America is often cast as the land of freedom and opportunity, a place where the prevailing spirit is one of hope. But for almost a decade now, the emotion closest to the heart of the American people and culture has been fear. With its seeds in ignorance, and wilfully manipulated by the former political Establishment, this fear has eaten away at our sense of who we are.
Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, we can at last begin to see a spirit of hopefulness returning to political dialogue. But the slow process of reopening the American mind cannot be conducted by politicians alone; it is a process that artists and performers such as myself have a responsibility to promote and engage in.
I began the Song of America project with the Library of Congress back in 2005 as a way of widening access to this central but neglected coalescence of our history, poetry and music. I felt this would be the best way to restore some of the lost intellectual and sensuous fabric of our society. Any history of song reads like a diary of society’s inner life, and from Francis Hopkinson – a friend of George Washington and signer of the Declaration of Independence – to Leonard Bernstein and John Adams, American song is no exception.
But the issue is more fundamental than one of spreading musical experience, for the past decade has taken a heavy toll on our sense of the meaning of culture more widely. The arts and humanities are in crisis not simply because of dwindling support and the havoc wrought on our cultural institutions by the recession. The value of the arts in America has been attacked at a much deeper level, by being mistaken for entertainment, for passive relaxation and an opportunity to forget worldly troubles.
Music and art do bring a kind of relaxation. But this is much more powerful if we understand it as an active harmonisation of ourselves in our environment. We can read the facts and figures of our history and make statistical sense of the civil and foreign wars, the waves of immigration that built our country, but song can play a uniquely powerful role in giving us access to the sensible realities of this past.
More importantly, it is by remembering who we were that we can regain the confidence once again to be ourselves. America has certainly committed wrongs in the past. Now is not a time to forget but to take responsibility for those wrongs. If righting them means holding those responsible to account, then so be it. We made it through Watergate; we can make it through this.
The heart of American identity has always been its diversity. Through active engagement in our culture, and a renewal of liberal arts education in our schools, we can once again restore to our foundational motto its former dignity: E pluribus unum.
Interview by Guy Dammann
Thomas Hampson appears as Germont (above) in “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from 18 June. In 2009-2010, to mark the 250th anniversary of the first song written in America and in association with the Library of Congress, the Song of America project will explore America’s song heritage through educational activities, exhibitions, recordings, broadcasts, cybercasts and interactive online resources. More details: http://hampsong.org
Thomas Hampson returned last night to La Scala, where he has been a regular presence in recital for almost three decades. Extraordinarily, he has never sung an opera in Milan, but next month he will finally make his operatic debut as Don Giovanni. Last night, however, a full theatre was eager to hear him once again in a repertoire that he owns: German song.
Sarah Willis begegnet dem amerikanischen Opernsänger Thomas Hampson in Heidelberg. Der Bariton ist künstlerische Leiter der Lied Akademie und tritt mit seinen Stipendiaten beim Festival Heidelberger Frühling auf: Sarah’s Music
Thomas Hampson hatte nur vier Stunden Schlaf. Aber er will nicht klagen, würde es wahrscheinlich sogar vermissen, wäre sein Terminkalender nicht mehr derart prall gefüllt. In Heidelberg leitet der Bariton die Liedakademie des “Frühlings”. Aber zwischendurch musste er kurz nach Wien und mit dem Sänger Luca Pisaroni (der sein Schwiegersohn ist) ein Konzert geben. Tenöre waren auf der Bühne nicht erlaubt – das ist schon mal ein Unterschied zur Heidelberger Liedakademie.
This season, audiences in Milan have the opportunity to see Thomas Hampson in performance several times on stage at the historic Teatro alla Scala. On April 13 he and pianist Wolfram Rieger present Schumann’s 20 Lieder und Gesänge op. 29 and songs by Mahler for an extraordinary programme at La Scala. To purchase tickets & read additional information about this event, visit the following link.
On April 3, Thomas Hampson and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni bring their famed “No Tenors Allowed” concert to the Wiener Konzerthaus. The event is featured as part of the “Great Voices” series, hosted in the Great Hall. Mr. Hampson and Mr. Pisaroni are joined by conductor Pavel Baleff and the Max Steiner Orchestra for the programme, which includes selections by Mozart, Verdi, and more. Please note an extremely limited number of tickets remain; visit Konzerthaus.at for current availability.
This spring, Thomas Hampson returns to Heidelberg for a series of master classes, in addition to a concert, all part of the Heidelberger Frühling International Music Festival. The series is presented in partnership with the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. Mr. Hampson leads master classes on the following dates, hosted at the Kongresshaus Stadthalle Heidelberg: March 30 & 31 and April 1, 4 & 5. Tickets to the individual classes are available, in addition to a Festival Pass which covers all dates – the Pass can be purchased here.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.