People: Thomas Hampson

An article by Rodney Milnes

The only problem about interviewing Thomas Hampson for this magazine is getting the fleeting impressing that he would rather be talking about his career as a song recitalist. ‘All of my operatic repertoire,’ he says firmly, ‘has been and will continue to be defined by my activities on the concert stage.’ Even the voice, that inimitably ‘mellow, nutty baritone’ as Alan Blyth described it when it was first heard and seen here in Jonathan Miller’s TV Cosi fan tutte in 1986, is momentarily off limits: ‘Surely there’s something more interesting to talk about?’! But that’s the only problem. At 40, but with a wisdom deeper than such youth would suggest and an energy suggesting someone even younger, he is a joy to talk to, frank, down-to-earth, innocent of ‘side’, with the sort of complete openness and zest for life that tired old Europeans think of as typically American, and West Coast American at that.

When pressed on the voice, which has a special beauty impossible to describe in words, he responds with: ‘I would call it a mixture of spirit and air. If you don’t physically want to sing, you can’t sing. It’s a state of being, it’s not something I do that buys me an apartment. But to talk about my voice is difficult, because my reasons for singing, my musical passion, are probably more interesting than the two pieces of flesh making the sound that falls out of my face.’

The voice, then, is the man, and vice versa, and he is happy to talk about what he does with it. ‘It was never a particularly large voice, but the older I get there’s been a steady maturing that’s given it a bit more girth, a bit more oomph. I think I’ve become able to express a wider variety of feeling, especially on stage. I’ve become more calm about whether I’m a stage animal or a singer. You know, I’m a funny mixture of a tenor mentality and a baritone metabolism.’

What on earth does he mean? ‘Before anyone goes on stage there’s this heightened energy, like a horse wanting to win a race. That half hour before you go on is the worst half hour in your life. That’s especially true of recitals. It takes a while just to go out and do what it is you want to do, go tell people the story, lead them into your imagination. When I work with younger colleagues, I try to emphasize that this whole notion of projection is simply ass-backward. Quit sending the voice to people, sing inside yourself, sing your story and people will come to you. The whole physical idea of projection is absurd. Bullets and broomsticks project, voices don’t, they resonate, they’re an elevation of your own energies. So if you go out there and try to send your voice to the public, or “communicate” a thought, you’re just showing you know your job, not using the voice as the mirror of expressiveness. I guess my basic philosophy is that we should draw people into our world, and not try to present our world to people.’

But communication, surely, is exactly what he has been doing in a 15-year stage and concert career? Up to a point. ‘It’s more sharing than communicating. Sometimes one feels like a priest, or the old shamans, the storytellers. I love telling stories. The theatre is just another, bigger dimension with a different set of problems about how to convey those stories.

Song definitely came first. Hampson was born in Spokane, Washington, into what he calls a typically upper-middle-class American family, his mother musical, his father a nuclear engineer. He was raised in a strict evangelical Protestant religion, the Seventh Day Adventists, and so there was music everywhere. He learned the piano, but would rather have been playing baseball. ‘I had a tremendously normal childhood.’ He read political science at Eastern Washington University, with a career in law or politics in mind, and any idea of singing for a living wasn’t seriously considered until he was past 20. You feel the many other things he did in the meantime helped give him the breadth of outlook that makes him so much more than just a singer-student politics, landscape gardening, construction-site working, playing golf, drinking beer, being a singing waiter in a German restaurant, selling advertising space for the Spokane Symphony’s programs (‘I took a 35 per cent cut, and paid the rent’).

But he had seen his first opera (Rigoletto) at 18, and the following year Falstaff over the mountains in Seattle with Geraint Evans. More significantly, he had met his first singing teacher, Sister Marietta Coyle, who had studied with Lotte Lehmann, and his introduction to serious music was to the song repertoire. ‘She produced a Schubert score, slapped on a record by Gerhard Hüsch, and said “have a listen to this”. She took me by the hand and opened so many doors on to so many awarenesses.’ Another influence was the legendary Martial Singher: Hampson took part in two of his intensive song and opera summer courses in Santa Barbara. He was not an easy man, apparently. ‘He could be unbelievably mean, we all thought, and in those days I suppose in a lot of ways I was completely [expletive deleted] unteachable.’ There was a spectacular falling-out between the two, and an equally epic reunion before Singher died. ‘I sang a recital in Santa Barbara, apologized profusely and there was a great deal of hugging. I’m proud of the time I had with him, and I understand now some of what he was talking about.’

Hampson recognizes how dangerous that sort of detailed study can be conducted by lesser handy ‘You tear a song apart, and look at the skeleton. What we tend to forget is that the old school put the skeleton back together again. It isn’t about marveling at different bones, it’s about marveling at the entity they become. There is the sense in all art, and especially in song, of the whole being truly greater than the sum of the parts. It goes beyond analysis there’s a point where either you get it or you don’t. Like Gérard Souzay said, “interpretation” is for people who don’t get it in the first place! There’s wonderful wisdom in that. Whatever you are, a performer, a musicologist, a critic, whichever path you’re taking to Parnassus, it’s about standing and marveling at that mountain. You can take soil samples or crawl up it, but in the end it remains an enigma, and the enigma of art is the questions it poses rather than the answers it gives. If you keep trying to sort it all out, then you get too far away from why the piece exists in the first place. That was the kind of thought, the kind of imagination that Singher had.’

