Years ago — maybe a dozen? — Thomas Hampson told me, “I was a young Giovanni, I’m a middle-aged Giovanni, and I’m going to be an old Giovanni.” He was talking about the famous, and infamous, title character of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Hampson is a famous — not infamous — baritone from Spokane, Wash.
Here he is in Milan, singing Giovanni at La Scala. He is an “old” Giovanni, I suppose — but those quotation marks are necessary. The calendar says he’s to be 62 this summer, but he’s still Thomas Hampson, looking like a million bucks. (“Thomas Handsome,” they sometimes call him.)
“Do you have to work at it?” I ask. “At what?” he says. “At this physique of yours. Is it natural — a lucky constitution — or do you starve yourself?” “I starve myself,” he says. He doesn’t really mean it. But he is careful about his diet. Plus, “I exercise daily. I do yoga daily. Have ever since college.”
In college, he took an acting class, taught by “this crazy artist-type guy. We spent the first six weeks putting on leotards every morning and doing yoga.” It stuck, with Hampson. “It’s just a ritual for me, every day. I can’t function till I’ve popped the right things and gotten my back and legs in the same conversation.”
“Does it help your singing?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” he answers. And when he teaches, he spends a good amount of time on the physical aspects of singing: posture, the workings of the body, etc.
In his classes, he likes to ask his students a question: “How many keys does a piano have?” They all know the answer is 88, though there’s usually a wisenheimer who will point out that a Bösendorfer can have more (either 92 or 97). Then Hampson will ask, “And how many ribs do you have?”
“Clueless,” I say. That’s right, says Hampson, they are clueless. I explain that I am clueless. Hampson says, “But you’re not trying to sing” (as far as he knows). Incidentally, the answer is 24: 24 ribs, twelve on each side.
“The structure of your ribs is one of the most important things about singing,” Hampson continues. And “this is not some typical Hampson Wissenschaft bullsh** that I get accused of.” (That German word means “science.”) “If you’re going to play tennis, you have to know how to hold a racquet and how to swing it.” If you’re going to sing, you had better know about ribs and such.
I press Hampson a little: Caruso, Pinza, Pavarotti — they didn’t know about all this Wissenschaft, did they? I mean, they were children of nature, who simply stood and sang. Hampson lets me know in no uncertain terms that this is baloney. Caruso, for example, wrote an excellent book on singing: How to Sing.
More by Jay Nordlinger at National Review
Image: Teatro alla Scala
Thomas Hampson returns to the Verbier Festival this month as a Verbier Academy Faculty member, presenting a series of Masterclasses. Focused on specific topics in singing, these Masterclasses will take place on July 21 & 22 (Opera) and July 23 & 24 (Lied/Art Song). The classes are open to the public – visit VerbierFestival.com for detailed programme information.
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.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.