Thomas Hampson – Now, All The World’s His Stage
As an enthusiastic explorer of repertoire, Thomas Hampson generously contributes to the enlightenment of audiences and colleagues alike, enriching our cultural knowledge as very few artists do.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Well-fed! Well, I don’t remember those childhood ambitions. I was raised in the Tri-Cities in Washington State, in a very fundamentalist Protestant religion, the Seventh Day Adventists, which like most Protestant denominations has a fantastic commitment to music. I always sang but had absolutely no idea about being a professional musician. Thinking of what I wanted to do, humanities played a large role in my decision.
What drew you to study government and politics, and how does the knowledge you acquired serve you in your artistic career?
I chose political science mainly because it was a way to coalesce all the various interests I had, such as literature, history, and politics.
I met my voice teacher during my program at Washington University in Spokane: Sister Marietta Cole. She was a nun with a wonderful singing voice. She opened a whole new world of poetry and music to me when she gave me a stack of records including Fischer-Dieskau, Hermann Prey and Tom Krause.
From that moment on, my political science studies started to take a more humanistic direction. I shifted my focus from pre-law to government, with the emphasis on public administration, and started a B.F.A. at Fort Wright College.
I was still not thinking of a musical career, but I said to myself, ‘Well, if music is going to be important, I could remain in the musical world, running an orchestra or a festival.’ Of course, everything I learned has helped me. I feel that, as a singer, you need to know as many things as possible.
If you haven’t read history, you’ll have a hard time with psychology and perspective, so what are you going to bring to a role? How does Onegin think or walk? What about Don Giovanni? What is a Byronic character, and why do we use that as a euphemism for the 19th century troubled characters? What is the difference between Classical and Romantic?
If we don’t know these things as a singing community, as a musical community, then we will be the victims of outside influences. People come to the operatic world with no musical culture whatsoever, but with a great theatrical dramatic background, and therefore, opera becomes this sort of theater, inside a musical frame. That’s just nonsense!
Most importantly, I think singers must incorporate and re-create human beings. That means their psyches, their religion, their spirituality, their thoughts, their emotions and their intellect. That was how my educational background, steeped in literature and history, has amalgamated into a bigger picture for me.
When did you finally decide to devote yourself to singing?
In 1978 I went to the Music Academy of the West. There, among other singers my age, I realized that what distinguished me was my innate commitment to poetry and songs.
I considered that a fundamental part of singing. I think it is important for everyone to find his or her intrinsic distinguishing characteristic or perspective. It’s not about talent. To me, talent is something that has been galvanized.
There are a lot of gifted people who are never awakened to their own talent. If I can come out of these various Middle-America experiences, out of a world completely divorced from opera, and go through the discipline and metallurgy of this work, then anybody can.
Anyway, it became clear to me that I needed to move out of Washington State. So I worked different jobs – did landscape work, sold advertising for the Spokane Symphony, waited tables as a singing waiter in a German restaurant – you know, whatever you have to do, you do! It was a great, tough time!
I was already married, and we moved to California. I am very grateful to the University of Southern California for their policy: if you had any degree, you could enroll and pay fees for graduate classes. I did not want to be in the music program, because I couldn’t afford it, and I just wanted to study song with Gwendolyn Kodolfsky and opera theater with Franz Burlage.
Then, in 1980, you were taken into the San Francisco Merola program.
Yes. Back then, if you won their regional and state competitions, you were selected to come up for the summer for a 10-week semi-professional program. At the end, your work was measured, prizes were given and some participants were invited to go into what was the touring Western Opera Theater group. I got a nice mention but was not invited to stay.
In 1980 I also won a bunch of competitions. I had met Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and she asked me if I would come to Europe. The main judge from the Zachary competition, where I had placed second, was an agent who offered to help me if I decided to go to Germany. So I decided to leave the U.S.
The decision had somehow been made for me, and this is something I tell all singers: For talented and dedicated people, things get put together, especially if you are awakened to your possibilities. Never put all your eggs in one basket, either emotionally or career-wise. And one more thing: No disaster is ever the last disaster!
