Arizona Daily Star: Hampson takes a journey into the soul of America for Tucson Desert Song Festival

Arizona Daily Star

Thomas Hampson’s resume reads like opera’s greatest hits:

He’s sung more than 80 operatic roles in major theaters from New York’s Met to the UK’s Covent Garden, recorded more than 170 albums that have garnered four Grammy nominations and a Grammy win and has performed in the world premieres of several new operas including Rufus Wainwright’s “Hadrian” in Canada and Tarik O’Regan’s “The Phoenix” with the Houston Grand Opera, both in the 2018-19 season.

But if you ask him, he will tell you one of his biggest professional thrills is singing American songs, works that borrow texts from great American poets including Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

“It’s my songs. It’s my poetry. Every song I sing makes me buzz and tingle,” said Hampson, who brings his “Song of America: Beyond Liberty” show to Centennial Hall Tuesday, Jan. 28, as part of the eighth annual Tucson Desert Song Festival. “The tough thing about this show is what not to sing. I know more American songs and of more American songs than I can possibly sing before I die. And I am passionate that people, whether they are musicians or not, celebrate our culture through the arts and through the stories and through the poetry and through the music.”

Hampson is arguably the ambassador of American song. He has been doing recitals under the umbrella “American Song” since the mid-1990s and has collaborated for almost 25 years with the Library of Congress, which has thousands of songs by American composers in its collection.

“There is something quite unique to American culture in that we are unbelievably creative, and maybe people know that, and in every genre we have but also in the classical music genre and the classic song genre, we have been unbelievably prolific,” said the 64-year-old, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, and now calls Berlin home.

But America’s song history has gotten somewhat overshadowed in the pursuit to identify America’s Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert or Claude Debussy.

“I just decided 25 some years ago that that’s the wrong question. I think the way to look at American culture is through 10- and 15-year slices of this incredibly myriad culture that is always mutating to this next generation,” Hampson said last week from Berlin.

“Song of America: Beyond Liberty” is the second iteration of “Song of America,” a program of American songs that Hampson has been performing since the mid-1990s. This version includes telling stories about the composers, music and the times in which they lived.

Hampson will be accompanied by pianist Lara Downes and his Beyond Liberty Players that include a percussionist, cellist and violinist.

Despite its title, Hampson cautions about reading anything political into the show.

“It’s not in the least” bit political, said Hampson, who studied politics and government in addition to voice as an undergrad at home in Washington State. “It is an evening of stories. I believe if we know our stories and our songs that we know ourselves better as Americans and that’s the only thing behind it all. It’s a wonderful celebration of American culture.”