A candid conversation with one of the most sought-after baritones in the world. “Ambivalence to me is a state of death. I don’t believe we have the right as human beings to be ambivalent” proclaims Thomas Hampson in the spirited accents that characterize his conversation. “Neither do artists,” he goes on to say, for, as the baritone sees it, the artist’s task is to cut through the baggage of the music industry and to probe directly the soul of a work trying “to give what you feel is the truth.”
To accomplish this, a singer, who, like all human beings “is a gestalt of mind and matter,” must integrate his intelligence, physicality, and spirituality into a single artistic and psychological whole, drawing upon the resources of humanistic thought and past performance tradition to inform his search for his own creative voice. When the singer discusses music-making, it is always in terms of the intellectual, spiritual, and imaginative foundations of his art, the concerns which, for him, far outweigh the practical exigencies of the business. And though he is a realist with an extraordinarily successful career, Hampson clearly has his priorities and beliefs carefully ordered.
In a profession where contracts and marketing pressures often get the upper hand over artistic values, Hampson’s vision of his musical mission is refreshingly idealistic; he is concerned with the essentials of singing rather than the trappings of success. In speaking with the thirty-five-year-old singer, what comes across is an artist whose great gifts are balanced by a sense of great responsibility. He is a man whose extraordinary integrity informs his personal as well as professional agenda.
On a gray day in late January between performances of Don Giovanni at the Met, Hampson has blocked out enough time in his hectic calendar for a long conversation in his New York hotel. Receiving me wearing comfortable sweat pants and turtleneck, the exceptionally good-looking and athletic singer settles casually into an armchair, offers me some Rosehip tea, and then launches energetically into a three-hour conversation about his career, a discussion that is impressive as much for the range of his points of reference as for his poetic articulation of elusive concepts and his unique blend of practical and philosophical thought.
“I think my interest in literature and poetry and my passion for history and political, psychological thought do play an enormous role in what I do and why I do it, but not in a contrived sense,” he explains. “It’s what I enjoy. It’s the books I collect and like to read and study. It’s what interests me in an operatic role.”
The singer, whose European base in Vienna houses his extensive library of rare books, first editions, music scores and texts, gestures apologetically at a stack of several dozen CD’s on the hotel room bureau. “I came with five, ‘ he laughs, explaining his hobby of browsing for reading and listening materials. But this mania for collecting is more than an idle pursuit. For Hampson, reading a wide range of literature and listening voraciously to music is all part of his métier as an artist- central to his self-perceived obligation to be as informed and educated about the sources of his art and its creative, philosophical contexts as is humanly possible. “People say you shouldn’t listen to records of yesteryear,” he says, opening up a theme which resurfaces again and again in our chat. “I so vehemently disagree with that. I know I’m in the minority, but I revel in that. For one thing you cannot make vocal sounds you cannot imagine, and you cannot imagine sounds to which you have not been pointed. I think that today in our rabid desire to be more sophisticated or more real, we have actually cut off the resource that could permit more variety of thought in singing. What’s the difference between a book and a record? Both are information. Are we not supposed to read Kierkegaard because he was a nineteenth-century author? I think it’s an absolute horror, a scandal, that singers don’t research their roots. I think it is extremely important to know who Heinrich &Schlusnus was if you’re a baritone. If you’re a singer, you should know what Rosa Ponselle or Lily Sons or Gigli or Caruso or Hotter-ad infinitum-sounded like. I find this attitude completely incongruous to the rest of musical thought and discipline.”
“It seems to me it is a responsibility,” he continues, “not only to listen to records, but to read-to know, for example, who sang the first Don Giovanni, and what that choice meant to Mozart, or for what kind of piano with what peddle action &Schubert composed. Or to go to the library to read about Bernstein’s Mass to know what the composer was thinking and what context the work grew from. But you’d be surprised how many students don’t use libraries. I know if I hadn’t had a passion to find out things and hadn’t checked out records by the dozen when I was young, I would not be the person I am today.”
Asked what he feels causes this ostrich attitude among music professionals, Hampson replies with disarming candor: “I think it’s part of the knee jerk defensiveness of the business. Everything and everyone become a product, and we forget that as singers our discipline is geared to developing a detailed sensitivity to what existed under what circumstances and then to formulating our own interpretations. I won’t avoid seeking out the sources and intents of my music just because somebody says I may copy them. I will always be accused of that because I am not a composer. I am a recreative artist. I am regiving, but I believe I can establish the basic truths about a work as I see them.”
