Hampson is a vocal advocate of art songs, Mahler

Vienna-based baritone, whose outreach includes web site, sings in S.F. this week

It’s not enough that Thomas Hampson is one of the greatest living baritones, a leading recitalist and opera stage performer. He also is a scholar, co-editor of a critical edition of Mahler songs, and a Web innovator; his site at is a miles-deep repository of information on the “art of song,” as he puts it.

He is also, as they say, a hunk; his movie star looks, at age 51, don’t hamper his fan base.

On the phone from Vienna, where he has lived since the late ’80s, he was affable and erudite, talking about Cole Porter and Sheryl Crow; about his upbringing in and around Spokane, Wash.; his life as a tuba-playing junior high-schooler; his Austrian wife, Andrea Herberstein, and three step-children.

He will be in San Francisco on Thursday through Saturday with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, performing songs from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn),” wonder-filled settings of folk poetry. There’s room here for only a smidgen of what he had to say about them and the broader world of Mahler’s music.

Maybe you can describe this amazing Mahler world: What is it from your perspective? Why does it grab you?

It is an unending and unbelievably fascinating wonderful world for a musician to live in. There’s not a moment of Mahler’s music that just doesn’t fill me with wonder and fascination. And this amazing Mahler world is this dialogue between the poem as metaphor and the world that Mahler creates from that metaphor in the language of music. The meaning is kind of what’s between the words. The whole lid comes off with Mahler. In the “Wunderhorn” songs, there is this very interior dialogue, this dilemma of life, of transcendence, longing, yearning, being alive, maybe thinking there’s something better on the other side of being alive. I think that’s what intoxicated Mahler: We have to get past life and death here; we have to get into the world of transcendence.
And I think the land of music can be this transcendental, where we can actually live in various perceptions of reality at the same time. We can do that in music. We cannot do that in word alone.

I almost can’t imagine what it’s like when you and Tilson Thomas get together to talk about Mahler. You’re both total fanatics.

People run. You find the crowd thins out. Some people fall asleep or just go into some state of comatose. But I can tell you, Mike and I love it.

Leonard Bernstein introduced you to Michael?

He did. Lenny was just this amazing, prodigious intellect. But when you made music with Lenny, that wasn’t the point. It was to go out and be musical. And it’s the same thing with Michael. It’s all about communicating some primal excitement or association that’s being re-given in the art form.

Your Web site describes you as a zealot.

I’m certainly zealous for song. I believe very strongly that poetry in whatever language is the most compressed, dynamic articulation of that culture’s thought. Poetry carries in itself a demand to be understood, and therefore poetry for me just yells off a page. And therefore poetry in the hands of a great musician becomes an entirely different art: the art of song.
I think if we knew other people’s poetry better, we’d have a better sense of what the other people are about. I think we sing songs to establish radar contact.

You’ve lived in Vienna since the late ’80s. Do you feel Viennese?

No, I really don’t. I have loved and enjoyed working and living in Austria. It’s a fascinating country. But in some ways I’ve found more of the essence to my own American-ness by being over here. I’m perpetually fascinated with this Old World/New World dialogue, and it surfaces in all my work.

Ever think of moving back to Spokane?

I actually do feel this gravitational pull, like the moon on the tides, bringing me back to the States. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I’ve ever left the States. I’m much more professionally active in the States now and in the coming years than I have been.
I’m also extremely excited about the developments in multi-media and new technology as it enhances education. And the front edge of that is in the States. So it would not surprise me to be relocated to the U.S. in the near future. I’m in San Francisco more in the next eight months than anywhere else. I’m doing “Macbeth” at San Francisco Opera in the fall. Maybe I’ll find a job!

I know you’re a Cole Porter fan. Which songs do you love the most?

I’m not sure there’s any I don’t love. Let’s see. There are his heartbreaking songs like “Love for Sale” – this is “Traviata” of the 20th century. And then the soaring songs: “Begin the Beguine,” “In the Still of the Night,” “I Concentrate on You.” It just doesn’t stop.

Which popular singers do you admire?

I’ve always been a big Ella Fitzgerald fan … very, very early Frank Sinatra. … Of the contemporary singers, Sheryl Crow is to die for. I think Emmylou Harris is such a wonderful singer.
I like good stories told in music. Randy Travis has always been a very powerful storyteller.

In junior high, you played tuba: another low voice?

I never thought of it like that. You may be right – although I started with cornet. The tuba … I just got to be friends with the bandleader, and he kind of tricked me into it, and I found it funny. And I played it for four or five years and enjoyed it and then put it down and never picked it up again and never regretted it, because I joined the choir and the girls were cuter.

You once said, “I don’t have an impressive voice. I do have an interesting sound.” Do you still think that’s true?

I guess I would rather be more interesting than impressive. But I think that if something is interesting, it is impressive. And if something isn’t impressive, then it isn’t interesting. Welcome to the world of HampsonSpeak!
I think I have a healthy suspicion of my own vocal prowess. But I don’t think that’s what singing’s about.

Which leads to this: You’ve said you prefer to be known as a singer, not an opera singer.

Absolutely. I think this specialization of voices, especially in the classical world, is dangerous – you know, that if you’re an “opera singer,” then your voice is too big or too unwieldy or too whatever to sing songs. And if you’re a “singer,” then you’re not powerful enough to be on stage. Somewhere the communicativeness of the human voice gets lost.
I believe every opera singer should try to tell a story in a song. And every singer should try to be a character in an opera.


Mercury News | May 6, 2007