Thomas Hampson Discusses “Thrilling and Humbling” New Season, Featuring New Macbeth in Chicago and Much Mahler

Thomas Hampson’s new season begins on Friday, October 1, when he gives the first of nine performances in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Oct 1-30).  The new production raises the curtain on a far-ranging season for the baritone that includes opera, concert and recital performances on the greatest stages of Europe and America.

The music of Gustav Mahler, who was born 150 years ago and died a century ago, will figure prominently in Hampson’s new season, appearing on more than 50 of his recital and concert programs, as well as on his new recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the Wiener Virtuosen (a conductor-less ensemble comprised of principal players of the Vienna Philharmonic), which will be available in January 2011.

Hampson performs Mahler in many of the world’s musical capitals with orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, NDR Symphony, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and Czech Philharmonic, with conductors like Alan Gilbert, Mariss Jansons, Philippe Jordan, and Antonio Pappano.  He also features the composer’s songs in a series of recitals in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Vienna, Zurich, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Madrid, and Oslo, and, as “Mahler Artist-in-Residence”, presents the complete songs at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie.

Other highlights of Hampson’s coming season include three all-Strauss concerts with Renée Fleming and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann; selections from George Crumb’s American Songbooks performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; “Song of America” recitals at Duke University and Minnesota Beethoven Festival; performances and a world-premiere recording of Richard Danielpour’s Songs of Solitude, newly commissioned for Hampson and the Philadelphia Orchestra; and the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Laura Sonnets, also written especially for the baritone. In Switzerland, he performs at the Zurich Opera in new productions of Verdi’s I masnadieri and Wagner’s Parsifal under Adam Fischer and Daniele Gatti, and appears in a series of opera galas.

Hampson discusses some of the highlights of his new season below.

Q:  You are launching quite a remarkable new season with these Macbeth performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago this week.

TH:  It’s more than thrilling.  This is really the kind of season that I love, full of so many different activities: performances in Europe and America, opera, lieder, concerts, new works, more of the ‘Song of America’ project.  I get tremendous energy from it and it gives me a sense of overwhelming artistic joy.  It’s also a wonderfully lucky reality of fate that at the height of my career I land in the anniversary of one of the composers I admire most, Gustav Mahler. This has given me the opportunity to make a recording I’ve always wanted to make, work with some remarkable conductors and orchestras in their home cities and on tour, and do various academic and journalistic activities on Mahler. It’s all thrilling and humbling at the same time.”

Q:  It’s the big Mahler year and you’re having a huge Mahler season.  As well as giving Mahler concerts and recitals in all the great music capitals and with numerous top orchestras and conductors, you also have a new recording coming out.  Do you ever fear overdoing it and weakening the music’s impact on you as an artist?

TH:  It’s a good question.  The danger of repeating anything is that it becomes routine.  But the miracle of Mahler’s music is that there always seems to be something else that sparks a part of my imagination.  I never tire of singing Mahler!   But I’m also very careful not to sing “just anything” all the time.  For example, I’ll do a very intense and demanding piece like Schubert’s Winterreise on tour for a while, but then I set it aside.  I am careful not to belabor my imagination.  That said, there is something bottomless about Mahler’s music, and it’s just impossible to imagine not wanting to study, rehearse and perform it, especially when you are working with the kind of artistic partners that I will have throughout the season.

Q:  Your first engagement this fall is in the Windy City, where you’ll open the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new season with Verdi’s Macbeth.

TH:  I’ve done three different productions of Macbeth thus far – in San Francisco, Zurich and London’s Covent Garden.  The Lyric Opera staging is the first new production of the work that I’ve done since the Covent Garden production in 2006.  I’ve been very much involved in all the preparations, and working with Barbara Gaines has been terrific.

Q:  You’ve said in past interviews that Macbeth is a role that you always find especially compelling to do.  Tell us about him.

TH:  He is certainly a menaced character, but not a dark character in the way of Scarpia or Don Giovanni, who are essentially without redeeming qualities.  The tragedy of Macbeth is that despite the evil and weakness and manipulation that he is involved with, there is a moment in the fourth act where it is clear that he knows how terrible he is, and what a horrible fate he has brought to so many people.  But he doesn’t change his actions.   He becomes almost suicidal, he rails about how terrible it is, and he says, I’ll probably die because of this.  But he also doesn’t do anything to change the situation. He’s not heroic, but he’s a very complex, challenging and rewarding character to play.  It’s one of Verdi’s miracles.

Q:  Are you enjoying being in Chicago?

TH:  I love this city. It’s one of the most dynamic American cities and it has many fantastic cultural institutions including this amazing and wonderful opera house.

Q:  You’ll also be doing a fair amount of new and relatively new music this season, including selections from George Crumb’s American Songbooks, which you’ll perform with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York and Washington DC.

TH:  As well as my love of Mahler and the great German romantic composers, I am also very involved in the music of our time. Composers such as Michael Hersch, Richard Danielpour and William Bolcom have written works for me.  Last year I performed a new work by Matthias Pintscher with the New York Philharmonic, and I’m going to work with him again in the near future. In Athens, Georgia in February I’ll be doing the world premiere of Bolcom’s Laura Sonnets.   I’m doing the world-premiere recording of Danielpour’s Songs of Solitude in Nashville in November – a work commissioned for me by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach and led in its premiere by David Robertson.  Every season I’ll be doing one or two world premieres, and this is something I really love to do.  I’m also thrilled to be doing the Crumb songbooks this season.  I saw a performance of some of them in Salzburg and told the composer how amazing they are – truly fascinating worlds of sound.

Q: You’ve been living in NYC for a while now.  Is there anything in particular that makes you feel you’re now officially a New Yorker?

TH:  New York City taxes!  But seriously, your life is just different here.  Seamless Web brings different cuisines into our house.  And there’s Riverside Park and my favorite diner, which is being remodeled at the moment.  I love being here and connecting with this city’s crazy energy.

Q:  You’re doing Facebook and Twitter these days, and from the look of your frequent posts it seems as if you’re having a lot of fun with it.

TH:  I don’t get all the Twitter nomenclature yet!   I am a neophyte to all these social media tools, but very much enjoying the experience. What I’ve really noticed is that the curious observer and the passionate follower both have the opportunity to enjoy the week-to-week – and even day-to-day – updates that an artist can give.  There’s a real appreciation there.  I don’t do a lot of personal messaging, but I’m getting lots of feedback and people seem to be enjoying getting to know me.  I think it’s an extremely important aspect of the world’s new appreciation for classical music.  People have been intimidated by the ivory tower vibe, and you can break down barriers without being someone you’re really not.  I’m opening the door to my life and mind so that people can participate if they want.  It has been a very refreshing experience.


Hampson discusses Verdi’s Macbeth in detail here:


Thomas Hampson on Twitter