So it was a pretty wise young singer who, rather than go through a formal opera program in the USA, went to Düsseldorf in 1981 to get wiser, and it was there that he was spotted by that indefatigable truffle-hunter Elizabeth Forbes and first appeared in OPERA as ‘a young American baritone with an extremely promising voice and technique’ as the Herald in Lohengrin. Dusseldorf, Hampson recalls, ‘was still the largest repertory house in the world, and I was one of four Iyric baritones. I started as the Gendarme in Les Mamelles de Tirésias, which is not an announcement to the world about the arrival of new talent. Then roles like Yamadori, and the Sergeant in Manon Lescaut who calls out the women’s names. Did that mean I came to the theatre for the third act? No, I came and watched Eugene Holmes sing Lescaut very, very well. As the Herald I watched Franz Ferdinand Nentwig sing what was probably his 275th Telramund that year. Those are moments that are important for young singers, and they’re part of an ensemble tradition that is being lost.’

Yet he is not starry-eyed about the traditional ensemble, fully aware of the cynical cheap-labor principle behind it. ‘On the other hand, if you don’t have an ensemble singing an opera, then you don’t have an opera. It doesn’t matter whether the people have come from round the corner or from San Francisco. We have galvanized an ensemble for this Don Carlos at the Ch‚telet’ – we talked shortly before the Paris opening of Luc Bondy’s production – ‘and we know exactly how each one of us breathes and reacts. It’s a wonderful feeling. I haven’t had such a good time working on so lengthy a project as this for ages.’

Düsseldorf led to Zurich, and the steady building-up of roles he has made his own-Giovanni, Marcello, Guglielmo, Rossini’s Figaro, Mozart’s Count, and more recently Hamlet. There were less obvious roles, too – Roland in Fierrabras, Budd, both Monteverdi’s and Henze’s Ulisse, the Dark Fiddler in A Village Romeo and Juliet, the title roles in The Prince of Homburg and Giulio Cesare in Harnoncourt’s defiantly unauthentic version. And there was a lot of commuting to the States, for the famous Guglielmo with Miller in Saint Louis, and a Malatesta learnt in a week for Santa Fe. Here was the basis for a solid international career.

When Hampson sang Danilo for Glyndebourne in their year off at the Festival Hall, one critic, impressed with his range, was rash enough to wonder shyly whether or not he might be that mythical beast, a lazy tenor. He is aware of the way his baritone seems to keep on going up and up, and of the effect this has on casting directors. ‘Sure, I’ve been invited to sing Siegmund and Parsifal – I’ve got an “idiot list” you’d just love to see. Or Telramund, a famous voice-wrecker. If I were just an opera singer with the kind of between-the-stools voice I have, I’d probably have a look at these things, but the minute you start building the sort of stentorian brace you need for that kind of role, you can just kiss Schubert and Schumann good-bye.’ And that is something that you can be sure is never, ever going to happen.

It is odd to hear someone so young mention ‘working with younger colleagues’, polite words for teaching (he is impolite about master-classes, saying there are very few qualified to give them, and he is not one of them). But he plainly has the gift of communication, and he is a regular at Brereton each year. ‘Teaching is not about bringing tablets down from the mountain, it’s essentially a sharing of knowledge. When I say I teach, it’s simply because I don’t know another word for it. I ask as many questions as the people I’m working with do. It’s not about being a mistake-policeman. I guess what got me into doing this is that I’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities and experiences, and worked with some very interesting people. I love to watch older colleagues-that’s why I came to Europe and didn’t go through an opera programmed One question he loves to ask his pupils is how many ribs they have, and then look at the blank amazement on their faces. He himself is very aware of the importance of physical fitness, and trains his body as much as his voice. Directors ask singers to do peculiar things nowadays, and it’s important to know what a body that also has to sing can do physically. Here’s a Hampson health hint for free: ‘Never come out of the water, bath or anything else, without getting the whole body ice-cold. It’s an old-wives’ remedy, but it works, and [much knocking on wood] I haven’t had a glimpse of a cold for ten months.’ So those old English public school disciplines with cold showers were right after all, ‘not to mention the Finns’.

Which brings us to recordings, of which he has made many. All his key roles to date are safely on disc, as well as Hérode, and Onegin in English, and of course countless song recitals. But there are others of a lighter nature: his Stephen Foster album (beautiful singing of beautiful music by, I suppose, the first great American composer), Gabey in Bernstein’s On the Town (his ‘Lonely Town’ is a real two-hankie job), and a wonderful Cole Porter recital. ‘That man was a wizard with words, he loved (for want of a better term) the double entendre, the humor, but also the seriousness of it all. However Scott Fitzgerald-ish his world may have been, he treated deprived people with sympathy and understanding. Musically his songs-“Night and Day”, “Begin the Beguine”-have a tremendous range of expression from tender, croony moments to great lyrical outbursts. Basically what I love about Porter is his musical ideas and his great tunes.’