The good side of that is: They can only be disasters if you put something really terrific together. What I mean by disasters is when things fall apart. That can only happen if you work on a project or a goal.
That’s why I don’t think you should be terribly preoccupied with the negative things that happen, because it’s not how often you fall, it’s how often you get up. Not being invited to stay in the Merola program was a mini-disaster.
I have always been very suspect of my own abilities. I didn’t have the kind of voice that when I sang, everybody went, ‘Oh, my God!’
I was a good singer, able to do things at an early age, but I was not a vocal wonder. I’m still not a vocal wonder. I was never vocally driven; it was more about the completeness of singing.
In the early days of my career, I felt frustrated in trying to get up the ladder and get things going. The big moments in my life came because I was prepared-but they also just kind of came.
Tell me about going to Germany.
Well, I sang two auditions there, got a job in Düsseldorf, and that’s where I started. Actually, I had always wanted to go to Europe, to the tradition, to the country that had this huge system for singers, and find out whether this was really a life I wanted to lead.
The idea of getting on staff as a young opera singer made a lot of sense to me. I always had a particular affinity for the German language and the poetry. Everything kept sending me in that direction. The Düsseldorf experience was very important, and those who supported me agreed.
Speaking of supporters and advisors, how important is it to listen to others’ advice and opinions as opposed to following your own instincts, which are sometimes more accurate? How do you find that balance between listening outside of yourself and paying attention to your inner voice?
Well, that conundrum is part of one’s life. My life has been dominated by concentrating on singing as well as I could, and that included my brain, my health, my languages, my experiences, my teachers and coaches.
Yes, I walked away from some very famous coaches because I didn’t feel what they said was right for me. Now that I am older, I get respected for it, but it is pretty tough to be instinctually stubborn at the age of 28 or 31. In fact, it can have some very bad consequences. Sometimes, things went terribly wrong because I didn’t follow opinions or advice.
On the other hand, when they went well, it was because people admired that quality. Lenny [Bernstein], Jean-Pierre Ponuelle, Jimmy Levine, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, as well as others appreciated this seriousness and commitment.
I think that as a young singer, you have to be very protective of a very personal communication with yourself. It is very easy to get distracted by outside influences, by all the things that need to get done, and you can forget the meditative center of your life, which is not some sort of bamboo-waving, obsolete place divorced from life.
I see it more like the inside of a volcano, the hot burning core in all of us, out of which this or that can happen. Instincts are terrific, but on the other hand, instincts that are enlightened become talent! I do not believe that there is a path or a set of answers that guarantee even a shot at fulfillment or success. I do know a few things that are non-negotiable: if you are going to have a career, you must sing well and have a built-in voice saying, “Don’t do this now, because it will shorten your career.”
What I find is very tricky for young singers today, is that most of the world is driven by usefulness and speed: Quick learn, pretty voice, good figure, for both men and women.
So you are saying career building today can be superficially motivated.
Exactly. This is probably the most dangerous cancer coming to the business of music, and eating away at the substance of singing. The substance of singing is not driven by our sense of career. It is driven by our sense of beauty.
I love to work with my younger colleagues, especially over a few days, and create this wonderful warm, cozy, but disciplined atmosphere where singers can step back from those career pressures and just concentrate on, “Is that really what you meant to sing?” I don’t care if it’s a Goethe poem or an opera libretto. It can be Rosina or Mignon’s Lieder.
Why were they written? That has got nothing to do with me, the singer. We are vessels, and our talent is to re-create; we are the doorway for everybody’s imagination.
In masterclasses, sometimes you ask singers, “How many ribs do you have?”
Which is a very silly question; everyone thinks it’s funny… I find it absurd that pianists, and even those who can’t play the piano very well, know that there are 88 keys on it. So, why wouldn’t you know your own body, especially as a singer? It is important. To sing well, you must know how your body works.
Let’s talk about your teachers and mentors and how they influenced you, most significantly Horst Gunther, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and Leonard Bernstein.
I met Horst Gunther in 1980 when I came to California. He was the visiting professor of voice at USC, a lyric baritone, so it was a good idea to study with him. I had never studied with a man before, other than Martial Singher.
