The Conversation: Thomas Hampson

The star of the Met’s upcoming Simon Boccanegra is one of opera’s most tech-savvy singers. The baritone talks to the Met’s Matt Dobkin about multimedia and why finding clips of himself on YouTube can be “horrifying.”

Matt Dobkin: You have a very vibrant, content-rich website. How involved are you in keeping it updated?

Thomas Hampson: I’ve maintained the site myself since 1996 or ’97. And you haven’t seen anything yet — we’ve got some wonderful multimedia coming: podcasts and video podcasts.

But the issue is not the bells and whistles — the issue is the releasing of personal creativity. I’ve always had a strong feeling about artists being able to have direct contact with their public. Everybody’s so concerned about the meltdown of the classical music industry, but I just don’t see it that way. The digital revolution carries so many possibilities. Multimedia is enabling the public to enjoy more of what they get in live concerts and performances of opera.

Photo by Johannes Ifkovits

MD: You got involved with the web early.

TH: I’m not a geek, but I enjoy the technical side of it. I am a big Apple person. And I’m trying to make myself accessible. If people want to know why I am passionate about poetry or American song or Schubert or Mahler, it is very exciting to have a place where they can access that if they want.

I was never particularly comfortable with the idea of a record company building me a web site that was essentially about making sure everybody thought that Tommy Hampson was cool so they would buy more product. Not that I mind people buying my CDs.

MD: In opera, we’re concerned with expanding our audience. How important is it for the Met and other institutions to use technology to broaden our reach?

TH: Fundamental. You would be shocked how many people in our business, in interviews on public radio, ask me, “You’re just going to stand there by yourself with a piano? Have you done this before? Do people do this?”

It’s sort of amusing, but we have a couple of generations who don’t know what the art form of opera is. If the first spark is watching it in Times Square, and they say, “Oh, we thought only rich snotty people went there” — whatever breaks that down is fine.

MD: Access to rare clips on sites like YouTube is great for fans. But what is it like for you as a singer?

TH: Horrifying. You know that at every performance you give, somebody’s got a tape recorder or camera. We’re not machines — maybe Tuesday wasn’t as good, or I wasn’t in great voice. But you just have to live with that.

But my control reflex is not about the product that comes out after the performance. What bothers me is that the person busy with that machine is not getting anything of what’s going on in the theater.

MD: If you had to speculate, how would you imagine the intersection of opera and technology ten years from now?

TH: I’ll be curious to see whether in ten years we’re talking about the essential metamorphosis of the art form “opera” rather than the mechanical proliferation of it. I think we’re going to see creative works made for digital media which will certainly be operatic.

MD: As an Apple person, you must have an iPod. What do you have on it?

TH: I have every iPod that’s been made — that’s how sick I am. I carry anything and everything I possibly would want to listen to. I have a lot of jazz. I adore Ralph Towner, Leo Kottke. I’ve always been a big Oscar Peterson fan. I’ve branched out a little bit more in rock-and-roll, but that’s maybe because I’m 50 years old and I can now listen to Steely Dan again without shame. I adore the Grateful Dead. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. All that’s been fun to get back into. But I’m no longer interested in the Doobie Brothers.

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