“We don’t know ensemble theater anymore. There is no communication between the four different facets of an opera production except at the administrative level, and administrations of opera houses have never been responsible for ensemble theater.”
Hampson’s criticism of the veneration of product rather than process in the music-making industry extends to his vision of the artist’s human context. Just as he feels it is the singer’s responsibility to seek his sources, he also believes a person owes it to himself to define and strive for the essentials. He says that, as a society, “We are all abjectly led by the paranoia to earn enough money to buy those things necessary for us to exist or to be happy. We think we are so brilliant today, but I think we are more closed off.” He uses an example from his repertory to illustrate our limiting perspectives: “Take Don Giovanni, for example. I don’t believe he necessarily slept with three thousand women in Spain. I think the notion of fare l’amore is a much more romantic concept of life and human expression than our rather sophisticated, close-minded necessity to drop our pants and have sex. The only way I can see to get back to the essence of life is to break out of these molds of thought. I hope we are looking at a new age. I am actually excited about the twenty-first century because I think that as human beings a great many of us are sick and tired of living the way we do. There is, I believe, a flame in a small group of people throughout the world who want to live differently.”
Changing old patterns, returning to idealistic visions and making them practicable reality are subjects which interest Thomas Hampson as an artist as well. He is very definite about his theatrical and musical objectives, and the standards and goals he sets for himself are uncompromisingly high. Foremost among these is dedication to the notion of ensemble theater, a concept honored today, he believes, more in the breach than in actuality. Ruefully, he maintains, “We don’t know ensemble theater anymore. There is no communication between the four different facets of an opera production except at the administrative level, and administrations of opera houses have never been responsible for ensemble theater. They can promote an environment for it to happen, but they cannot accept responsibility for it themselves. I know that’s a very audacious remark from a thirty-five-year-old baritone,” he adds “and I respect that, but it is one reason I refrain from singing in some houses,” though he concedes, “It is better in some places than in others. That is what makes the great theaters great. I frankly think the Met comes as close as any opera house in the world to maintaining its artistic integrity. So does Munich or Covent Garden.”
What are the ideal conditions for an ensemble, I ask, and he laughs nostalgically. “For me what approaches it best is the festival notion. Nothing would please me more than to be part of a production from the onset. The opera house administration also has to be more attentive to the art form in and of itself, and to the world of singing, which means attention to issues like why many regisseurs can’t read music or why many conductors know little about singing or theater or why designers often don’t understand the special properties of the art form. It means houses need not necessarily be led by the nose to sell tickets or be preoccupied with making sure a production is different rather than making sure it is the truth.”
“Making sure it is the truth” is a motto with a special resonance in Hampson’s life and work. In a career in which he has assessed carefully each of his decisions in an effort to remain “integral to my own artistic agenda, ‘ he has also been sensitively attuned to his belief in the “essential rhythm of life” which he has “tried hard to avoid crossing because every time you do you get pretty kicked up.”
Born in Indiana and raised in Spokane, Washington, Hampson credits his home life with giving him a firm foundation in values. “My father’s influence was extremely significant in giving me discipline, respect for education, thought, and responsibility,” qualities also instilled by his ten years in a rigorously academic Seventh Day Adventist school. Though Hampson has not been a Seventh Day Adventist for several years now, he believes that “one should be exposed to the discipline of religion as long as it opens the mind and soul to the higher essences of spiritual thought.” He also speaks positively of the strict educational environment which taught him many disciplines “not the least of which,” he smiles, “was ironing my own shirts.”
Though music was “always a foregone conclusion of life” in the Hampson household-his mother played piano for a theater group, his sister took a degree in music, and he played in the band as a child “music as a discipline was non-existent.” And the presence of classical music was nil. He emphasizes this omission because it is, he says, “as dumbfounding to me as to anyone else.” He explains that his first contact with classical music was in high school when he responded “to the different sounds and harmonies of the symphonic orchestra” in his visit to the Spokane Symphony. The young man who played basketball, baseball, golf; and tennis, was student body president in high school and college, and stayed active in school politics and model UN, found time among his diversified activities also to sing in choir and later with the Spokane Chorale.
