“I’m sure they told you,” the baritone Thomas Hampson said recently with a smile. “If you ask me a question, I’ll go on.” It’s true. There are some people who speak in sentences. Others speak in paragraphs. Mr. Hampson, 54, speaks–his big blue eyes staring at you–in pages.
He loves to talk about the things he likes: distance-learning technology, Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, Alex Ross’ advocacy of the composer Charles Ives, the second and third (but not the fifth) acts of Ambroise Thomas’ opera Hamlet, the restaurant-delivery Web site SeamlessWeb. And he loves to talk about the things he doesn’t like: Fresh Direct (wasteful amounts of packaging), watching old clips of himself on YouTube (“they’re coming up with shit that I’d forgotten I’d even done”), the concept of the “Verdi baritone,” singers who arrive late to rehearsals.
If it were not for a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is singing Germont in La Traviata, Mr. Hampson, fueled by periodic coffee refills, seemed like he would have been delighted to talk all afternoon. We were at his favorite diner, the Olympic Flame at 60th and Amsterdam, around the corner from the apartment he rents and, conveniently, a few blocks from Lincoln Center.
Mr. Hampson will be spending a lot of time in the area this month. In addition to the Traviata, which runs through April 24, he is finishing his season as the first-ever New York Philharmonic Artist-in-Residence with recitals at Alice Tully Hall on April 11, featuring Schumann’sDichterliebe and Barber songs, and Symphony Space on April 16. The latter concert, part of CONTACT!, the orchestra’s new music series, will feature the world premiere of a Philharmonic commission written especially for Mr. Hampson, Matthias Pintscher’s Songs from Solomon’s Garden.
“It is truly the New York Philharmonic and [music director] Alan [Gilbert] rethinking how they work,” Mr. Hampson said of inviting a vocalist to take such a prominent role in the orchestra’s season. “Everybody belongs here. Dance belongs here, movement belongs here, color belongs here, opera belongs here, singers belong here, instrumentalists belong here.”
He’ll also be delivering his third and final “Insights Series” lecture for the orchestra on April 5, on one of his favorite topics, German romantic poetry and its reverberations in the 19th-century song literature. Manhattan School of Music has devised an application that will live-broadcast his master class there to anyone with an iPhone. “Just call me Eric Schmidt,” Mr. Hampson said. “Well, actually, don’t.”
Like Mr. Schmidt and another Hampson idol, Steve Jobs, Mr. Hampson is a Big Thinker. “I don’t mean to be a cultural philosopher here,” he said. “Is it the art forms that need to adapt to technology,” he wondered aloud, “or will in fact the technology manipulate, metamorphosize and, in consequence, adapt or change the art form itself?”
On occasion his thoughtfulness takes him down darker paths. On the Web site for the Hampsong Foundation he has the rather eerie formulation, “In fact, should our civilization, all of our culture, be destroyed and taken from us–it would be singing, this most personal and natural form of musical expression, that would first reappear.” And at the diner, contemplating his beloved distance-learning initiatives, he confessed some doubts. “Are we alienating kids? Are we actually tearing down their ability to communicate one on one?” He sighed. “I tend to think that in the evolution of man every generation asks those questions.”
With his rich voice and trademark sweep of hair. Mr. Hampson has a calming air, like a cool dad. His intellectualism, the foundation and his fascination with the deeper issues of education, technology and the arts would all seem to point Mr. Hampson toward an administrative post. Placido Domingo, for instance, runs not one but two opera companies. “Can I imagine hanging up my spurs, period, and just doing something like running an organization?” he asked aloud. “Sure, I can imagine it. I can’t see it being an opera house; I can see it being a school.”
But not yet. “I can maintain this level of activity and vocal quality,” he said. “I’ve made some adjustments to my schedule. I was singing a little too much. But I say that with a certain irony, because next season is kinda sick. January to June, I think I sing 55 concerts, Mahler’s music with seven different orchestras on three different tours. I’m gonna get a lot of frequent-flyer miles.” But don’t get him started on Mahler. That’s a whole other day’s discussion right there.
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.
On this week’s episode of He Sang/She Sang, hosts Merrin Lazyan and Julian Fleisher are joined by dramaturg Cori Ellison to discuss Verdi’s mythical and timeless masterpiece, La Traviata. We also speak with baritone Thomas Hampson, who has been singing the role of Germont for 25 years. Hampson tells us how the complex and beautiful dilemmas that we find in this opera help us to better understand who we really are.
Picks from across the week on In Tune with Sean Rafferty: opera singers Thomas Hampson, Michael Fabiano and Tara Erraught …
Back in 2007, baritone Thomas Hampson gave a Distance Learning Voice Master Class at the Manhattan School of Music. In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of that event, the American singer and the renowned conservatory are rejoining forces for the same program.
“Thomas Hampson is a proper stuffed-shirt as Alfredo’s father Germont senior as he persuades Violetta to leave his son for the sake of the family honor and adding a fine “Di Provenza il mar,” one of the great baritone arias, in Act II.”
Wilborn Hampton – Huffington Post
“It’s not only the singing of baritone Thomas Hampson, on top form, that makes this recital so enjoyable; it’s the affectionate new string arrangements, joyously played by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta – as leader Candida Thompson describes it, “a big string quartet” of two dozen players. All but one of the arrangements are by David Matthews, who adds texture and illumination to already radiant songs, refreshing these lilies without gilding them. Intertwining solo violins make the opening of Wolf’s song Anakreons Grab magical; squeaking strings conjure up the rodents in his Der Rattenfänger. Another highlight is Bob Zimmerman’s gossamer version of Schubert’s Ständchen (“Zögernd leise”), the echoes sung by a girls’ choir. Brahms’s Four Serious Songs find Matthews drawing on darker sonorities. Hampson, full of authority, ends on Barber’s masterly Dover Beach, which seems only to benefit from its quartet parts being lent the weight and security of a full string orchestra.”
Erica Jeal – The Guardian
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.