Singher was a brilliant performer, a wonderful pedagogue. He had controversial ideas and was a difficult personality, but the older I get, the more devoted I am to him. I think his ideas would get more credit today. He lived in a time when the big, open-throated singing was in.
His was a much more vibrating, centered tone that did not concentrate on huge amplitude, but on the idea and emotion. I only worked with him in the summers, not privately, and he was a very important influence in my life. At the same time, I started working with Horst Gunther.
He helped me synthesize all this theoretical knowledge, all of those wonderful things, and, yes, how many ribs?
Twelve on each side!
Very good! There goes my million-dollar question! When you are onstage, you don’t have time to think about the lifting of that, and the separating of that.
Probably, the most fundamental thing that Horst taught me is: When we are singing, and making those decisions to deal with whatever circumstances we are in that night, we base those decisions more on a world of feeling than a world of sound. Singers listen to themselves too much. I think we sing infinitely more by radar than by sonar.
That is fundamentally linked to your perspective of resonance, and therefore, your perspective of breath control. One of the valid and important paradigms of the old school, that we have wandered away from a little bit, is that legato is a function of resonance and not of breath control.
If you don’t hear what you are going to sing before you sing it, it won’t be what you want. What you hear and what you know you need to do to re-create that sound has to become automatic. It’s your professional key, which is also your sense of beauty, your sense of thought, of re-creation; it is the reason why you are singing in that particular moment.
If you are preoccupied with the state of singing because you are singing, I think you are on the wrong track. So, Gunther gave me my professional feet. I was not singing the Barber’s aria when I auditioned for him, but once we cracked that nut, the Barber became a big deal for me.
The first time I ever sang Figaro’s aria publicly, I was sweating bullets, absolutely scared out of my mind. I was not thinking about any internal motivations for the Barber of Seville! I was thinking about one thing and one thing only: ‘Do not crack, do not splat, do not die! Get through it!’ This aria then got me through the regional finals of the Merola program, and I won.
I also had this wonderful coach in California: Jack Metz. He was a natural force to be reckoned with, Leona Mitchell’s vocal guru. I worked with him for two years, at the same time I was working with Horst, and the two approaches were not always compatible.
But Jack was a fantastic coach who understood sound and the release of voice. Jackie [Marilyn] Horne had worked with him, and so did Anna Moffo and Maria Chiara. He was one of the great old coaches! He handed me the aria ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ from Die tote Stadt.
I loved it immediately, because it allowed me to show the kind of singer I was. I was the first to sing this aria in auditions, and now it has become a staple of the lyric baritone repertoire. It was as much the singing of this aria that won me the Metropolitan position later on as anything else.
When you started singing, was it evident that you were a baritone?
Well, even though my voice was never terribly powerful, there has always been this sort of burnished, inner darker quality to it. People couldn’t decide if I was a dramatic tenor or a bass-baritone.
Horst settled those issues for me, you know, are you a tenor or a baritone? The upper baritone, the lyric baritone that they all so loved in the 19th century, is more the first cousin of the tenor than an extension of the bass-baritone.
A lot of people try to push lower voices up, and it never really works, because the point is not to be loud or dramatic. The point is, in the upper middle range of the baritone voice, to have the elasticity that can manifest itself into expression that is either angry or loving, doleful or euphoric.
The building of that voice was essentially bringing the tenor down and saying: ‘OK, you don’t have to worry about the As and B flats, but you’d better give me one hell of an F sharp, and every palette of human emotion in that upper baritone range, from B flat to F sharp or G.
What I got from Horst was the use of the voice, getting rid of the baggage and understanding that when you sing a high note, you don’t need to prove to everybody that you’ve got all the low notes below it. He gave me the confidence to trust that feeling. He is now the resident professor of voice for the Zurich Opera Theater. He’s still got very good ears.
The world of opera has become something that isn’t part of his tradition, and it’s very hard for him sometimes to see and hear the kind of misuse of the voice that happens today, but he remains deeply committed to good singing.
What is wonderful is to see these kids, when they are 20 or 21, working with a 90-year-old guy who had a 45-year career, and saying, ‘He’s right. It’s easy, it’s terrific!’ These young singers are having their own awakening, even a bit of a revolution in their minds.