It was, however, his meeting with a Catholic nun and well-known voice teacher, Sister Marietta Coyle, which ultimately focused Hampson’s sights on singing. Asked how he met Sister Coyle, Hampson replies facetiously, “God sent her, ‘ and then hastens to recount more seriously how Sister Coyle approached him after hearing him sing at an arts festival and asked about his plans for college. When the baritone replied that he wanted to become a lawyer, she said, “That’s all well and good. You should study, but, my dear young man, you are an artist, and when you want to know more about that, please be in touch.” So a few months later I called her and told her ‘I’d like to sing a little,’ ” Hampson recalls.
Coyle, aware that Hampson had begun to sing lieder and hymns under the direction of his high school German teacher, Frau Werth, urged him to begin with German and French song Recalling warmly the bond between pupil and student that continues to this day, Hampson says of Coyle,” This woman had studied with Lotte Lehmann, and her familiarity, her points of reference, her devotion, interest, and passion were completely connected to the search for truth. She never maintained she had all the answers by any means, but she had a discipline of thought and an inexhaustible dedication to knowledge that certainly hit me where I live.”
Making his operatic debut at nineteen in Hansel and Gretel (“I grew a beard for the first time, which was more difficult for me than anything I had to sing”), Hampson pursued dual degrees at separate institutions, ultimately being graduated with a B.A. in Government and a B.F.A. in Voice Performance. In the interim he had spent the summers of 1978 and 1979 at the Music Academy of the West studying with Horst Günther and Martial Singher. Regarding the controversial Singher, Hampson says, “The more I know, the more I respect what he knew. Part of his communication problem had to do with his personality, which is something I give him respect for as well. He had extremely high ideals and an extremely low threshold for nonsense, and that can bring you into sharp conflicts in this business. He took some things to extremes vocally, but interpretively nothing Interpretively, he was impeccable.” Singher, like Hampson’s other teachers Günther and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, taught the young singer “to look at all the interpretive possibilities and then decide for myself how to approach a part.”
In 1980, the baritone, who had been frequenting the contest circuit, won second place in the Met’s Western Region and second place in the San Francisco Merola Program Auditions (as well as the Fuchs and Zachary competitions), enrolled in the Merola Program and studied with Schwarzkopf. Influenced by a combination of factors and people not the least important among them the singer’s own “fascination with history and languages,’ Hampson went to Europe in September 1980 to audition. He was hired immediately in Düsseldorf, the largest repertory house in the world, for the lyric baritone fach. He returned to the West Coast, did some semi-professional work, sang his first Bohème in the Spring of 1981, and then entered and won the Met National Auditions in New York. Eager to clarify some misrepresentative reporting, Hampson says, “People who want to take pot shots at the Met say the house didn’t even offer me a contract, but that was not even a discussable point. They knew I already had a contract in Germany, and nothing on earth would have prevented me from fulfilling it.”
Thus, in the Fall of 1981, Hampson and his wife of the time (who had just gotten word that she was pregnant) embarked for “an incredible adventure” in Düsseldorf. The experience there had “many ups and downs-an essentially frustrating period in my life from which came a synthesis of thought and direction” In Düsseldorf the baritone sang his first Barbiere, Silvio, and the Herald in Lohengrin, only after being cast in a proliferation of minor parts, like the Gendarme in Les Mamelles de Tirésias (“not exactly a taxing evening. . “) and the Sergeant in Manon Lescaut, for which he won recognition by not getting lost in the ensemble while naming the prostitutes. (“I made a prop list which contained a mathematical equation of the ensemble.”)
“They were very conservative about using me, Hampson recalls. “I literally had to threaten homicide to be able to sing Silvio, and my biggest breakthrough came by chance when the baritone scheduled for the Herald got ill. The conductor was nervous about letting me sing the role because he had been too busy with auditions to give me an orchestra rehearsal. I thought the whole thing was silly, and I told them not to worry because every time I sing it is with a trumpet lead-in, and I certainly know what a trumpet sounds like. Besides, if the conductor feels better, he can point at me, and I’ll sing I didn’t know what the problem was. Fortunately, I had a big success, and that established a feeling in Düsseldorf that they could trust me with repertory without having to cradle me into it.”
Though many people like to talk about Hampson’s career as having taken off dramatically in 1986, the baritone maintains that “things had started to move before that.” A series of guest appearances enlivened his first three years in Germany. At the end of Hampson’s first season in Düsseldorf, he also returned to St. Louis to do the much heralded Jonathan Miller/Calvin Simmins production of Così, and back in Germany again he created the title role in Hans Werner Henze’s Der Prinz von Homburg in Darmstadt (“a fascinating piece, difficult to learn, but one which fit me perfectly at the time”). He then made debuts in Cologne, Hamburg, and Munich, and in 1984 was engaged by the Zurich Opera “to take care of the Harnoncourt repertory.”
