Classic Melbourne: Interview with Thomas Hampson

It’s hard to know where to start with Thomas Hampson. The American baritone is enjoying a remarkably diverse career traversing through Wagner, Handel, Copeland, Léhar, Irving Berlin and so many more.

He’s in Australia for first time to share his passion for Mahler and American song in recitals at Melbourne Recital Centre and Sydney Opera House and concerts with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall and Geelong’s Costa Hall. He’s also giving a masterclass for young male singers in Melbourne.

He proved to be a thoughtful, passionate and good-humoured companion for a chat about music over a green tea.

 VT:What took you so long to get to Australia?

TH:[Laughs] Well, it’s a very long way to come here, isn’t it? You try to do as many things as you can and it’s been a very busy career. I’ve been to South East Asia quite often and you would have thought we could just keep on going but, anyway, I’m here now.

VT: Tell us about Mahler and you.

TH: Mahler and me. The first time I heard his symphony I was preparing Songs and I thought I better get to know this guy’s music. I threw in a cassette of the first symphony and was off to one of my teaching jobs. I’m buzzing down the freeway and realise I’m going 37 miles an hour because my head’s like I’m on drugs. So I pull over while I listen to the first movement. I show up an hour and 15 minutes late. I confessed to one of my older musical colleagues what happened and he said, “I’m surprised you came in at all”.

I just fell in love with Mahler’s musical language. I found it beautiful but I knew there was something going on that I didn’t know about, that I wanted to know about. I was intrigued to find out more. The further I went down that rabbit hole, well, I’ve never come back out. I never tire of re-studying his music. On any level: historical perspective of his times, philosophical perspective of what he studied and believed, the musical integrity and structure of his pieces, the philological basis for all of his songs, is an enlightening world for any opera or song singer.

He became my point of reference. I understood Schubert better because of Mahler. I understood the flow of the 19thcentury because of seeing the Phantasiethrough Mahler’s eyes. And the great personalities around him that he introduced me to. It doesn’t stop. I tirelessly sing Mahler song.

VT: Another reason for your visit to Australia has been to give a masterclass at Melbourne Recital Centre. When you’re teaching, what do you hope participants take away?

TH: You know, I would say about 20 per cent of my time now is pedagogical, which I think is quite exciting. I enjoy it. I’ve done teaching all through my career and I’ve got the Heidelberg Lied Academy and a couple of schools that I’m regularly at. I don’t have a position of my own yet because I just can’t be dependable [due to performing commitments].

I enjoy the exchange very much. I want to be of assistance. The tough thing about masterclasses is that I’ve got rather spoiled with these three, five and 10 day symposia that I get to do, because you can then really develop a vocabulary and move forward and build a rapport.

So doing masterclasses, I want to be as there as I can for them, if you get what I mean. I want to be consequential for them. At the same time it should be a pleasant and growing experience. I see myself as being as quickly as I possibly can, a stable mirror that will give them information about what they’re doing and something they can build on. I’m not there to chastise, I’m there to work with them. I will take what I get and hopefully move, whatever metaphor, move their ball down the gridiron.

What I say to them before the class is that in singing, to me, there’s a three dimensional potion to it. There’s the universal, what the piece is about…there’s the language, style, context of the opera if it’s from an opera or the poetic history…and then, of course, there’s the physical. And all three of those things must be in balance. Very often with young singers, of course, it’s something physical that they want to get at, because I think what they want to ing they are probably very clear about.

I just try to listen in that three dimensionality and react with them and for them. I think it’s important they sing the thing proper and then we go after it. They have the nervous experience of singing for a public and some vicious person like me. [Laughs]

In Germany, I invited Brigitte Fassbänder for some of my masterclasses and the young students were all “Oh my God, Brigitte Fassbänder”. And she said to them – I’ll see if I can translate – “You know, I’m extremely picky and I’m very stubborn but I mean very well” and that’s what you have to do.

VT: You’re a fine actor in your operatic roles, are you a natural?

