The thinker

The Guardian | 7 December 2001

Celebrated American baritone Thomas Hampson tells Tim Ashley how Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Julius Caesar will inform his latest role, as Amfortas in Parsifal

The American baritone Thomas Hampson is someone you interview with trepidation. He’s a charismatic figure – tall (6ft 4in, to be precise), dark, handsome and very much a star. Audiences love him – he packs houses on both sides of the Atlantic – while critics continue to rave about him, as they have done for the past 20 years. His repertory is colossal. Some stars specialise, limiting themselves to carefully recycling a handful of key works. Hampson, by contrast, seems almost encyclopaedic. His operatic roles take in composers from Monteverdi to Henze, though British audiences associate him primarily with Mozart and Verdi. He has made lesser-known works central to his repertory, such as Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet and Busoni’s Doktor Faust, notably vindicating the latter earlier this year in New York, where the opera was still deemed an unknown quantity. His recitals, meanwhile, blend the familiar with the unknown, placing songs in their cultural context and pushing out the boundaries of audience awareness. He forced a complete reappraisal of the American art song, first by unearthing forgotten masterpieces, then by exploring their ambivalent, almost Jamesian relationship with European culture.

All this points to a side to Hampson that some find forbidding – his reputation for being one of the great intellectuals of classical music. His performances are always backed up by extensive musicological research. He writes and edits. When he performed Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall, he prepared his own programme notes, analysing the frozen landscape through which Schubert’s psychologically broken traveller wanders in terms of symbolism and imagery that pervade 19th-century poetry and fiction. Fascinated by discrepancies between the piano and orchestral scores of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, he went on to fund and prepare a critical edition of the work for the Mahler Gesellschaft in Vienna. As a result, he has been dubbed “the thinking man’s baritone” and called “an obsessive perfectionist”. But there is little about him that is aridly academic. What is striking is the intensity of his sentiments, the vehemence of his language, and his overwhelming need to immerse himself totally in everything he does.

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