Hampson’s relationship with the conductor for whom he made his first professional recording of a Bach cantata in January 1984 and with whom he went on to create his famous Mozart roles, and the meeting with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with whom the baritone says he “hit it off like bread and butter, ‘ significantly marked the singer’s career. So, too, did his audition for James Levine, which brought the singer first to the Met in 1986 where he sang a much-acclaimed Count in Le Nozze di Figaro (a performance which served as a forerunner to last season’s spectacularly praised and masterful debut as Don Giovanni ), and then to Salzburg in 1988.
“Leonard Bernstein was the most extraordinary human being I have ever met in my whole life. He was everything from A-Z, good to bad, the perfect twentieth century synthesis of consummate artist, devoted artist, and promoted artist.”
Hampson credits both Harnoncourt and Levine for having a “tremendous impact” on his work and career direction, though he reserves his most emotional praise for the late Leonard Bernstein. Talking of his mentor and inspiration, Hampson’s voice takes on a halting softness as he struggles to find the articulation necessary to express the depth of his feelings: “Lenny was just a reordering of my life. Lenny is kind of the umbrella over everything. As an American, when I first got acquainted with classical music, I listened to Leonard Bernstein recordings. When I decided to take a B.F.A. in Voice Performance, I took the Harvard Series out of the library to prepare myself for a theory course.” He breaks off, and I ask him what he thinks made Bernstein so fond of him as a performer. “I’m not sure it was the quality of my voice as much as my devotion to the spiritual essence of Mahler’s work. I cannot take credit for that; it is simply the E-string I have here.” (He strikes his heart.) “Mahler is very near and dear to my heart and was to his. Lenny sang through people. Lenny was music. Lenny was the most extraordinary human being I have ever met in my whole life. He was everything from A-Z, good to bad, the perfect twentieth century synthesis of consummate artist, devoted artist, and promoted artist. This man knew the business; he also had a passion for attention, but attention for the purpose of what he was going to be able to give. He was four or five people at once, and of course that had its dark sides, but, thank God, we all do! I am a born enemy of those people who didn’t see past Lenny’s persona to understand Lenny’s art. Lenny enabled me as a young performer to let go, to try to become the music, to give into the dionysian aspects of creation and deliver myself up to Mahler. I sang things and ways I had never experienced before, and it was nothing we decided consciously to do. Lenny sang, and I sang, and that was that.”
The ability to trust his instincts and to give himself up completely to the soul of the musical experience is possible for Hampson, as for other artists, only because of his strong technical foundation. A perfectionist ever in the process of refining his artistry, he speaks candidly and sometimes critically of his own strengths and weaknesses. I compliment him first on his mastery of languages, and he counters by saying that while he believes that he does have “a mimic ear,” he does not consider himself “particularly linguistically gifted” and has improved only through very hard work. “I don’t think, for example, that I started to sing very good Italian until eight months ago,” he says, “and I can articulate myself only to a limited extent in Italian and French” though he wishes he had the time to learn them as well as he knows German. But even his present fluency in German-the language he uses for all his European professional negotiations and the one he speaks most frequently-was hard earned. Though he had begun his study in high school, Hampson says, “When I got to Germany, I could not even book myself into a hotel.” The singer acquired his mastery by spending five hours a day in class during his first season in Düsseldorf, and now he says in self-mockery, “I am so at home in German, that I speak funny English. I love it when people ask me what my accent is. I always say it is ‘Midwest Pretentious,’ but that’s what happens when you train the voice and speak frequently in other languages.”
Just as he has been eager and willing to learn new languages, Hampson has also been open to finding new methods to expand his technical resources. Singing in a large house like the Met, for example, has taught him “to sing on the voice” while still creating the illusion of “some phrasing and articulation. I think I am singing better because of this, though. I couldn’t just sing at the Met. I have to be able to get away, to back off, and sing in different ways.” Hampson is also ever sensitive to balancing the musical obligations of his technique with his own theatrical instincts. “If ever I err, it is on the theatrical side of opera. I’m not a stand and sing artist, never was and never will be. On the other hand” he says with disarming modesty, “I have committed some obscenities to the vocal line, and I apologize for that. It’s just that I do not believe any composer wrote vocal lines for a sacrosanct reason.”
