composers like Mendelssohn or Gounod, so there is that operatic element.
JB: Right, sure, but to me, the album cover screams “Starbucks CD.”
OG: That’s what the cover is! It looks like a Starbucks holiday cup.
JB: Right, so you expect to hear music that you can play in a Starbucks, which would never be what we’re hearing now.
OG: Well, not with that attitude, it wouldn’t.
JB: You need something kind of jazzy, downbeat jazzy that’s just funky enough.
KN: Like Renée’s Christmas album. That sort of thing with vaguely relaxing, slightly jazzed-up, slightly offbeat Christmas music.
AT: And quite unsettling if you actually listen.
AT: Another highlight for me, just because I speak it and know what it’s supposed to sound like, is the Swedish carol that he just randomly threw in there. The vowels are all over the place. They sound extremely German, which is strange to listen to.
KN: I’m still traumatized by the year I did of Danish at university. I could read perfectly fine, I just couldn’t pronounce it.
AT: No one can, it’s fine. But Danish Christmas carols are very good—would recommend. Lots of torment. There’s a lot of them that sort of end with wanting to French Christ.
JB: Well on a scale of one to 10 on this one, how would you rate Kaufmann’s vibe of wanting to French Christ?
AT: Oh, zero. But this one is Swedish and sort of too nice. It’s just about candles.
OG: That reminds me of the year that we were in Copenhagen and realized that everything is closed in Copenhagen on Christmas. The one thing we could do was go to the movies, and the two options in the movie theater were “Frozen” and Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.”
KN: I have a very similar memory in Stockholm over Christmas. Nothing was open, no restaurants were open, or at least nothing that I could even vaguely afford. So I just ended up in my hotel room eating reindeer ham and drinking wine, which was actually really lovely.
AT: I’m from Northern Norway. When I was growing up, we used to get reindeer carcasses and invite lots of friends for a Tuesday night and just start butchering.
KN: To be fair, we have that too in Canada, but that’s usually when someone hits a moose with their car. And again, to be fair, it’s sort of 50-50 who lives, the moose or the person.
JG: Well, I think it’s nice that Jonas Kaufmann has united us in the Christmas spirit of slaughtering moose and reindeer.
OG: Wait, is he just humming at this point?
JB: I actually wanted to ask you guys about the rhythm in this one too, ’cause he’s really over-punctual. And it makes me feel stressed out.
KN: Yeah, that was something I really noticed in the jazz stuff. You could so imagine that he learned it all with a metronome, in the same way that one learns Schoenberg. I was trying to think earlier about what other operatic Christmas albums this reminds me of, and I couldn’t come up with one. And then I realized that the album this reminds me the most of is Diana Damrau’s Disney album. It’s the English, it’s the over-articulation, it’s the inappropriately-enthusiastic vibrato, all of that.
KN: So I think the real question is, a good number of classical singers singing Christmas is highly enriched for camp classic status. Does this qualify?
AT: I don’t think so, on the whole. Some of it does.
KN [Listening]: I love the sort of, “I’m playing around with the melody, I’m so spontaneous!”
OG: But you know that the entire thing was written out and charted and memorized. Like, do we think that Jonas is the type who would shout “Save the bows!” when you’re opening presents on Christmas?
JB: What do you think he’s getting for Christmas this year?
KN: Hopefully a big paycheck for this.
JB: He’s already got the tux.
AT: I just hope he got all the fake snow off it.
OG: This music video… Part of it looks like he’s doing the I-have-to-pee dance because it has him walking, but it’s a close-up on him walking in place, like those 1940s B-noirs where you have someone running down the street, but they’re clearly running in place.
[Jonas Kaufmann starts to whistle.]
KN: Oh my God, what is happening?
AT: He’s whistling.
JB: Was that him, do you think? Or was it a whistling stuntman?
AT: If they had a whistling stuntman, I think he’d have been more interesting.
OG: I just want to call everyone’s attention to how he pronounces “one horse open sleigh” here.
AT: He is definitely saying “whore’s.” I was listening to this while coming back from buying wine for tonight, and luckily I had a face mask on, because I couldn’t stop giggling like a lunatic.
OG: I’m surprised he doesn’t do the fake laughing part after “laughing all the way,” the way that we all had to do in our third-grade choir pageants.
KN: The Eurovision modulation makes it even worse, no?
OG: It almost sounds like he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he’s singing here.
JB: He’s an opera singer.
AT: This is the camp standout of the album, surely.
KN: Imagine if he had recreated Mariah Carey’s music video.
OG: Imagine if he and Angela had recorded “Fairytale of New York.”
KN: Imagine Joan Sutherland covering anything Mariah Carey has done.
OG: Very “Meistersinger.”
AT: They should just do a “Meistersinger” where they swap out all of the Master songs with this. Walther wins with “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
JB: But it’s still so stressful. To me, it’s like one of those parties where people are looking for whether you use the right fork. The food might be delicious, but you can’t really enjoy it.
OG: Right, this isn’t the “Love, Actually” Christmas pageant where you have a kid dressed as Spider Man during the nativity scene.
KN: No, this is a very upper-middle-class American school.
OG: Didn’t Susan Sontag say that camp is the psychopathology of the affluent?
KN: Can we discuss how the glockenspiel got it wrong?
AT: I mean, this was clearly done in half a take.
KN: Can we also discuss the very beginning when he’s just doing this weird sprechstimme thing? I have no idea what he’s doing, and it just put me in the mind of, what if Mariah Carey did “Pierrot lunaire”?
JB: That album I would buy.
KN: I think it’s my favorite thing when he says the word laughter and he sounds like he’s crying.
JB: Sad Santa vibes.
KN: He’s doing his own ornaments.
JB: You gotta do your own ornaments when you’re doing historically-informed Mariah.
OG: I kind of feel like his baby in this version has a restraining order out on him.
KN: He doesn’t sing the high note! The only thing that was keeping me going was that he’s just gonna belt out a long high-C at the end, and he doesn’t.… Do we think any other opera singer is ever going to record “All I Want for Christmas is You”?
JB: Nina Stemme?
AT: Barbara Hannigan. Same thing that happened with those Gershwin arrangements that she did where everything sounds like the Second Viennese School, but it’s actually Tin Pan Alley Christmas songs. That is the ideal opera singer’s Christmas album.
OG: So if this were a White Elephant Christmas, which of the tracks are we keeping?
KN: I’m keeping Mariah.
JB: Oh, I wanted to keep Mariah!
AT: I’ll take “Jingle Bells” before anyone else does.
JB: Then I’m going to take “Stille Nacht,” because it will remind me to leave my house on time for every appointment that I have.
OG: What does that leave me?
AT: There’s always “Let it Snow.”
OG: Yes, I’ll take “Let it Snow” and his over-enunciation of “Parson Brown.”
JB: So no one took any of the traditional German classical songs. [He says having just claimed a traditional German song—Ed.]
OG: Well, I mean, you can only take one.
JB: Yeah, but it does go to show, the first 37 songs of the album are fine. A little bit stressful, but fine. But the real energy comes in the last five songs or so.
KN: This is the one thing I hope everyone takes away from the Jonas Christmas album: More opera singers should do Christmas albums. And the more inappropriate, the better.
JB: So what I’m hearing is that Jonas’s Christmas album was a step in the right direction, but not quite horny enough.
KN: Very much so, yeah.
OG: It was only a one whore’s open sleigh. I’m looking for at least 11. ¶