Playing Your Game

This week Bay Area music lovers can look forward to two events featuring the music and scholarship of baritone Thomas Hampson. Tuesday evening, he will be joined at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music by curators from the Library of Congress to discuss their collaboration celebrating the history of American song. Wednesday he will perform a concert at Herbst Theatre with pianist Wolfram Rieger, titled “Song of America.” Hampson took time out from his preparations to discuss the project, the relationship between poetry and music, and his latest e-book download.

How did your collaboration with the Library of Congress came into being?

I met James Billington for the first time eight or nine years ago and I had been in discussion with Jon Newsome. They were planning to revitalize the music division Web site. They wanted to call it I Hear America Singing. Since I had done a program on PBS called I Hear America Singing, we began talking about it. I did not, at that point, realize what a vast online resource they were already building. At some point in our discussions I said that I thought that there should be a cross-referenceable database of timeline, poet, and composer for American song, and everybody jumped up and down and said what a lovely idea. Obviously, as we got into the nuts and bolts of it, that’s a lot easier said than done. So, that’s when this “Song of America” concept as part of the Web site came. And then we got a little of the cart in front of the pony. Technology was moving so fast and there were too many aspects of what “Song in America” can mean and what it sounds like and looks like. In some ways, my doing a recital tour has invigorated the internal dialogue over the past several years and we are moving very much forward in this cross-referenceable database. I realized about eight months ago that the best way to do this is to do my own and to bequeath it to the Library of Congress down the road. is the not-for-profit foundation of a very modest nature that has helped various projects and is overseeing what we’ll talk about when I do this presentation,, which has all sorts of side doors and back doors and links to the Library of Congress. It is a modernization of the Web site that I did with WNET back in 1998 of “Song in America,” cross-referencing historical perspectives, timelines, poets’ stories, composers’ stories, and a real place for research, and I guess to some extent entertainment, but in any case a place where people can really connect the dots. It’s a very deep and positive cooperation and a joint project that will remain as long as I’m singing.

Regarding what the project will include, or in your own artistic discernment, do you distinguish between American art song and the works of composers like Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin or Gershwin?

I want to be very clear, and frankly humble, in what it is that I’m doing. My concentration and my world of reference and my talking about American song is literally that dialogue of poetry set to music. The fringe of that is folk poetry, without question. Folk poetry either updated or extrapolated or brought into the mainstream of classical song or folk songs like Aaron Copland’s; that is certainly a field that I work inside of. But this is not about musical theater. It’s not about popular song. It’s not about lyrics per se. What I feel comfortable exploring is the relationship between a poem and a musical language that enter into dialogue with one another to establish a metaphor of what each one of those separate languages is trying to illuminate.

In the concert Wednesday, there are several songs set to poems by Walt Whitman. Is there something about Whitman or that period of the mid-19th century that you feel is of central importance to that relationship you’ve been talking about between poetry and song?

Whitman certainly is a watershed in literature, and remains to me a watershed in creative thought in American intellectual life. What I find most interesting is that when he’s writing later, in the 1860s I think, about Leaves of Grass he says that he would not have found his language and poetry were it not for his exposure to music and, specifically, Italian opera. It’s very interesting to me that this would be such a formative musical impact on one of the greatest poets of all time. That he says this is a fundamental influence on him, and also how we perceive Whitman to be a fundamental influence, in the reverse, on composers. When I think about composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams, who not only praised Whitman’s through-composed style but also said that Whitman allowed agnostics to be good people! I’m going to explore Whitman’s relationship to music in the Leinsdorf lecture with the New York Philharmonic in January. And then there’s the humanist, whom I admire greatly. I’ve learned a great deal about myself as a human being and as an American by reading Whitman. His influence on composers and music in general is so vast in so many languages. It’s remarkable how different composers meet him and his words and symbols and metaphors on very different grounds. Whitman never forces a composer to set him a certain way. I can’t imagine a world without him, just as I can’t imagine a world without Mahler. That’s as close as I’ll get to a “My favorite is …” statement.

How do you think modern audiences relate to and process material like this? What need do you think it fills for people?

What I can say — and I’m getting a certain amount of confidence in this statement because I’ve been doing this now for a while — is that the general public is not only entertained and enthused, but they feel as if they’re looking through a photo album, and I know that’s exactly what I want. It’s not a Hallmark production. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a blueprint of people’s lives. It is a narrative about the vast, enormous amount of creative material we have produced in our very young history, trying to articulate what it meant to any particular person at any particular time, to be alive. It’s a kind of history of private lives. It is a particular kind of school of history that I’m attracted to and get a great deal of inspiration from. Things that we all know as human beings: our loves, our euphoria, our pains, our fears, our hates, our aggressions, our fear of war, our patriotism — all the conflicts that are inherent in those things, in a different context. Going back 150 years and hearing somebody sing the very same sentiment that you might read in an E.A. Robinson poem, or Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost or even [Jack] Kerouac. The contexts change, but the impulse to articulate it, to talk about it, to identify it doesn’t change.