The synthesis of musical sensitivity and drama which animates Hampson’s singing also constitutes the baritone’s attraction to Mozart. “The Mozart operas are some of the most perfect examples of musical and theatrical thought in cohesion. It is extremely beautiful and expressive music, and it is also extremely theatrical music” Hampson’s singing of the Count, Guglielmo, Don Alfonso, and Don Giovanni has brought him extravagant critical acclaim in recent years. After his first New York Giovanni on September 25, 1990, the almost-impossible-to-please New York Times critic Donal Henahan wrote a rave review, and most critics talked confidently about the young singer’s characterization as having “the stamp of greatness upon it.” Having developed his interpretation over several years beginning with his work with Ponnelle, Hampson offers very articulate and definite views on the subject of the Don and Mozart’s opera. “Working on Don Giovanni has been for me a three year contemplation on the existence of mankind. As a performer you are grateful to get a role like this which lets you participate with humanity in reflecting on why we are human beings. Don Giovanni has very valid lessons for today’s society. The man is a parasite whose every motivation is geared to his vanquishing and consuming someone or something We are all obsessed with this terror to consume as much as we can to protect our own existence, and I think it is pretty darn important to look around instead of just grabbing anything you want.” He sees the Don as a maniacal parasite, a demonic seducer “without one ounce of goodness in all that seduction,” a man living “in absolute horror of his own mortality.” He stresses that it is not his intention to balance the Don’s attractiveness with his greed, but rather to voice the irony of a character who “has the ability to sidewind like a snake through apparent facades of meaning.” The baritone sees Giovanni as a kind of Klaus Maria Brandauer character, a vampire unraveling scene by scene, completely paralyzed by his first murder of the Commendatore and frantically descending to damnation.
Despite his renown as a Mozart singer, Hampson is not eager to become trapped in a single fach. He prefers to permit his repertory choices free range, and to date he has sung a significant number of rare operas-a recent success in the title role of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria in San Francisco-as well as a number of French roles. Though in many ways the elegance and lyricism of his voice seem to predestine Hampson for the French repertory, he says he has not sung as many of these roles as he would like because “French opera isn’t done that often” or performed in France as much as he would enjoy because “booking there is sometimes very late.” An unrealized dream remains Pelléas, “I studied the part but cancelled a project in Lyon because I didn’t feel comfortable with myself in the production. I would still love to do it. The problem with this opera, which I believe is one of the greatest pieces man has ever written, is the casting of Golaud. I had actually given myself up to the idea that I would have to wait until I was ready to sing Golaud, but now it looks like Pelléas may yet happen.” Of Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, a part he performed last season with the Met and which he will record with EMI in Toulouse in the winter of 1991, Hampson speaks plainly: “I adore singing the role, but I feel very strongly that he is not a very nice person. I think he’s a close-minded man. When he comes back from the wars, he is appalled, blinded by his own puritanism, and he very much wants to see his sister in hell. I think he’s a complete Calvinist ass,” he says, laughing at his own bluntness. “I played him that way because I probably didn’t think there was any other way to do it.”
Asked about the controversial Hal Prince production into which Hampson stepped to replace Brian Schexnayder, he says, “I came in as an outside quotient, which was probably an advantage for this production. Valentin is a loner who has little to do with anyone. He comes on and is victimized by Mephisto.” But the singer is critical of the Met’s scenery. “I didn’t mind the way it looked-a little bit of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a little of the Harz Mountains.” But he did mind the fact that “I have never seen such a singer-unfriendly set! There wasn’t one hard surface on that stage. The floor was all cloth and mesh. The candles were wax; the tables rubber. The bowl I got in my hand was, I admit, wood, so,” he teases, “I tried to sing into it.” Despite his efforts to make light of these particular difficulties and not to blame Prince, conductor Dutoit, or designer Langenfass specifically, he believes that this Faust is symbolic of “a missed success” that could have been improved if better ensemble communication had existed.
Besides tackling more French roles, Hampson is also eager to learn more of the Wagner repertory. His initial introduction to that composer came as the Second Grail Knight in Parsifal in Düsseldorf. “It was the first time I had ever heard a Wagner opera, and I went out of my mind because it was such phenomenal stuff!” Wolfram in Tannhauser would interest him a great deal, and the singer hopes to “get closer and closer to this repertory in the future,” even exploring perhaps some less conventional choices of roles.