They realize, ‘We work too much at it; we need to sing more!’… I also had Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s advice. She was one of the most charming, innovative and alive partners you could possibly find, to help you discover the truth of what you are trying to sing.
So, what happened after Düsseldorf?
I went to Zurich and became part of the ensemble, singing 25 nights of a specific repertoire.
I was paid on a 13-month basis, which gave me a certain financial flexibility, and a lot more time to guest. Zurich was a monumental change in my life. Düsseldorf had been a great starting point, but I knew I couldn’t stay there.
Nevertheless, I had a great time in Düsseldorf; it was a wonderful learning experience.
How did your Met debut come about?
In the summer of 1985, I sang for Jimmy Levine in Salzburg. My debut at the Met was then planned for 1988 as Schaunard.
In 1986, as Ponnelle was to revise Le Nozze di Figaro, the Met was suddenly left without a Count. I had just worked with Ponnelle, I knew the role, Levine liked me, so all of a sudden, in the middle of a cast that included José Van Dam, Kathleen Battle at the top of her form, and Elisabeth Söderstrom, making her last appearances at the Met, they hire this young unknown lyric baritone!
It was a huge moment of trust that Jimmy Levine gave me, and which did define my career at the Metropolitan, as well as my American presence.
Just like there are very few violinists who didn’t have Isaac Stern’s help, very few great American singers have not been guided and helped by Jimmy Levine in the last 30 years.
How did you then come into contact with Leonard Bernstein?
Well, at the time of my surprise Met debut, Leonard Bernstein was doing auditions, and Matthew Epstein was helping him put together an American cast of La Bohème to take to Santa Cecilia in Rome.
Bernstein had heard about me through his manager, Harry Kraut… You know, my motto has always been: “Fortune favors the prepared mind!” Everything spins from something else. There is always some connection.
What is the constant? Sing as well as you can. Get close to who it is you need to go to the next level. Most of it is somebody showing you what the next level inside of you is.
There is nobody you can hire to tell you how to sing. There are people you can get coaching and information from, and all of this releases and unlocks the secrets of you to yourself.
How you put that together for yourself as a singer is your own personal map. You must sing well… because somewhere, someone hears something you do and then says something to someone else! That is part of the artist’s life, part of public life, and it needs to be held in deep respect.
I don’t mean a paranoia-an “oh, what-do-they-say-about-me” kind of thing – no, rather the permanent awareness of your responsibility to singing. But anyway, I sang for Lenny, and my 15-minute audition turned into an hour and 20 minutes!
Then I worked with him, and for two years, I was part of his inner singing circle. He helped me resolve some of the questions I had about intellectual activity, which I believe is very necessary for singers.
The discipline is iron-clad, and the thought process as clear as can be. Do not leave any stone unturned, do not leave any thought process out, but when you’re going to make music, make music! Do it! Give yourself up!
I think it is always difficult to find the balance between the intellect and the instinctual, emotional side. Sometimes too much analysis and intellectual activity hinders the freedom of the voice, of the artistic act. How do you maintain this equilibrium?
That was what Lenny did for me! He was exactly that perfect equilibrium between the intellect and instinct. I mean, to see Leonard Bernstein come out and start a piece of music with that phenomenal intellect and knowledge, and yet make it all about soul and guts and heart, about the human being, was unbelievable! But Lenny would not have been the kind of soul-and-guts-and-heart person that he was, had he not had his intense intellectual life.
I don’t think some people are only about soul and guts and heart, and other people are heads and brains! We are all the same, and one side of us informs the other. I believe that my soul and guts and heart have been taught by my brain and my ears and my head, and, more importantly, vice-versa.
That amazing amalgamation of heart and mind was Lenny! The other person who is like that for me is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Bernstein and Harnoncourt had phenomenal respect for one another. Bernstein told me I could learn a lot from Harnoncourt. He said, “Be sure to ask [Harnoncourt] the right way to get from the recitative into the musical part. This is a huge problem with Mozart.”
I can’t think of a more substantially differing approach among conductors than when it comes to conducting Mozart operas. It is tied to the dramaturgical context of tempo markings. Andante is not some decision to be made on the evening; it belongs to a decision that takes into consideration, “Well, if this is andante, then what is allegro?”
