The Australian – Thomas Hamp­son: ‘I don’t see what I do as high-level distraction’

It must be 30 years since I first ­became aware of Thomas Hamp­son, arguably the most famous lyric baritone in the world and the man about to sing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. With ­Leonard Bernstein as an early mentor, he was a youthful Don ­Giovanni, he recorded every Mahler song amenable to the male voice and he did crossover recordings of Broadway musicals. According to the great German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, he was the finest singer in Europe.

The voice on the phone from Berlin makes clear his lofty conception of his art.

“I do believe,” he says, “what I’m singing is of a fundamental value for my public and for our general health as human beings. I don’t see what I do as high-level entertaining distraction.”

So how would he characterise Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s famous song cycle from 1884-85? “I believe they have a very special value,” Hampson says of the songs. “There’s something we call in German bildsprache, which is the picture-making, the laboratory of natural phenomena, the kinds of flowers and the kinds of trees and the kinds of birds, and this symbology is something Mahler fantastically sets to music. The iconography of these songs is really quite exciting.

“Working on these songs as a young man with Leonard Bernstein was, of course, beyond exciting. And what I think I learnt the most from Lenny was his fundamental conviction that when you’re singing, that is all you’re doing. You are the music. It’s ­rather remarkable that he saw things in me that I could not possibly have known or hoped for in my own abilities.”

Hampson was once a very striking Don Giovanni in a production conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, as director, giving his old cold-eyed take on the drama of the great womaniser.

“What Ponnelle was after,” he says, “was the cynicism. If you have a baritone singing it then you’ve got more of a capacity to articulate a psychotic manipulative personality, and that is how I’ve always seen Don Giovanni, as a pretty disgusting human being. But an important one to know ­because inside all of us there’s a Don Giovanni.”

Hampson says the “mach­ismo and prowess” of the character will tend to dominate when the part is sung by a dark Italianate bass. You can tell that he’s a classical singer with an unusually comprehensive grasp of his own repertoire, which ranges from Monteverdi to Mozart, from Richard Adams to Wagner and Verdi. I ask him about the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, another singer who spanned a range of different styles.

“I became very good friends with Fischer-Dieskau,” he says. “We had a very healthy friendship. What he achieved in his life was simply overwhelming. I don’t ­believe you’re either a song-singer or an opera singer. I think every genre informs and benefits the other sides of one’s life as a singer.”

Would he have liked to sing Wagner’s Wotan in The Ring of the Nibelung, something Fischer-Dieskau did for conductor Herbert von Karajan’s recording of Rheingold? “If I’d had the voice to sing Wotan, I would have done it in a heartbeat,” he says. “The same way I got very close to singing Hans Sachs”, the great bass role in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. In fact his suitability for the role of the wise old master singer was a temptation he dis­cussed with the older singer.

“That’s one of the questions I put to Fischer-Dieskau — ‘Do you think I could sing Sachs?’ — and he was very pensive. We were on a walk and he was quite quiet for a long while, and we stopped and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Thomas, the third act is very long!’ ”

He laughs at the memory, then talks about some of the other unexpected roles he has done. Perhaps this good-looking 63-year-old leading man of the opera actually may be attracted to the supreme character role in the repertoire, Verdi’s Falstaff? “Now you’re really jumping on my heart, as they say,” he says. “If there’s one role left I would love to sing, it’s without question Falstaff … the problem is having to imagine me with a pillow under my costume.”

He adds: “Falstaff perhaps confuses his rather large stomach with something else that is not as large.”

Hampson grew up in Washington state and his first vocal coach was a nun, Sister Marietta Cole. His next vocal coach was the legendary Schwarzkopf, of whom Hampson says: “She was a limitless fountain of patience and ­information and energy.”

Hampson talks about how he enjoyed the recordings of the Broadway musicals he did with American conductor John McGlinn: Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate.

“Those characters, Fred Graham and Frank Butler,” he says, referring to the main male leads in both musicals. “You know, those guys, I lived next door to them, I went to school with them, the iconic limited male that ­always gets taught a bitter lesson of life from the girl.”

It also seems to sadden him that Broadway musicals, from Stephen Sondheim on, lost their musical muscularity. He admires Sondheim but says a singer such as Gordon MacRae (the lead in the films of Oklahoma! and Carousel) would have been the greatest Barber of Seville of his day, given the analogous musical training. Whereas now the musical side of the dramatisation has receded even in Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals.

He has the same strong view of opera. “I see opera as a musical art and not as a theatrical art. Obviously it’s a musical art that transpires in a theatrical context, but what I do as a singer is dictated by the composer, not the producer.”

Thomas Hampson performs tonight in recital with pianist Maciej Pikulski at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre; then the Sydney Opera House on Sunday; then with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on June 7; and Geelong Arts Centre, June 8.

The Australian