In determining repertory, as with most other things in his career, Hampson clings to the individuality of his vision. His devotion as a performer is to a character, a subject, or a piece of music, rather than to the business aspects of singing, and he scorns choices based on expediency or marketability rather than conviction.
“Friends, colleagues, the market tell me, ‘Tom, sing Brahms; it makes sense; your voice is right for Brahms.’ Did you hear that?” he exclaims with obvious impatience. “My timbre is right for Brahms. Isn’t that exciting? Well, my soul isn’t right for Brahms!”
Likewise he refuses to make recordings “to saturate the market or to become more famous or liked.” He insists they are an art form on which-especially in his Seder discs-he hopes to offer a new perspective that is “perhaps out of the mainstream.” In fact, the baritone, whose recent successes have made him so competitively sought after by the media and music market, remains more than a little wary of the “industry” and ever-increasingly determined to set his own agenda. “I have been invited earlier than many other colleagues to assess my own artistic agenda, and I am grateful for that. Some of it has been luck; some of it the result of my state of mind; the rest the effects of what kind of person I am. I just don’t take very well to a leash.”
This fierce streak of independence has kept the singer in recent years from attaching himself to any single opera house and has led him to be cautious and selective in choosing repertory, contracts, and engagements. He resists passionately the notion of Fach, which, he believes, is built by agencies. “For some people I am nothing more than a 6’4″, thirtyfive-year-old romantic baritone with a light timbred voice. I don’t even want to discuss it with them!” he complains with evident frustration. “Singing is not about timbres or category labels,” Hampson insists. Rather it is about “fascinating acoustical properties like the colors of the human voice which derive from thought and emotion.” Sensitivity to those expressive properties, the singer feels, too often gets swallowed up in “this mania for timbre, size, and loudness. I wish that somebody would get the novel idea that hearing people sing more quietly and orchestras play more softly would be nice. I really am tired of all this screaming.” He is equally critical of those in the profession who feel words are only “the convenient vehicle for the timbre of the voice.” For the highly verbal, exceptionally dramatic Hampson, his voice is “a vehicle of thought with words and music as its modus operandi.” He longs for a return to a more acoustically sensitive time, not only in the opera house, but also in daily life. “Have you walked down Fifth Avenue lately,” he says, complaining about the noise level, “or tried to talk to someone on an airplane? Our perceptions of sound have been altered by electronics, amplification, and the idea that nuance is merely a loud-soft pedal. It’s a pretty deadly thing God was kind enough to give me a very vibrant, resonant voice, and even though it may not impress by its volume, it can be heard. Even so because I do not have the ability to wield that ‘large’ ” he pronounces the word with disgust “sound, I will never be invited to do certain repertory in which I could, nevertheless, make a strong psychological and vocal impression in the right house and right circumstances.”
Asked who or what is to blame besides the involuntary evolutionary process of audio expectations, he replies, “With very few exceptions when you cannot hear a singer on stage, it is not the singer’s fault, ‘ adding that “a great conductor knows how to be a singer in the pit.” To protect himself he admits that he draws his circle a little closer and sometimes becomes stubborn and cautious about contracts. He says he has been misquoted: it is not true that he has a clause in his contract to approve conductors and regisseurs. He says, however, he does have “a basis of understanding with the houses where I work that in a new production it is important to me to know with whom I will be working, and if either conductor, producer, or concept is significantly altered, it would be up to me to reestablish communication. I don’t think that’s arrogant. I think it’s simply a way of insuring that you are not blindsighted. I would not accept an engagement I felt would be controversial for me, and if I were unsuspectingly involved, I would try to make the best of it or perhaps be forced to make an artistic decision” to be released from contractual obligations.
The same caution that characterizes Hampson’s entrance onto opera house stages marks his approach to the recording studio. Though he is scheduled to record opera and lieder frequently in the coming years, and though he already has to his credit several highly successful recordings such as the Harnoncourt Don Giovanni and has recently won the International Critics Prize and been nominated for a Grammy for his lieder discs, the baritone says he does not wish to be motivated by prizes or critical acclaim. “This is not where I’m going to be,” he announces with determination. Any more than he is going to be swayed by music criticism-positive or negative.
Asked if he reads his reviews, stores them, or throws them away, he answers mischievously, “all of the above,” before launching into a frank diatribe-admirable for its openness-about the “vast observation industry,” as he calls it.
“I think music criticism in the market sense is unfortunately important, but I have a hard time with it. I understand reportage and description of past events; I understand criticism by truly qualified individuals, not just people who sit and describe what they feel internally.
