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
Richard Danielpour composed Songs of Solitude (2002), on poems by Yeats, in the weeks following the September 11 attacks; War Songs (2008), on poems by Whitman, was inspired by photographs published in the New York Times of soldiers killed in the Iraq War … Both of these cycles were written for Thomas Hampson, who sings them magnificently. At 60, his voice sounds as fresh as ever, and the baritone’s musical intelligence and literary sensitivity make even the less successful of these songs worthy of study. Hampson’s achievement is even more impressive given that the recordings were made in concert.
Andrew Farach-Colton, Gramophone Magazine
On January 18, 21 & 23, Thomas Hampson reprises the role of Roald Amundsen in Srnka’s South Pole at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. Mr. Hampson won tremendous international acclaim for his creation of the role in the world premiere:
“The star is Thomas Hampson, the veteran baritone is vocally and theatrically convincing in the role of Amundsen.” (TZ.de)
Top 10 Performances of 2016 Addition / Mahler of the Year: If the above list were expanded, it would be filled out with all of the excellent orchestral performances of Mahler during the year … the Philharmonic’s magnificent Mahler Ninth under Bernard Haitink and a glowing Das Lied von der Erde, under Alan Gilbert—sung by tenor Stefan Vinke and baritone Thomas Hampson … (New York Classical Review)
Maria Mazzaro, Opera News: Thomas Hampson has a busy Jan. On the fifth, he is in Turkey performing with Luca Pisaroni and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. Hampson then travels to Germany—first to Munich for Bayerische Staatsoper performances of Srnka’s South Pole, then to Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonic for a concert with The Philharmonics. At the end of the month, he sings Scarpia in Wiener Staatsoper performances of Tosca, conducted by Plácido Domingo.
Normalerweise werden die Lieder von Schubert, Brahms und Wolf am Klavier begleitet. Der Bariton Thomas Hampson hat einige davon nun in einer neuen Fassung mit Kammerorchester aufgenommen – gemeinsam mit den jungen Musikern der Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
Thomas Hampson reunites with his son-in-law, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, for two performances of their acclaimed “No Tenors Allowed” programme in concert. The duo performs with pianist Christian Koch on December 21 at Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Música/Grande Auditório, and then travels to Istanbul for a New Year’s concert with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, hosted at the İstanbul Lütfi Kırdar on January 5.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.