A Still-Dangerous Don

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.

Go figure.

More by Jay Nordlinger at National Review

Image: Teatro alla Scala