TH: One has acting classes though I never went to a “thespian” school. Natural or not, I’ve always found that what I do as a singer is bound to the central idea of telling a story. So the physicality of being like the person you are inhabiting, their thoughts and psychology, seems to me a very natural process. That may sometimes be a different equation for an opera singer than perhaps a Broadway theatre person or so on and that’s not a problem.

That comes to a big point that I like to talk about with the opera. That is, moving forward, what the opera will be. I think it’s incredibly important that we all understand and agree on what it isn’t. It’s not in competition with television or film or theatre. It is it’s own world. And the basis of our world in opera is not plot. Our basis is historical context and the dilemma of the human condition. What we’re all there for is to inhabit that incredible moment of emotion and brain that happens, whether it’s a monologue or a sextet, when this dilemma takes place in a musical context. That is from where I sing. As I’ve matured, I’ve noticed more and more, I have to be careful sometimes in bigger pieces, like Faustus. You need to remember that you still have to sing it. You can’t just go writhing about on stage and screaming at God.

I’m as much a vocal fetishist as the next person. I love great voices and great singing. But to me, the greatest of vocal moments have always been those that are connected to “why”? I mean, à propos, Joan Sutherland, there was always a discussion about her diction. We never sang together, though I worked with her husband. I knew her, I saw her. And why was she one of the greatest singers of the 20thcentury? Because there was never a moment that was not committed to the reason why. This phenomenal vocalism that would not have happened and have resonated with so many people across the world, were it not coming from the reason the damn thing was written in the first place.

VT:In the past, you have commented that sometimes the various departments of an opera production don’t work as an ensemble. Do you think that has changed at all over the years?

TH:Opera is only successful as a total ensemble artistic endeavour. I am just reinforcing my preparedness to work with everyone. In the rehearsal time, we’re all together, we’re doing the best we can; we’re creating an ensemble for the same purpose.

It is very easy in these massive well-organised, well-oiled opera theatres’ machines, that everyone can get rather dialled in on their own responsibilities and where they actually coalesce can get left on the side.

What I’ve tried to be very clear about is that opera is a musical art form in a theatrical context, and not a theatre piece with incidental music or a frame of sound in which theatrical events take place. Some people took slight umbrage to me saying things like that and wanted to involve me into some polemical argument and that wasn’t my point at all.

My point is that as a singer on stage, every breath I take is from a composer and not from a producer [director]. I think that our responsibility is to encode the piece rather than necessarily trying to reinvent it. That’s what I’m trying to be a positive force for.

Producers who are much more specific about how they want to design productions, may or may not create conflicts with the actual structure of the musical piece which, of course, is the responsibility of the conductor. So for a conductor to come in to observe the last three days of a stage process that we’ve been at for three and a half weeks before his orchestral rehearsals is not very useful. In fact, I think that’s a mistake.

There are times the pressure of theatre production values has lessened. People are finding other ways to create new atmospheres. I don’t think everyone has to run around singing Mozart in Spanish boots. But so much of what we call modern opera is actually a question of stage design. A lot of people are still trying to tell the story but with weird costumes and stuff. I think we have some room for fantasy there. I think that when productions are far more innovative in lighting design and atmosphere, we don’t need a lot of furniture on stage.

I think we need to be very careful of the multi-media aspects. You get caught in an aesthetic no man’s land because what we do is tremendously humanly acoustical. If you’re stuck in an electronic atmosphere, there’s going to be a paradox there.

I remember seeing a Faust at the Met that was so incredibly 20thcentury industrial design that it seemed irritating to hear Gounod’s music inside of it.

VT: A parallel point you’ve made is that with opera you need to tell the story, not some other story imposed on it for the sake of it.

TH:I think that there are  some very intelligent and wonderful producers today and they sometimes tell the same story but in a way that is “My goodness, I’ve never thought of it like that” and that’s an exciting moment. But there’s an awful lot of them starting with “Gee, what would it be like if…” and that to me is never quite as fulfilling as “Gee, what was Verdi up to?” Especially Verdi. The great masters we really should kneel in front of.

