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 is a featured contributor to the newly launched platform MUSAIC, from the New World Symphony and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Mr. Hampson and other acclaimed artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, are featured in various site content including master classes, interviews, and more. Watch and learn today at musaic.nws.edu!
On July 8, Thomas Hampson is a featured artist in an Opera Gala concert, hosted at the Opernhaus Düsseldorf. This special annual event, presented by the Friends of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, includes the talents of the Duisburger Philharmoniker and Deutsche Oper am Rhein chorus, led by Axel Kober. Other soloists for the evening are Lavinia Dames, Luiza Fatyol, and Maria Kataeva, on a programme that includes operatic highlights by Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, and more. A limited number of seats remain for this extraordinary summer concert – purchase your tickets at the following link!
Mr. Hampson sings a recital as part of the Munich Festspiel on June 28. Accompanied by pianist Wolfram Rieger, the Mahler cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn will be performed in its entirety. Composed at the turn of the century, Mahler set this collection of anonymous German folk poems to music, originally written for either soprano or baritone. Mr. Hampson and Mr. Rieger are well-known for their interpretation of this cycle, and have performed it numerous times together in premiere international venues. For example, the pair interpreted the cycle in 2002 in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet, which can be viewed via YouTube. A few years later, Mr. Hampson discussed the importance of the cycle as an Artist-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic in this discussion.
Hampson and Rieger’s upcoming performance will be held at the Nationaltheater, in the heart of Munich.
On June 16, 17 & 18, Thomas Hampson is the featured soloist with the Orquesta Nacional de España, under the direction of David Afkham. The concert programme is titled “The Origin of the Future” and highlights selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn as well as Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Melisande, Op. 5. Tickets: ocne.mcu.es/programacion/el-origen-del-futuro
This summer, Thomas Hampson and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni reunite for their acclaimed “No Tenors Allowed” programme. They perform with the Gewandhausorchester at the Open Air-Bühne im Rosental on June 23 & 24 under the baton of Alexander Shelley. The programme includes selections by Rossini, Mozart, Massenet, Gounod, and more.
Sony Classical will release a DVD/blu-ray recording of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, starring Thomas Hampson as the Four Villains. Recorded last autumn at London’s Royal Opera House, Mr. Hampson is joined by Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Kate Lindsey sings Nicklausse, Christine Rice is Giulietta, and Sofia Fomina is Olympia, with Maestro Evelino Pidò leading from the pit. The production by John Schlesinger premiered to enthusiastic reviews in 1980, and is revered for its rich and enduring portrayal of Offenbach’s opera.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.