There is a structure to that, and I think it is one of the most phenomenal keys to Mozart’s dramaturgy, especially in the later operas.
You’ve referred to Mozart’s music as very theatrical.
Hugely theatrical! It’s there for us to understand; it’s not for us to create! It’s fantastic! It’s about people. I have now taught so many soprano arias from Idomeneo to Cosi.
Fiordiligi is a wonderfully complex young woman. It’s not about the aria, or about a Mozart style. It’s interesting that composers, even today, don’t really talk about styles, they talk about re-creating people and personalities.
You cannot show me a letter from the greatest opera composers that mentions timbres of voices. Rather, they talk about singers understanding the re-creation of psychologies.
If I don’t know why you are singing, then I don’t care how you sing. I am not interested in voice production. It only really makes me excited when it’s emotionally connected!
One of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever heard in my life is this pirate recording of Leonard Warren at the age of 29 in Town Hall, singing “Cortigiani” for the first time with all that young enthusiasm.
Speaking of pirate recordings, what do you think about them?
I think it’s wrong. I don’t believe in stealing music, but I believe there are two sides to it. Records are just too expensive.
The monopolizing control of the big record companies has created this problem, and in some ways, alternative methods, such as piracy, are a revolt against that.
There are many websites from which you can legally download music. Right now, there is a huge development happening on my website: www.hampsong.com I am also creating a foundation for song and hope to offer a lot of information on new technology as well as singing in general, especially in the world of song.
You enjoy teaching very much and call it a “sharing of knowledge.’ You don’t refer to those who participate in your master classes as your students, but rather as your “younger colleagues.” How has teaching enriched you?
You know, I sing like a bird for the first 10 days after a class. There is something so purely positive about trying to articulate what you think about. You also remember the fundamentals.
So much with young singers is getting them to settle down, stand up straight, let their body be their body, hear what they’re going to sing, think – that’s always an issue! Think it, hear it, breathe into it, and then sing. But so much of singing today is concentrating on the idea of air becoming some sort of power source to vibrate the cords to make sound for somebody else’s purpose.
I think that’s a negative way to look at it. It’s sad that my activities as a human being focus on propelling something into a public forum for which I will then be measured and approved or rejected. That will destroy your nerves. It has to be an internal process by which you become the singing entity.
People come to hear you be what it is that you’re going to be; you do not go out on stage to convince them of what you know. “Projection” is probably the most vulgar word I know in singing! To project a personality is obscene.
To project a voice is acoustically and physically impossible! It is also wrong to try. You can project a broomstick, a bullet or a paper airplane, but a voice resonates. Take the word for what it means: re-sonate. It re-sounds. So what is sounding in the first place? If we are concentrating on resounding, what is it that is sounding?
Well, you can imagine it is already there, the sound, the music…
It is already there! Exactly. And we are the ones who call it into being. Our voices, however, are much more about how we are built. I love to work technically, especially with singers who are having crises: young, old, whatever.
But you don’t teach privately.
No, because I think there should be consistency, and I can’t offer that. I’m here today, in Zurich tomorrow… I like to have four or five-day symposiums where I can get about 10 singers. Everyone sings every day. We develop our own language in the first couple of days. I talk a lot, and then we let the pony run.
Unfortunately, I see that fundamentally good singing, and technically based singing are becoming less and less of a priority. I am dead set against this idea of concert singer versus opera singer; it is ridiculous! It would be such an abrogation for the opera singer not to sing lieder in concert!
The same goes for a concert singer who doesn’t even look at opera roles. The problem is that concert singers have a hard time getting into the opera world. But on the other hand, people who are active operatically seldom bother to sing recitals. There are plenty of places to sing concerts, if you are willing to go out there. In the year I made my Met debut, I did a recital tour, and if I got from zero to zero between the costs and the income, I was happy – I considered it a success.