VT: Show some respect?

TH:Well, exactly. There was a big conversation about Don Giovanni  back in the day. I’ve always said that a 21stCentury Don Giovanni would be incredibly exciting to play and please write it for me, anybody, thank you. But Da Ponte and Mozart do not have that responsibility and the Mozart fach is an endlessly fascinating juxtaposition of social context, historical context, manners, mores, morals, that will always focus on a universal that is timelessly valid. That’s not going to get better by mucking about with the context. Don Giovanni  is not the story of a bus ride with seven people and one of them turns out to be an asshole. That’s just not what Giovanni’s about.

It sounds like I’m on some sort of crusade for opera productions. I’m not. It’s just that I’m trying not going to put myself in a position where I can’t be 150 per cent me. And there are some producers, I just know where they’re going and I’m just not interested in doing that. That’s my choice and I don’t mean it as an indictment. Most opera singers don’t have the opportunity to do that. On the other hand, it has cost me work. But I know that it represents a particular standard that most people respect. They know that if Hampson’s on board, we’re going to be dealing with what the piece is about.

VT:What would you say are your recent career highlights in opera?

TH:The last five years, 10 years, the handful of regular repertoire, like Simone Boccanegras that I did, quite a few Otellos and even Scarpias, and that sounds like an unusual repertoire for someone like me.

VT: Is there really such a thing as unusual repertoire for you?

TH:Well, you know, in the cliché world of opera, I’m slightly more elegant than what people would think Otellois, but I think Iago is just one of the great insidious badasses. I love playing evil people. Scarpia is dastardly intelligent, it’s just wonderful to try to keep up with. So I do enjoy that and the rest of the things have been like Mathis der Maler, which is just one of the greatest operas that I’ve ever been in.

It was great fun to return to DonCarlowith [Peter] Stein a few years ago. I don’t know how often I’ll be asked to sing Posa but it is a masterpiece. To be part of a Don Carloproduction is one of the great privileges of a career.

VT: So what are the opera premieres you have coming up?

TH: It’s exciting. Over the next two seasons, I have three world premieres. This floats my boat.

 Rufus Wainwright is writing an opera on Hadrian [the Roman emperor]. We’ve met several times and just get along like busters. I like his music. I heard his Prima Donna opera, and yes, it had flaws but what first opera of what major composer didn’t? This man is a theatrical, musical animal with a lyric gift. A very thoughtful man in terms of the psychology of his characters; I’m enjoying it enormously. That will be in Toronto.

Then there’s The Phoenix   by John Caird and Tarik O’Regan in Houston. It’s a piece on Da Ponte. It’s quite fun as it’s a comedy. It’s the story of Da Ponte in his later years in New York as the first opera company producer and, of course, all the tribulations and soprano huckstery and skirt-chasing you could possibly imagine. I’m the mature Da Ponte and my son-in-law Luca Pisaroni is the young version, so we’ll have fun with that.

Because it’s not announced yet, I won’t say where or what, but somebody’s writing an opera on the film called Girl with a Pearl Earring, the Vermeer story. So I think that will be very interesting.

VT: How did you feel when you first discovered the American songs?

TH:It goes way back. When I was starting out and doing community concerts and you’d work out your little tour, there was an older singer in Los Angeles who helped me program some of my first recitals. She gave me a handful of Richard Hundley and Samuel Barber songs. One would always start with a little Italian, then go into some German and I thought I would then sing some American songs. I liked them very much and I always wondered why there weren’t more.

People in musical education in America were always asking, “Well, who’s our Schubert?” and “Who’s our Brahms?” As I got more familiar with American song, the work of John Alden Carpenter, Charles Griffiths or John Duke – John Alden Carpenter was a hugely important composer in America at the beginning of the 20th century; today in America largely forgotten – I sort of tripped down this road.

