No doubting Thomas: an interview with Thomas Hampson
Thomas Hampson is a man with a mission. When the singer speaks during our meeting in New York in mid-November, words just tumble from his mouth in an amazing display of acuity, exuberance, and truly dizzying speed. He speaks with the zeal of a true evangelist.
Hampson has plenty of reason to be keyed up about his latest project. Working alongside the Library of Congress, the silken-voiced 50-year-old is celebrating the achievements of American composers and poets old and new in his ‘Song in America’ initiative. The project’s nucleus is a season-long, 12-city tour of the States, which kicked off with November dates in Kansas City and Fort Worth and continues on to Philadelphia, St Paul, New York, Detroit, West Palm Beach, Oxford (Mississippi), Chicago, Omaha, San Jose, and Denver next spring.
Hampson’s performances only form part of the project’s scope, however. Along the way, he will also offer masterclasses and open rehearsals to local voice students and teachers. And the Library of Congress is mounting exhibitions in each tour-stop city that will include items of local interest.
The Library is coordinating educational programmes for teachers and hosting special events, including document preservation workshops for the public, and screenings of classic American movies. The Library’s Folklife Center will also collect oral histories from notable citizens of each region.
The singer is quick to note that all these activities are not an end in themselves, or the summation of past efforts. ‘This is just the kick-off of something much bigger,’ he proudly forecasts. One of the project’s foremost long-term goals is to get the American public better acquainted with one of the country’s greatest cultural treasures, the Library of Congress.
Taken as a whole, the project fuses together several of the baritone’s deepest personal passions. It combines an examination of the deep intersections of American poetry and music, a study of the place of music within American society, an opportunity to shore up the song recital as a living art-form, the chance to enhance musical and arts education in the US, and – a natural for this gear-head artist – the prospect both to explore and to enhance the possibilities presented by new technology.
Hampson’s live performances will undoubtedly touch upon some of his signature music.
However, he confesses: ‘I haven’t quite finalised the repertoire for each concert.’ Choices will vary from city to city, built on the idea of contextualising and honouring regional contributions.
One highlight, undoubtedly, will be the world premiere in St. Paul of a new song-cycle by Stephen Paulus. The texts are tied into the Library of Congress theme: Paulus has set works by the US Poet Laureate, Nebraska-based Ted Kooser.
‘If someone had said to me, “Tom, make us the great American sampler”,’ Hampson muses, ‘I probably would have thrown myself out the window. There is so much fantastic stuff in our massive output.’ Still, some choices are easier than others, and Hampson’s latest CD release offers clues to this richness. To mark the tour, Hampson’s label, Angel/EMI Classics, has issued a compilation featuring great American songs the baritone has recorded over the past 15 years.
The album encompasses traditional tunes like Shenandoah and The Erie Canal to Stephen Foster’s iconic Hard Times Come Again No More. Not surprisingly, though, Walt Whitman’s poetry takes centre stage, courtesy of a dazzling array of settings by such notables as Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem (not to mention rarities by Elinor Remick Warren and Henry Thacker Burleigh). ‘I can’t imagine this project without Walt Whitman,’ says Hampson.
Both the tour and album provide ample opportunity for Hampson to ‘connect the dots’, as he puts it. ‘I’m not big on questions like “What’s your favourite role?” “What’s the best opera?” “Who’s the most interesting song composer?'” he confides. I’m not convinced that the most interesting focal point of music is to follow a composer and his or her development. I’m not good at pyramids. Instead, what interests me more is the larger process, and to link various eras in our history to other cultural currents, like sociological phenomena and philosophical schools.’
To the singer, that process is also about watching American identity take shape over time. By this, he means not just the answers and conclusions American composers and poets have given in their work, but the questions that they have asked in folk music and art music since the nation’s earliest days: Who are we as a people? Who is that ‘we,’ anyway? Can there ever be a singular ‘we’ in the United States?
‘Part of the reason for asking those questions is of course to work through those questions for ourselves,’ he says. ‘But we ask ourselves about these issues so that others can look at us and understand who the hell we are. That’s part of my life, certainly.’
‘I deal daily with people who have a very perverse notion of what America is’
‘I live a great deal of my life in Europe [he largely divides his time between Washington State and Vienna] and I deal daily with people who have, in my view, a very perverse – even if it’s positive, still a perverse – notion of what America is, and why America is.’
‘Actually, the idea of codifying our national identity interests me more than the question of whether or not our creative minds have gotten the answers right. I love the process. I think that every generation is part of the decision process, and that conversation takes us farther.’
Hampson feels strongly about one goal of this project: to lay claim not just to American music, but also to help ignite passion among singers, pianists, and audiences for the song recital itself.
‘I sing at a lot of non-concert functions, like golf tournaments,’ he says. ‘And those guys love the music! I’ll sing, for example, “Hush you bye, don’t you cry”,’ – the words that start off “The Little Horses,” a lullaby that Copland used in his Old American Songs – and suddenly the guys listening remember that their grandmothers sang them that tune. But the act of singing, and certainly the concert song, doesn’t seem to be as self-understood as we singers take it.’
I suggest that perhaps part of the reason for that dissolution of meaning and memory is because we, as a culture, have largely left song out of the rhythm of our daily contemporary lives. Usually the public is happy to leave singing, whether classical or pop, to the professionals.
‘Absolutely,’ Hampson agrees. ‘But the acute situation is this: the idea of a concert song, the act of having a person sing without a microphone, standing with a piano and giving an almost ballad-like narration, has become pretty strange for people.’
From Hampson’s perspective, though, one of the primary goals of ‘Song in America’ is to create interest in the incredible free resources that the Library of Congress offers, both in terms of what is available online and what hopefully awaits down the road. These resources come not a minute too soon for internet-buff Hampson, whose edifying website (www.hampsong.com) has been up and running for years.
Backing the new technologies:
podcasting and the internet can provide
endless educational possibilities,
says Thomas Hampson
‘The Library is the great repository, and one of the last great experiments, that Western civilisation got right,’ Hampson asserts. ‘It is the great descendant of Alexandria, and yet most of the general public doesn’t have a direct connect to it. What the Library can do for any citizen in the world, but especially for an American, most of us don’t know.’
Helping to assemble online resources is a particular pleasure. ‘I love this stuff,’ he enthuses. ‘With podcasting, and video podcasting – not to mention Internet! – the educational possibilities are endless. It’s all just too exciting for words.’
Indeed, he muses that his zeal for all things digital might mean a career change. ‘It may very well be that I just move slowly but surely off the front line of performing and more into the back line of database building.’
‘Give me the money and I’ll turn into the Google of recording!
The database he has in mind is one that would, in a perfect world, fully account for the development of American song, making scores, recordings, and other materials available to performers, students, and the public alike. ‘Give me the money, and I’ll turn into the Google of the recording industry!’ he half-jokes.
In the meantime, though, the singer is doing all he can to fan the flame of interest in American song: ‘I’m keeping the pot boiling. It’s my watch, it’s my time, and I’m not going to let the fire go out.’