May 31, 2018
It must be 30 years since I first became aware of Thomas Hampson, arguably the most famous lyric baritone in the world and the man about to sing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. With Leonard Bernstein as an early mentor, he was a youthful Don Giovanni, he recorded every Mahler song amenable to the male voice and he did crossover recordings of Broadway musicals. According to the great German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, he was the finest singer in Europe.
The voice on the phone from Berlin makes clear his lofty conception of his art.
“I do believe,” he says, “what I’m singing is of a fundamental value for my public and for our general health as human beings. I don’t see what I do as high-level entertaining distraction.”
So how would he characterise Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s famous song cycle from 1884-85? “I believe they have a very special value,” Hampson says of the songs. “There’s something we call in German bildsprache, which is the picture-making, the laboratory of natural phenomena, the kinds of flowers and the kinds of trees and the kinds of birds, and this symbology is something Mahler fantastically sets to music. The iconography of these songs is really quite exciting.
“Working on these songs as a young man with Leonard Bernstein was, of course, beyond exciting. And what I think I learnt the most from Lenny was his fundamental conviction that when you’re singing, that is all you’re doing. You are the music. It’s rather remarkable that he saw things in me that I could not possibly have known or hoped for in my own abilities.”
Hampson was once a very striking Don Giovanni in a production conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, as director, giving his old cold-eyed take on the drama of the great womaniser.
“What Ponnelle was after,” he says, “was the cynicism. If you have a baritone singing it then you’ve got more of a capacity to articulate a psychotic manipulative personality, and that is how I’ve always seen Don Giovanni, as a pretty disgusting human being. But an important one to know because inside all of us there’s a Don Giovanni.”
Hampson says the “machismo and prowess” of the character will tend to dominate when the part is sung by a dark Italianate bass. You can tell that he’s a classical singer with an unusually comprehensive grasp of his own repertoire, which ranges from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Richard Adams to Wagner and Verdi. I ask him about the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, another singer who spanned a range of different styles.
“I became very good friends with Fischer-Dieskau,” he says. “We had a very healthy friendship. What he achieved in his life was simply overwhelming. I don’t believe you’re either a song-singer or an opera singer. I think every genre informs and benefits the other sides of one’s life as a singer.”
Would he have liked to sing Wagner’s Wotan in The Ring of the Nibelung, something Fischer-Dieskau did for conductor Herbert von Karajan’s recording of Rheingold? “If I’d had the voice to sing Wotan, I would have done it in a heartbeat,” he says. “The same way I got very close to singing Hans Sachs”, the great bass role in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. In fact his suitability for the role of the wise old master singer was a temptation he discussed with the older singer.
“That’s one of the questions I put to Fischer-Dieskau — ‘Do you think I could sing Sachs?’ — and he was very pensive. We were on a walk and he was quite quiet for a long while, and we stopped and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Thomas, the third act is very long!’ ”
He laughs at the memory, then talks about some of the other unexpected roles he has done. Perhaps this good-looking 63-year-old leading man of the opera actually may be attracted to the supreme character role in the repertoire, Verdi’s Falstaff? “Now you’re really jumping on my heart, as they say,” he says. “If there’s one role left I would love to sing, it’s without question Falstaff … the problem is having to imagine me with a pillow under my costume.”
He adds: “Falstaff perhaps confuses his rather large stomach with something else that is not as large.”
Hampson grew up in Washington state and his first vocal coach was a nun, Sister Marietta Cole. His next vocal coach was the legendary Schwarzkopf, of whom Hampson says: “She was a limitless fountain of patience and information and energy.”
Hampson talks about how he enjoyed the recordings of the Broadway musicals he did with American conductor John McGlinn: Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate.
“Those characters, Fred Graham and Frank Butler,” he says, referring to the main male leads in both musicals. “You know, those guys, I lived next door to them, I went to school with them, the iconic limited male that always gets taught a bitter lesson of life from the girl.”
It also seems to sadden him that Broadway musicals, from Stephen Sondheim on, lost their musical muscularity. He admires Sondheim but says a singer such as Gordon MacRae (the lead in the films of Oklahoma! and Carousel) would have been the greatest Barber of Seville of his day, given the analogous musical training. Whereas now the musical side of the dramatisation has receded even in Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals.
He has the same strong view of opera. “I see opera as a musical art and not as a theatrical art. Obviously it’s a musical art that transpires in a theatrical context, but what I do as a singer is dictated by the composer, not the producer.”
Thomas Hampson performs tonight in recital with pianist Maciej Pikulski at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre; then the Sydney Opera House on Sunday; then with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on June 7; and Geelong Arts Centre, June 8.
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.