Thomas Hampson on Simon Boccanegra

‘Dramatic, beautiful and rewarding’ |

The American baritone on how the piece reflects Verdi’s own life, opera as theatre and his philanthropic work.

‘Simon Boccanegra is all about drama. It’s very theatrical and requires a singer to be completely committed and connected to what he or she is saying,’ says baritone Thomas Hampson, discussing his return to The Royal Opera in one of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles.

This summer Thomas Hampson takes on the central role of the Doge of Genoa in Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s gripping drama of political and family relationships. ‘Boccanegra as a character has so many layers of Verdi’s own life – the lost wife, the terrible familial relationships, the politics of his time. He becomes a very tired but wise leader and is always looking for some way of compromise and reasonability between warring factions. As negative as his issues are, they resolve themselves for the greater good of society and for the love of his family. It’s a very positive role and a piece that is forever contemporary.’

Before arriving in London, Hampson will be on stage in Vienna, performing in Simon Boccanegra and La traviata at the Konzerthaus and the Vienna State Opera respectively. He has recently appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in another Verdi role, Iago in Otello. Although he sings the music of a wide range of composers, what is it about Verdi that holds such a particular appeal for Thomas Hampson? ‘Verdi has such an astounding understanding of human nature and he always finds, in his mature operas at least, the way to articulate that in his musical language.’

Thomas reprises his role in Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Simon Boccanegra following performances in the same production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago: ‘I like working with Elijah very much. He’s a theatre man and I’ve very much learned to trust his direction. If he says, “Let’s try something else, that doesn’t seem to be as believable”, it’s because he’s as much watching what I’m doing as what I’m singing. It’s a beautiful and very rewarding production; as much visual as it is aural.’

As for his favourite scenes from the opera, Thomas picks out the intimate Act I duet with Amelia, with ‘some of the most beautiful music ever written: the epic council chamber scene – ‘an extraordinarily dramatic scene where all Boccanegra can do is plead for reason and understanding’; and the powerful confrontation between Boccanegra and his enemy Fiesco, the father of Boccanegra’s dead lover – ‘A biblical confrontation of what is clear to him as sin and treachery’.

The baritone is as immersed in music off-stage as he is on it, and in 2003 established the not-for-profit Hampsong Foundation, which aims to support the art of song around the world as a means to foster communication and understanding among cultures. ‘We have a heavy eye towards the next generation,’ says Hampson, ‘opera and song are the amalgamation of two art forms – poetry and music are some of the great identifiers of culture. If you want to know the Americans, look at their poetry and music; the same with the British’. The foundation produces cross-curricular digital resources across a number of arts and humanities subjects in schools, allowing teachers to teach 19th-century European history through song, to take one example.

Between his philanthropic work, live performance globetrotting and a hectic recording schedule which has seen him clock up over 170 releases to date, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his return to London was just another set of dates in his schedule. You’d be wrong: ‘As Pollyanna as it may sound, it’s a privilege to sing at Covent Garden – it has a great public and a great operatic tradition. I am truly grateful to ever be asked to sing there. As well as that, Tony Pappano is one of the greatest opera conductors of all time. I’m hugely excited to be coming back!’