We need to support the whole recital experience. What Marilyn Horne is doing with her foundation is fantastic. The arts and the humanities are the blueprint of our existence, the diary of how we have been as human beings from tune eternal to time eternal. If we don’t know what has been before us, how can we possibly know the fantastic possibilities of the future? I think it is also important to know who your God is, whatever that may become for you. The spiritual goal is a very personal decision.
It is where you live; it’s the ‘ohm’ of you. The path to enrich that inner core, however, is a wonderful dialogue of various influences. That human recognition of being a human, and believing, searching for a spiritual ‘Why am I here?’ answer is enlightened through the arts and humanities.
That is why they are not divorced from religion.
That is why I sing Don Giovanni. Giovanni is a nasty piece of work, but there are few greater places to confront the dark side of your soul than this character. It’s about power and sex, society, nature, and God. The problem with a modern production can be that you walk around in your own clothes, and it takes the story out of its social context. To simply come in and drape something on top of it in order to make it something it isn’t, works very little in operas that are so specific about social context, like the Mozart operas.
That is what really fascinates me… concept-driven opera is very seldom successful… it is sometimes box-office successful, but only for one or two seasons, and then, who cares? That is why you can have some of these rather monolithic 40-year-old productions with dusty furniture, because it’s not about that. What you want on that evening is: What is that person singing to me? What intellectual emotional experience is being conveyed through the music?
To me, that is the genius and the miracle of opera.
What was the hardest part of your voice to master, and why?
Well, there wasn’t one part specifically. Certainly, keeping the upper ‘zing’ in the middle part of my voice so that it carried, and doing that without pressing or grabbing in the throat has always been a challenge. I have always preferred to err on the side of, ‘Don’t grab, don’t push, don’t yell,’ and as a result been more lyrical than I perhaps wanted to be. I had to limit my repertoire at certain times, because I simply couldn’t maintain the resonance and constancy of sound, so I was patient. Whatever problems you have, you must be patient.
There is no person, program or étude that you can do today that will fix it tomorrow. Vocal production is always linked to the complex physical structure of the entire human being. You have to learn that what you can’t do with one part of your body or your brain has little to do with that particular part.
Most troubles of the high voice come because you don’t know how to sing the middle voice. Schwarzkopf told me very early on, ‘Take care of your middle voice, and it will take care of your high voice.’ You’re not going to find high ringing notes by singing high ringing notes. You are not going to find low, relaxed, and vibrating notes by singing only them. Do you know what I mean?
Yes. You are not going to ‘find’ anything by creating an inner idea of it and aiming for it specifically, separating low and high from one another, for example…
Exactly! Low and high are not separated from each other! It is always a cause-and-effect relationship. You must be patient, disciplined and organized. My own little definition of discipline is not that sort of, ‘Oh, my God, I have to strap myself in and beat myself!’ No.
Discipline is the ordering of the random. In singing, there is absolutely nothing that is random! Only through this discipline can you actually be in a place where you could be spontaneous. Spontaneity is not randomness, and vice versa. A lot of people think that coming out with this emotional, big-heart, ‘Aaaah, here I am!’ means some sort of spontaneous emotional experience. ‘Oh, my God, wasn’t it moving? She started to cry singing ‘Vissi d’arte!’ No! That was pure selfishness! Nothing
What is the first thing you do when you feel a cold coming on?
Well, first of all, make sure that you recognize the symptoms early! There is probably no product in the last few years that has caught more people’s attention, and rightfully so, than Zicam. It is a gel you put in your nose very early on; it sinks right back through the nasal pharynx, and it has zinc and B12, which will fight an infection on the spot.
It’s terrific. The chicken-soup-go-to-bed-shut-up rule is always a good idea. It is the hardest one, because it means pulling yourself off the conveyor belt for a while. Sleep is without question the singer’s best friend. Most of us have problems with sleep. I have problems sleeping; I get my big energy in the evenings. My most important thing is to sleep after a performance. Don’t get up too early. Sleeping long the day of a performance doesn’t do me too much good. In fact, speaking and taking care of things are probably better to get me awake and energized. Sleep off the performance!