I do think there is a great deal of misrepresentation of facts that can have demonstrable effects on public perception. It can be dangerous because the public sees the opinion of a paper with a million readership, and they tend to believe it.” Hampson resents the manipulation of public thought about art from the “visible arena of the newspaper.” But he adds, “People would be amazed at what little weight criticism has in the industry of classical music. For myself I think it’s important to know somebody’s opinion, but to remember that it is just that. I don’t sing for critics. I never have. I am interested in talking to my public and hearing their observations. I have to believe in myself and what I am doing and then simply throw myself into the forum and take the good with the bad.”
Of his actual notices, he finally admits, “I read them all. I respect a great many of them intellectually, and I respect them all in the sense that they are land mines. When I get a very good review, I breathe a sigh of relief.” Still, as a matter of principle Hampson prefers not to use quotes from these positive notices in his promotional materials.
As with every other facet of his profession about which Hampson has criticisms, he also has constructive notions of how existing situations can be improved. “There is a human need for musical criticism, a need to grapple with thoughts and issues, but I am not sure that always needs to be encased in a four column description-if you get four columns-of some performance at the Met or Covent Garden. I think we need to define critical parameters and objectives better. I think critics have to resist creating this pyramid struggle-who does what best. I think the critical community has to take as much responsibility as the performance community for whatever degeneration or rebirth we are experiencing in this art form. We have to work together. That’s ensemble theater, too!”
Summing up his concerns, Hampson faults the fixation of reviewers on style. “This notion of style. . .” he says, “the minute something is created and then recreated, the distance is style. The business of observation is always preoccupied with that distance. You can understand my frustration because I am concerned with what I am saying to the source.”
Speaking to the source, to the soul of a composition and the heart of an audience is something at which Hampson is particularly adept, not only in opera, but in song as well. The baritone, who believes that even more than opera, “lieder can offer the universal dimension ” plans to devote increasing time to his burgeoning career as a recitalist. Asked to articulate his fascination for the song and concert repertory, Hampson replies without hesitation: “The language of the human condition is poetry. Singing lieder is a harmonization of my life. It puts everything into perspective. I really cannot imagine not reading poetry or singing songs. It’s too integral to me. It’s necessary too as a singing discipline. There is a need for lieder and a big need for singers to be needy of it,” he adds referring to the salutary vocal and interpretive lessons contained in song. His own initial foray into the field with a recording of Das Knaben Wunderhorn on the Teldec label came as the result of the singer’s dare to the company. “I said, ‘Look, people are probably curious enough to see whether I can do it, so we won’t lose money on the first one,’ and, in fact, for lieder recordings both [Schumann songs was the second disc] are selling quite well.” Does he believe there is a lieder public today? “Usually journalists come in to talk to me convinced there is no public, and they leave here saying there is. My experience indicates there is not only a marketable public, but that, more importantly, there is an emotional, spiritual public Once again it is the industry that is at odds with the notion of lieder. They just don’t know how to package it or sell it, just as we don’t know how to present critical, philosophical thought except in thirty-second blurbs. Unfortunately, lieder is often geared to well-known people singing songs, but I think I am perfect testimony that you can become well-known for having sung songs. There was no foregone conclusion that what I am doing in the lieder repertory would be marketable or interesting A great many elements came together,” he asserts gratefully, adding that “administrative moguls often underestimate the public.”
In the song repertory Hampson has already explored in concert and on disc, American music has been prominently featured. His recent release, An Old Song Resung, was for the baritone “an exploration of my roots and of my American spirituality,” and he professes to love the “naive romanticism of those songs which is a very big trademark in my life, ‘ as well as to admire the melodic, emotional, and patriotic content of the works. He recorded a sequel, an album of Cole Porter songs, and he is beginning to work his way through masterpieces of the American musical with a completed Kiss Me Kate and has scheduled a recording of Annie Get Your Gun. “As an American raised in the heartlands, I understand the vernacular of this music, and I am attracted to the texts as well.” The musical characters offer him “accessible portraits of Americanism embodied in a naive native music that is very viable and challenging in the theatrical sense. I know these guys. I grew up with them. My mother was Queen of the Ozarks; my father raised prize hogs for the 4H Club in Missouri. I don’t see this music as being in any way contradictory to Das Knaben Wunderhorn; it just has a different source.”
