Jonas Kaufmann was 26 when he forgot how to sing. Kaufmann, who headlines at the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday alongside soprano Danielle de Niese and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, is today a hugely acclaimed and in-demand tenor, described by the New York Times as one of the most versatile performers of his generation. But 20 years ago, he experienced a bout of stage fright so crippling it almost ended his career.
Kaufmann was singing in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. With Act III approaching its climax, his voice simply deserted him. He stood paralysed, unable to utter a single sound, as the orchestra repeated his cue and the conductor gestured to him in increasing bemusement.
Kaufmann’s moment of paralysis was a common symptom of extreme performance anxiety, a physiological reaction to nerves which manifests itself as hoarseness and, at worst, losing the ability to sing altogether. He was, of course, able to overcome it after working with a vocal coach who helped him rebuild his technique so he felt completely secure in it, and thus confident on stage.