I did a record for EMI quite early on in my career called An Old Song Resung. The idea was to get all those radio favourites of the baritones I just loved. That started me down a path that connected me to a completely different paradigm of where song in America comes from, meaning epochs and time frames rather than persons themselves.

Shortly after, we decided to do a Stephen Foster project. Stephen Foster’s passion was to do for American song what Thomas Moore did for Irish Melodies.

I picked up a wonderful book by Professor William Austin out of Cornell University. It was probably the first serious academic book on Stephen Foster. I wasn’t trying to be overly intellectual, I just wanted to know, who is this guy? What are the stories? Most of the literature about Stephen Foster was pretty insipid; Victorian romanticised nonsense about his life.

The first chapter of Austin’s book was the phenomenon of folk music out of Germany and England at the turn of the 19thcentury, the second chapter was Thomas Moore and somewhere in there was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which I was very involved with in my other hat, my life with Mahler. And in the third chapter Stephen Foster comes up in this context and I thought, of course, that’s what’s going on here. That’s when I started calling Stephen Foster the trunk of the tree of American Music. Everything up to Stephen Foster was essentially imported.

By the time Stephen Foster comes along in the 1830s and 40s, you got the tremendous influence of Italian opera up and down the East Coast and him copying Bellini and Donizetti, but mostly trying to write like Thomas Moore and trying to capture snapshots in song of contemporary American life, not much Native American, but certainly African American and Irish. Diaspora is the big word, a disenfranchised and/or displaced homesick person in a new country.

That story just never stopped. Every 10 or 15 years of American cultural history, which is very volatile and fast moving, some geniuses are writing poems, telling stories and writing music. What is incredible is that you have so many composers and poets writing moments within their time that are just gems. Then the times move on and they don’t. So to find the American Schubert or Brahms…there’s never a generation when they keep going.

So I started looking at American music completely the other way round. Especially with song repertoire, we really need to look at the poets and composers as the identifiers of the epochs from which they’re coming or they’re trying to articulate. What becomes extremely interesting is from the 1850s on, composers later in the 1860s, 70s, picking up poets and stories from before: this backwards hopping, trying to define for themselves the timelessness of the Americanism involved. And then you have this other phenomenon that the great classic composers spent as much time writing about that process of being an American artist as they did creating their own stuff.

So how did I feel when I discovered this? When I came up with this idea 25 years ago that we should be looking at our cultural history and celebrating the arts regardless of the period they come from versus this myopic star-gazing of trying to find our next superstars, I guess I felt relieved.

But it’s a very difficult argument to bring out. Most orchestras in America, even though we do play American things, we don’t play enough. We certainly don’t celebrate our historical canon of American classic music at all. Maybe one symphony of William Schuman shows up. John Alden Carpenter’s Adventures in Perambulator 

shows up once in a while. What about all the Piston symphonies?

In the song repertoire it’s slightly easier because people are fascinated by having this Song of America. I can bring out composers and they’re willing to say, “I’ve never heard of that guy, what a wonderful song”. Certainly other singers are getting on board. We have quite a strong collegium of singers that are really delving into historical and avant gardeAmerican song and I’m proud to be part of that. I’m gratified that a lot of my younger colleagues are taking the torch and moving on with it.

VT: Can you tell us about your new Songs of America project?

TH: The new project is the Song of America: Beyond Liberty Tour. I want to go to all 50 States and plant this as curriculum. In my Foundation, which I started 15 years ago about song in general, the biggest project is American Song and the next would be German song.

The point of this project is the history of American culture seen through the eyes of poets and composers. The foundation is teaching music and non-musical teachers how to teach history and social studies and politics through the eyes of poets and composers, which smuggles music back into schools and enlivens the whole humanities discussion of historical context. This is desperately needed in American education today. Only 12 per cent of American high school students have a sufficient understanding of American history. Something like 70 per cent of college freshman could not answer correctly the immigration form that we demand of people becoming American. I think that’s wrong.