Asked about personal and professional aspirations for the future, Hampson replies, “Personally, I have a very functional private life over which, of necessity, my career must take precedence. I have four children [one is his own daughter from his marriage which ended in divorce in 1986], for whom I am very responsible in the way I can be. I am very open with them about that, and they know they can get to me any time they need to or want to even if I am not physically there all the time. If there is a domestic crisis, of course, then it is more important. It has to be. I have a very significant other in my life with whom I live, and we make private time wherever my career takes us. It can be an adventure- you see the world together-but sometimes you just need to put a big red X through half a month and say ‘I’m not here’ to business requests.”
Of his future artistic plans, Hampson says, “I see my artistic agenda taking me out of the systematized world of opera and bringing me into specific kinds of characters and roles to which I feel I have something special to offer. I see it as taking me very much more into the world of lieder, song, ballads, and concert repertory both on the stage and in the recording studio. I hope not merely to turn out records, but to offer new ways of looking at lieder, new thematic insights into grouping a basic body of song literature. I envision dividing my time equally between theater and recital, and though I have been sharply criticized as well as loudly applauded for being a young singer who has attempted to teach, I am keenly interested in education, in talking to younger colleagues, and in sharing my experiences. Most of all, I want to devote myself to interpreting the composer, librettist, and poet’s intentions, to the ideal that the whole-the ensemble or the work-is greater than the sum of any of its parts, and I hope to keep in mind that while in music-making you can incessantly seek a definitive essence, you can never fully catch it. Sometimes you get close to it; you remove the lid, and everyone present gets a glimpse of the sixth dimension. It’s those moments that keep me going.”
Out of the systematized world of opera and into the sixth dimension-an ambitious itinerary for a young singer, but one which Hampson has already demonstrated he can handle with aplomb and integrity. Without eschewing the practicality and wisdom needed to pursue a contemporary career, the baritone has rather remarkably managed to subordinate efficacy to idealism and to replace modern cynicism with a reverence for the ancient roots of art. For Thomas Hampson, every performance is a search for truth, an attempt to give voice “to the universals of mankind’s experience” and to offer a world in which the spiritual dimension of human expression is often silenced a medium through which to sing.
Süllwold, Carla Maria Verdino, A Candid Conversation with Thomas Hampson in Opera Monthly. Sept. 1991, vol. 4, no. 5. pp. 5-13.
Thomas Hampson will fill in as a guest host for Terrance McKnight on WQXR this Thursday, November 5, beginning at 7 pm ET. During this hour, Thomas will celebrate the song repertoire, featuring works by Schubert, Mahler, Ives, and many others. Tune in and learn more about Hampson’s guest host hour via WQXR.
PENTATONE continues its American Opera Series with Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere recording of Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix (2019), an opera on the life of Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist. Da Ponte (1749-1838) was an adventurer, who not only travelled the world, but in a way also through time, living across what seem to be impossible moments of history that never should have aligned in somebody’s life.
The documentary by C Major Entertainment “The Animated Story of Jenny Lind”, in which Thomas Hampson is the narrator, has won this year’s Golden Prague Fesitval’s Performing Arts Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious and acclaimed Performing Arts festival for TV and film, with opera, dance, concerts and documentaries from all over the world. It is also on the Shortlist of potential winners of the Prix Italia.
Thomas Hampson makes his Global Concert Hall debut next month, performing with the Orchester Wiener Akademie under the baton of its founder and musical director Martin Haselböck. The concert, filmed at the Brucknerhouse Linz in August 2020, will be streamed on IDAGIO’s Global Concert Hall on Thursday, October 15, beginning at 8 pm Berlin / 2 pm New York. The concert will be available to stream through October 22.
Thomas Hampson returns to the stage this month, with a concert at the Stiftskirche Millstatt, and two performances at the Salzkammergut Classic Festival. Beginning on August 2 in Millstatt, Hampson will perform lieder by Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms with pianist Christian Koch, and the Carinthia Chor Millstatt will sing Carinthian songs under the direction of Bernhard Zlanabitnig.
For the first time ever, audiences around the world will have a special opportunity to watch the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018 world premiere production of Hadrian, in full, online. On Monday, August 10 at 6:30 p.m. ET, in partnership with Montréal Pride Festival, the COC is hosting a free, one-night-only digital stream of the modern grand opera. The Hadrian Watch Party helps kick off one week of virtual Pride events and will feature a live Q&A session with both the composer and celebrated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor, a giant in Canadian theatre.
In song, you have one of the most amazing diaries of any generation’s culture at a given time.