To me, this is the essence of what the arts and humanities are: a powerful reference tool, a blueprint of people’s decision making and life’s impulses. This should be respected in the greater debate of our society in terms of technology, economics, religion, and politics. If arts and humanities are not sitting at that table, we have limited horizons. And I think that anytime we explore the creative spirit in books, poems, historical dialogues, and musical dialogues, we are a richer, more confident (in a humble way) people than if we act on only that which we know in our modern times.

I think that where the recital can stand up proud is as a place where you come to enrich your sense of knowledge in a way that is quite different than collecting bits of information. When I talk about knowledge, it’s a deep sense of knowing, and I think that’s more what the dialogue of poetry and music is trying to establish: to make hearable that echo of things that we inhabit in our lives.

Do you find that sometimes certain works get too much under your skin? If you’re doing theKindertotenlieder, or playing a villain, do things carry over to real life?

If I hear a soprano break down in “Vissi d’arte” (and I lose some of Puccini because of her tears), I think that’s wrong. But to say that we’re just presenting some spectrum of emotions when we play our characters, that’s also ridiculous. When I’ve played Don Giovanni over the past 20 years, I would say that 99 percent of the time when I’m done with the opera, I’m in a pretty foul mood. This guy is just a rank piece of work. He’s a great challenge to play, but if I’m successful, he’s going to be pretty despised. The most important thing for anyone doing this is to know where home is, otherwise you become a horrible amalgamation of what it is you’re trying to portray. I don’t think you should become emotional when singing. It has happened to me a couple of times. I’ve apologized for it. I was once thinking of a friend who was, literally, on death’s door, and I was singing about hope and I broke down. Is poetry that close to us? Without question. Do all of the songs that I sing resonate with me? Yes. That’s the only thing I can promise my public is that I only sing things, in any context, that I truly believe in, think are important, and think I have something to offer to. I’m not hirable.

Is there some aspect of pop culture that people might be very surprised to find that you adore? Do you have a guilty pleasure?

I have to confess a pretty expansive knowledge of country music. I love to watch films and shows. I’m a big Apple guy. There are so many aspects of what Apple has done that I think are so wonderfully powerful. It allows somebody like me on the road to pick and choose television shows, and I have to admit I’m addicted to a couple of shows. I love forensic medicine. I love this new show Fringe. I can actually lose quite a bit of time by making sure that I’m up on the latest episode of Bones or Numbers.I’m also a passionate watcher of the Ted Talks. There are many gigabytes of those talks that I’ll wander through. It’s great fun.

What is the latest addition to your book collection?

There’s one called The Singing Neanderthals. I’m a big Kindle fan and I’m loving this e-book fight, with Barnes and Noble getting into the fray. I’m deep into American history right now, the book What Hath God Wrought? The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

It seems to me I’ve interviewed a lot of singers lately who love to golf. What is the connection there?

I think there is a connection. There are tremendous parallels between shaping your shots and finding your inner rhythm to singing. One of the first things a golf pro said to me when I was first golfing was “You don’t breathe when you golf.” And then as the game went on and I realized that I was really not breathing, he said, “OK, now that I’ve solved that, would you teach me how to breathe?” It was an amazing conversation. It depends what level you’re playing at. With real golfers like Barbara Bonney, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Paul Groves, your game becomes one of visualizing shots and setting up the technical aspects of your swing, releasing all of that, and simply going to the shot. That’s a perfect description of singing. If you don’t hear it before you sing it, you’re probably not going to sing it the way you want it to be sung. The most profoundly simple mandate I can give to any singer is “Hear it, breathe into that which you are going to make audible, and sing!” … You can only play your game. You can’t go and try to swing somebody off the course, and that’s very true in singing as well: You must remain true to yourself.

Lisa Houston, a mezzo-soprano and voice teacher in Berkeley, publishes a monthly newsletter titled “The Singer’s Spirit” and writes a monthly column for Classical Singer Magazine on the topic of inspiration for singers. She has been heard recently by Bay Area audiences as Augusta Tabor in The Ballad of Baby Doe with Berkeley Opera and as the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas with Marin Oratorio. She can be reached at

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