VT: You recorded Sweet Surrender as part of the tribute album Great Voices Sing John Denver. Do you think Denver’s songs will come to be regarded as classic American folk songs?

TH:You know, there’s a direct line from Stephen Foster to John Denver and it goes through Carl Sandberg and a few other great folk singers.

I think John Denver has several songs that deserve to be heard more regularly. The album was a project borne of other peoples’ minds and they called me up and said would I be part of it. Without hesitation I signed on. They said would you do this song, and I said sure, it’s wonderful.
I love folk music. I adore Pete Seeger, I always have collected his stuff.

VT:How do you manage to be so versatile? Is it like putting on different hats or more of an organic flow here and there?

TH:It’s not so much a conscious or arbitrary decision. It’s more organic to me as I’ve always felt like what I’m singing should sound like what was written. So if I’m singing Cole Porter I don’t want anyone to think I should be singing Iago. And if I’m singing Hugo Wolf, I don’t want anyone to think I could possibly sing George Gershwin.

So I never really got the concept of crossover. To me I’m not crossing anywhere. I feel I have a particular ability, and certainly passion, for making audible the context of human life in various musical languages.

VT:How do you cope with the constant travelling in your career?

TH:There are two levels, I think. One, if you want to have a normal life with family and kids, it’s a tremendous pressure. My wife Andrea of 30 years; we were both married previously and we have four children between us but none of our own.

Andrea and I made a vow when we came together in our lives that we would never be apart for more than two weeks and we’ve held to that. And I don’t think there’s been more than 36 hours that we haven’t spoken on the phone.

The holidays could be exotic for the kids, but there were pressures and I carry guilt about that. I didn’t make a lot of basketball games of my step-son but he was the first boy to have a portable phone so that we were always in contact. We were among the first Skypers.

My kids are great and they’re our best friends. Now we have grandchildren. I think the purpose of grandkids is for parents to say I’m sorry and make it up. [Laughs] I just want to be there for my kids to say, why don’t you guys go on vacation? Let us have the grandkids. We’re good.

Now that our kids are grown, Andrea and I travel together. We factor that into the way we live because the presenters can’t pay for two people to travel. My life is a small business and we have a lot of management stuff to do. But just simply having this adventure together; we’re young for our age, we love life. My step-daughter Catherine Pisaroni is the web-master and designer of my website and she manages all the social media. Every day there’s a new set of photos on What’s App to our extended family. We’ve started a little thing in the last couple of weeks, Where the hell are they now? We were in Russia, then Bulgaria, then Vienna and now here.

The second thing for travelling singers is just staying healthy and staying in voice. I take my personal discipline very seriously. For me, the key to my health and my voice is my sleep patterns. Anything less than eight hours is just a bad idea for me.   You pay attention to draughts. I carry a scarf on the plane. You pay attention to your eating patterns. I’ve done yoga for 35 years.

I have a lot of chats with my younger colleagues about “The Life”. Time management is a big issue. All these devices we have can make your life better. They can also be like having 16 alarm clocks in your room and someone’s jerking your cord every 45 minutes.

VT: It seems sharing your experience with young singers is something you feel compelled to do.

TH:I’m very concentrated on being whatever help I can to pass on the great tradition that I was brought into, not quite knowing at the beginning, and now realising the phenomenal pedigree of people with whom I worked when I started in this business. The kind of colleagues who were very gracious and supportive of me and I would like to be the same. I want to participate in keeping that, as we say in German, Gesangskultur alive and well.

VT: So, are you glad you didn’t become a lawyer?

TH:[Laughs] I think I would have been a disastrous lawyer. I can argue well when I have my facts lined in a row but getting me there is a tortuous, dreamy process.

VT:Judges might get impatient…

TH:[Laughs] Exactly. “Judge, can I get back to you on that tomorrow?”

Really, I don’t regret it careerwise, but I do regret not having had the disciplined educational process. I think that would have been good for me.

VT:But you’ve always been a scholar in your own way.

TH:I have, without doubt. I’ve let my curiosity run rabid.