Basically what I love about Hampson’s Porter disc is the seamless legato, those long, long lines unbroken by breath. ‘They all wanted that, Kern wanted that, Rodgers and Hart wanted that.’ There’s a Broadway disc in the offing, with Carousel – ‘Billy’s Soliloquy is just one of the great arias’ – Annie Get Your Gun and so on, and a Weill recital, but it’s a problem sorting out release dates. ‘I also have a Schumann disc with Sawallisch, and while I’m not trying to hide from either public, there’s no point in issuing them all at the same time.’

The immediate concern is Posa, which he sings at Covent Garden this month. So, is it better in French or Italian? ‘The phrasing and scan of music-to-word is obviously more organic in French than in Italian. Fine, any idiot can hear that. But I think there are other ways in which the universals of Don Carlos emerge differently in French. The syntax is infinitely more ambiguous, which is exactly what Schiller was aiming for; the German language can sound terribly literal, but here we go into what I call “non-cadential” use of language. No scene just comes and goes, and that’s it. There’s this continual unwrapping and evolving, and at the end of each scene you find yourself in the middle of something else. That’s something that intrigued Verdi enormously, and he was infinitely more successful at finding it than he has been given credit for.’

There follows a forbidden master-class with vocal examples-sadly impossible to reproduce-of the differences between Italian and French in Posa’s duet with Philippe, the trio in the Garden, and the death scene, which whet the appetite for June 11, as much as do his thoughts on the deeply ambiguous character of Posa, with reference to Thomas Paine and the concept of la liberté amongst much else. ‘I think the biggest difference in the French version is the non-definability of people’s actions.’

So here is a singer at the height of his powers, with the added attraction that those powers are going to go on developing for many years yet. Is he at the stage when he can afford to be a bit picky? ‘I don’t know that I look at it as being picky, being responsible perhaps. I’m never on stage doing something I don’t want to do. I’m not a gun for hire, I’m not jobbing. On the other hand, is the phone ringing all the time? Not by any means-there’s a lot of us out there. In some ways I’m considered a specialist singer, which drops me out of some of the mainstream planning. And people are looking at me as having a Fachwechsel. I’m singing Posa, Germont, Onegin and perhaps Trovatore, you know, that sort of repertoire, so perhaps there’s some interesting things coming up. Does that mean I’ll stop singing Barber? God, I hope not. And Don Giovanni. It was wonderful being a young Giovanni, and it felt really good to come back to it-I’ve just done a run at the Met. Plus, it’s Mozart, and if you don’t sing Mozart you die.’

So what interesting things are coming up? He is seriously toying with Luna- ‘it’s certainly a role I would feel comfortable doing, probably sooner than later.’ Onegin will become one of his central roles, there will be more Germonts, Puritani and Linda di Chamounix – ‘I’m a sucker for the bel canto renertoire. San Francisco will hear his Hamlet soon, and La Favorite, in French of course. He’s always hot on French texts. ‘I feel very strongly about Vêpres siciliennes – it should never be sung in Italian. It was on offer recently, and I had a serious look at it; the problem is that Montfort is a very evil, very bitter man, and much older than I am. You need a darker, bitchier, more pissed-off sound. So I said no, but I’ll do it, maybe in ten or 15 years.’ He has his eye on Le Roi Arthus, Saint-Saens’s Henri VIII, and Busoni’s Doktor Faust – ‘I’ll do whatever necessary to make that happen: I love that piece. Mandryka came up recently, but I just didn’t have time to prepare it. It’s a hell of a lot of work, all top and bottom, and that first-act narration is terrifying. So I’ll save that for a rainy day. One reason I turned both Mandryka and Macbeth down for next year is because 1997 is Schubert year.’ Nothing, repeat nothing will come between Hampson and song.

He is acutely aware of the comparative lack of contemporary opera in his plans-some projects have foundered-and regrets it. He thoroughly enjoyed Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons in San Francisco: ‘I’m not sure it would travel well to Europe, but it certainly went well over there.’ And there’s one real treat in store for 1998, the baritone version of Werther. ‘I’m working with a couple of colleagues to make sure we get it absolutely right. It mustn’t sound as if it was rewritten hastily for a baritone with low notes.’ Massenet of course set it in Italian for Battistini, so apart from anything else there’s the task of translating it back into Hampson’s beloved French. As with everything else he does, Werther is being approached with high seriousness. And the prospect of it is a reminder that however much Hampson has shared with audiences in the past, however many stories he has told, there is still an awful lot to come.

Milnes, Rodney, People: Thomas Hampson, in Opera. June 1996.