Thomas Hampson Talks About Cowboy Songs, Porter, War Anthems

Robert Hilferty’s engaging and informative interview with Thomas Hampson

Tall and trim, just the man for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Thomas Hampson is equally compelling in a dark suit singing songs with just a pianist by his side. In between engagements as Verdi’s Macbeth (now at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and Mozart’s Don (Salzburg), the baritone returns to the U.S., finishing his “Song of America” tour devoted to popular music.

The traveling part of an ambitious project supported by the Library of Congress, the program offers famous and obscure tunes from the 1700s to today, a potpourri that includes Cole Porter, spirituals, cowboy songs and war anthems.

Born in Spokane, now at home in Vienna, the 50-year-old Hampson talked with Robert Hilferty on a visit to Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Hilferty: Why is this tour vital?

Hampson: American song is very much a diary of becoming America — a manifestation of our history, psychology, social awareness, fads, philosophies and politics.

Hampsong Foundation

Hilferty: Song seems a life-and-death issue for you. You’ve set up the playfully named Hampsong Foundation “for the research, support and proliferation of song and singing.”

Hampson: Spell “song” backward and you get “gnos,” which is the Greek word for knowledge. I have a hard time believing that’s an accident. Song is going to enrich your life and world view. It’s going to change you. All song, no matter what language, boils down to telling the story of being alive.

Hilferty: What’s the distinction between American art song and the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern?

Hampson: These are concert songs, in which a poem is set to music versus a lyric. There is no reason to make a qualitative difference. A song by Samuel Barber is no better than a song by Cole Porter or George Gershwin. They have different thrusts. But what they have together, however, is storytelling.

‘Park and Bark’

Hilferty: There’s a terrific DVD of you doing a concert performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town.” Did you ever consider the Broadway stage?

Hampson: They work too hard. I’m a lousy dancer and I’m too old too learn. I’ve not been asked to be on Broadway probably because nobody ever thought it was an option. But clearly the music interests me.
We call the Broadway people hoofers, but do you know what they call classical singers? “Park and bark.” But actually, we’re getting more athletic on stage.

Hilferty: You knew Bernstein, who successfully straddled the classical and Broadway worlds. What was he like?

Hampson: He was a mentor-prophet and master musician. That I was able to spend the last years of his life doing Mahler and talking about other projects, like “On the Town,” was very special.

Hilferty: You are one of the most in-demand singers around. Are there nights in which you just don’t feel like going out on the stage?

Hampson: That’s never an emotional question for me. This is too much of a privilege, and I honestly don’t have that feeling. That said, I do relish my free nights, and I can become a couch potato like you’ve never seen. I can crawl into a book, and I like to golf. A huge hobby is watching films. I need that escape.

Hilferty: Care to share any embarrassing moments?

Hampson: My debut at the San Francisco Opera years ago in “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse.” I rose out of the pit as Fortuna, pretty much naked, which I didn’t think was a good idea but we got away with it. Back then I was slimmer.

Shirtless Singing

Hilferty: There’s a trend to make song recitals more sexy and visual. I saw one in which a shirtless Simon Keenlyside was performing choreographed contortions while singing “Winterreise.” Is this necessary?

Hampson: My feeling about poetry and music is that it’s a manifestation of the imagination. It’s difficult to visualize a concept of any song, but it means you’re telling people what to think. I just want to keep my hands off of people’s imagination.

Hilferty: What if you are in opera by a director whose concept you have serious issues with?

Hampson: I will not sign a contract unless I know exactly who’s conducting first, exactly who’s directing, and exactly what they want to do with the piece.

Hilferty: But have you ever been surprised after signing?

Hampson: Yes. “Don Giovanni” in Salzburg bothered me a great deal. The director and I locked horns. He made compromises, I made compromises. There are still things in that production I simply don’t agree with, and I’m singing it again this summer.

‘Elmer Gantry’

Hilferty: You love movies. Is there one you think would make for a great opera?

Hampson: I always thought “Elmer Gantry” was one of the iconic figures of American psychology in which you could explore so many dilemmas of our strange collective cultural consciousness. Burt Lancaster played the title role.

Hilferty: He was also the title role of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.”

Hampson: Now, that would make a great opera.

The “Song of America” tour makes its next stop in Detroit on March 15. Hampson will visit four more cities before the finale on June 3 in San Jose, California.

The tour is funded by supporters of the Library of Congress and members of the James Madison Council, a private advisory group that links the Library of Congress to the business community.

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