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
Sean Rafferty with a lively mix of music, chat and arts news. His guests include baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Alice Sara Ott. Plus actress Vanessa Redgrave comes in with composer Laura Rossi to tell us about their Battle of the Somme tribute. Listen to the broadcast via the following link.
“Thomas Hampson was gleefully baleful as the quartet of bad guys, always with a glint in his eye and an implicit wink at the audience …”
Mark Valencia – What’s On Stage
“Thomas Hampson is gleefully sepulchral as all four villains …”
David Gillard – Daily Mail
Following a thrilling debut as The Four Villains at The Metropolitan Opera in 2015, Thomas Hampson returns to the role this season London’s Royal Opera House. His “peerless” and “imposing” (Latin Post) portrayal in New York City was cast alongside tenor Vittorio Grigòlo as Hoffmann. The two reunite in London for these performances, which take place November 7, 11, 15, 18, 21, 24 & 28 and December 3. The production is also part of the ROH Live in Cinema season, and receives a theatrical broadcast on November 15. Find a screening near you via the following link.
Thomas Hampson is the baritone soloist on a new recording, featuring Richard Danielpour’s Songs of Solitude and War Songs, along with the orchestral work Toward the Splendid City. War Songs, a song cycle with texts by Walt Whitman, was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
“… baritone Thomas Hampson — a model of dignity, vocal presence, and deep investment in the texts that Brahms so lovingly chose and set.”
David Weininger – The Boston Globe
Thomas Hampson is the baritone soloist in Brahms’ A German Requiem on October 6, 7 & 8 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under the direction of Music Director Andris Nelsons. Soprano Camilla Tilling joins for this concert series, which also features Widmann’s Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra, featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.