The question of a career and of theatrical energy is not about how many volts you can get going. It’s how deep is the reaction after the volts you applied? Long distance runners are not concerned about speed, they are concerned about the valleys and peaks of their energy-stamina, endurance-and that’s the same with singing. It is more athletic than people think. That has as much to do with cold remedies as anything… Menthol of any type, in any form is dangerous. That means any cough drop that has menthol or eucalyptus in it.
Bad news! What does it do and why does it feel so good? It dries the membranes, so if you are horribly sick, menthol can give some relief to all those swollen tissues. For that purpose at that time, you’re going to be fine, because there is so much fluid involved that it’s OK. But otherwise avoid it.
As a rule, you are much better off with liquid and sleep! These little black currant tablets of glycerin are great; so is honey, and horehound, which is one of the old herbs starting to make a comeback in alternative medicine. A singer should be well-versed in alternative medicine: homeopathic remedies, vitamin therapy, aromatherapy, massages, all these things that ignite and enrich that physical, alive feeling.
What about exercise?
It’s number one! Movement, air, exercise plus a good diet. Thin is actually not the goal of losing weight! It is a question of fitness. A sumo wrestler is an obese person by physical visual standards, but you’d be hard put to be healthier than those guys! We could learn a lot from the fitness and diet gurus – the good ones – because there are so many out there in this billion-dollar diet business.
But it’s not whether you eat more protein than carbohydrates, or whether your fat levels are this or that. It is always a question of balance and sanity. It is also very personal, linked to your own metabolism. This means that the diet gurus who actually want to know about your blood are probably the most serious and helpful. As for exercise, there is probably no better physical discipline to know about today than Pilates and yoga. But a lot of people think yoga is about finding that calm, disengaged center somewhere in there. The most interesting aspect about the calm center of a singer is that it is a volcano. It is a burning, engaged core, which ignites when you want it to ignite for the purpose you choose.
Some yoga teachers actually refer to stillness as not being still. It is similar to a wheel that spins so fast that it looks still, yet the energy there is incredibly intense.
Yes. That also involves vibration and resonance. It’s like a gyroscope, exactly! Well, we are talking about laws of nature. It is all so incredibly connected, it’s fantastic! So, exercise, jogging, anything that heats up the muscles to get them awake, and the blood pressure going, is important. I tend to low blood pressure, so I need to run. I will go out and run a little bit this afternoon, just to get going.
So, you do run before a performance?
Oh, sure, but not a lot. Just jogging.
Have you sung any roles that were hard to recover from psychologically and/or emotionally?
A lot of them. That’s also a question of, ‘Do I know where home is, so that when I become Hamlet, I can go back home? Do I know where my sense of truth is, so that when I go to the very edge of that with Don Giovanni, I can recover it?’ I am inevitably in a bad mood after Don Giovanni. I need time to blow it off. And I am not trying to give an oh-the-troubled-artist kind of image. We let a lot of big-time stuff inhabit us.
After a big lieder concert of any repertoire, you are exhausted; you’ve emptied yourself. Onegin is a very tough evening. If I’ve done the role well, there is just an overriding sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about Onegin, because it is such a phenomenal potential lost – as a human being, as a love story, as a society.
The novel has as much to do with the bigger social paradigm as it does with the specific story. The age of the nineteenth century was the waking of the feminine. The feminine was always the new life, a positive energy that could temper the mundane and the banal of the male leading to so much destruction.
That was why Mozart was so unbelievably ahead of his time. All of the protagonists in his operas who carry the essence of humanity are women. Most of the men are fodder! In the Don Giovanni story, the women become the true protagonists… Some of the roles I do are thankless anyway -the baritone roles – because people want to clap for the good guys and be indifferent to the bad ones or the idiots! But there are also roles that have a profound influence on me, like Simon Boccanegra. This is a very beautiful human being! Posa is a wonderful guy. But he is ambiguous. With Posa, you have to ask yourself, ‘What is the difference between zealous behavior and being a zealot?’
You mean, how much does he actually believe in his own behavior?
Right. Is he just a fundamentalist or is he a revolutionary?
As the audience, you are never really sure of what he is after.
Yes. Though I don’t think he’s duplicitous or dishonest. We know how far he’ll go, and that’s what’s so beautiful about his story. When he sacrifices, he knows what he has to do.
You referred to the French Don Carlo as conveying more of ambiguity than the Italian…
Well, there is a difference between ‘Don’t forget me’ and ‘Remember me.’ That is also one difference between the Italian and the French versions. In French, he says, ‘Remember me’ – ‘Souviens-toi,’ and in Italian, it’s, ‘Non mi scordar.’ I prefer the idea of ‘Remember me.’ This goes back to the fantastic ambiguity of Schiller’s novel.
The theatrical tool is that every scene transforms itself into the next, and nobody ever leaves a scene in the drama the same person they were. It is actually a very modern technique. The popular writers today use that. People didn’t write like that before Schiller; it was more dramatically episodic.
Well, Shakespeare is perhaps the exception to that. So when I say ambiguity, I refer to something that also contains its opposite. That is crucial for singing too. For every matter, there is anti-matter, for every effort, there is non-effort… Schiller was a master at that; he illuminated the world of ambiguity and compromise, as well as the other natural rule that in the absence of activity, there is activity. Something is going to happen.
The question is, are you determining it or not? Also, as wonderful as the Italian version is, Verdi set every word of Don Carlo in French, except for a little fragment in the middle… The musical structure of Posa is very interesting. He sings everybody else’s music, and he sings in language that can be understood by every character. He is a great diplomat. Don Giovanni also has no music of his own.
The only endemic music to Giovanni is an ascending fourth. This fourth comes in Mozart’s music for baritone characters, especially when they are trying to be seductive, because the fourth is a perfect interval, isn’t it? It is also interesting that when the Count seduces the Coutessa wrongly, he sings this ascending fourth upside down. Isn’t that great? I don’t think these things are by accident. But Giovanni speaks also in different languages to Elvira, to Zerlina, and especially to Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, since their language is also musically different.
When they come back in the sextet, you have thirds and sixths in the music… they are not by accident. Unless you take these kinds of things seriously, then the characters won’t find their center of musical gravity for you. You can set it in modern times, put them on motorcycles or on a bus, but you are still stuck with thirds and sixths. It is the essence that counts, not the so-called interpretation.
You referred to Gérard Souzays statement that ‘interpretation is for people who don’t get it in the first place.’ What do you think he meant by that?
Isn’t that a wonderful quote? I think he is just warning people against over-intellectualization and thinking that the essence of a musical moment is to be found through bone-picking analysis. If we look at the word ‘style’ as a very healthy representation of a body of experience after its composition, then that’s OK. But to define what the composition is because of a notion of style is somehow incomplete.
Style is a past-tense label. What is a Schumann style, what is a Schubert style, and where do they coalesce? We are trying to order things to understand them better. OK, that’s fine. But is that what ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ is all about? No. When we use the word ‘style,’ we inevitably refer to the composer.
This is, especially in the Lieder repertoire, a fundamentally wrong perception of the use of word and tone. There are some wonderful people, such as Susan Youens, writing on this subject. She gives me the feeling that the purpose of all her analysis is only to understand better what the real message is. And that message will change in various performances. So, I think what Gérard Souzay was saying is: If you can’t, either as public or artist, allow yourself to dance the dance, to realize the moment, then probably reading about it or studying it isn’t going to help you a lot.
The musical artistic experience is in that moment in which it happens. As long as we know anything about humans – whether they were carving on rocks or flying around billions of light years away in Star Trek – whatever we project into the future, whatever we read about the past, we know one thing: Humans communicate with one another.
We tell stories and jokes, we sing to one another. We are always trying to ignite each other in an emotional, intellectual activity. I think Souzay was right. What he said is a wonderful idea, and not a polemic. Quotes like that sometimes give the feeling that someone is wagging a finger. It’s not that. Besides, if you try to teach by wagging a finger, you won’t get very far. Teaching is simply the sharing of knowledge and it should be taken as such. Afterwards, what you do with this knowledge and information is your personal responsibility.
Cristina Necula is the Director of Alumni Affairs at Purchase College, State University of New York. A freelance writer, singer and songwriter. Her articles have been published in Opera News and the German magazine Das Opernglas. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Interview from June 26, 2003, Vienna – published in Classical Singer Magazine, October 2003.