Luiz Gazzola has interviewed outstanding American baritone Thomas Hampson exclusively for Opera Lively. [Opera Lively interview # 17]
Mr. Hampson is an extremely intelligent man (read the last two paragraphs of his biography below!), and commands an admirable depth and breadth of operatic knowledge. His insights were most impressive, and we are sure that this interview is one of the gems of our website. Our thanks to Mr. Albert Imperato who facilitated the exchange, and his agency 21C Media Group.
Photo credits, © Dario Acosta.
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
Artist - Thomas Hampson
Fach - Lyric Baritone
Place of Birth - Elkhart, Indiana, USA
Currently in - Macbeth, Metropolitan Opera House - The run has just ended on April 9, a performance that Almaviva has attended and was reviewed [here].
Next: Masterclasses in Heidelberg April 12 through 22, concerts in Geneva April 25 and 27, and in Heidelberg April 29. More concerts during the summer in Cologne, Endhover, Munich, and Zurich. Next opera, Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler at Opernhaus Zurich, June 16 through July 1. For tickets click [here]
Official website - click [here]
Foundation - The Hampsong Foundation, click [here]
Mr. Hampson singing Di Provenza il mar, il suol from Verdi's La Traviata:
For those with less time to read the entire interview, here are some very interesting fragments, followed by the complete text below.
On contemporary opera:
"In general I think that we are extremely hard on [contemporary] composers today, writing especially theatrical works. We - meaning most of the critical community."
"There is nothing more important than creating new pieces in every generation."
On American opera:
"The operatic form is a very expansive, reflective form as well. And sometimes in the American idiom, that can be hard to take, we can be impatient with a more metaphorical use of our own language."
"I think that our American opera genre essentially is becoming a hybrid of grand opera and musical theater, and that’s not a bad thing."
On the meaning of opera:
"Opera in general in my opinion, classic opera, is not an art form that is based on plot, it is an art form that is based on dilemma."
The opera that he'd commission:
"There is one plot that I dreamed of in all of my career and just never happened for me, it’s Elmer Gantry! Elmer Gantry to me is the quintessential mixture of salesman and religious zealot that illuminates a dark side of our morality or our sense of morality that is always somehow politically aware in this country."
On classic song:
"My foundation is about song, and not just about song in general, but as the art form of poetry set to music. It’s been one of the great narrators or diaries of who we are as a people. And whether this is German, French, Italian, Slavic, Russian, you know, that’s the prism through which we look at the human character, and to me it’s a fascinating story."
"I’m looking through my very specific art form of song called classic song – a standing poem set to music by a composer – which makes it no longer the poem and no longer his own music. It becomes a dialogue of the two, heavily laden, or enlivened, shed in metaphor."
On his cherished project, Song of America:
"I think we can learn a lot about any culture in song, but certainly here in America we learned a lot about ourselves and our follies and our euphorias, and the beautiful creative spirit of America. What is startling in this project is to realize how creative - and consistently creative - to a volume that is almost unimaginable, America has been."
"What I do think is important is, if you are going to sing Cole Porter, and if you are someone who sings Verdi, or Mahler or Schuman, you need to be damn sure that your only interest is to sing Cole Porter at that point! I don’t want anyone to think when I’m singing Cole Porter that I can sing Macbeth! (laughs)."
"You can’t sell something today called crossover. And the opera singer that takes, like they say, a song that they picnic with quote, unquote ‘lighter music’ is just not a sellable genre. People want the real deal, and they want to hear it with people they know and hear about today."
On Wagnerian roles:
"I would love to sing a Wotan, I just am not a Wotan. Where I think I could end up, maybe in ten years, would be a Hans Sachs; I have been asked for that on occasion, and this could interest me actually quite significantly."
On retiring a role:
"My problem with Don Giovanni, why I stopped singing it, was not that I stopped getting asked for it, but I had sort of given everything I could to Don Giovanni, it’s the same story and after a while I thought I just wasn’t staying fresh in the role."
On singing for President Barack Obama:
"I was deeply grateful that his wife gave me a kiss after the performance, and to shake his hand. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever in professing a very deep admiration for Barack Obama, and you know, wishing all the best for his re-election. It was a great honor."
On African-American classical composers:
"One of my special projects within Song of America is without question a further study and a very deep study of history of classical music in America seen through the eyes of the African-American. There are some absolutely phenomenal composers some of whom we’ve heard, some we haven’t heard, and certainly we haven’t heard the breadth of the work of this community to the extent that we should have, here."
On contemporary trends in the business and staging of opera:
"My concern with all the preoccupations we have with multimedia forms, marketing forms, celebrity here and there, and all that sexy stuff - for me it is important that opera is always about the substance and the content of the pieces themselves. It's easy to be trapped into thinking that this art form is simply the high end of the entertainment industry, and that would be a very serious mistake. The pieces are fundamental to identifying ourselves as people."
"The opera public in this world is alive and well. We may have this and that crisis, in how we sell the product, and how we market it, and how we fund it, things that are economic factors, but the drive, the desire, the need to have classical music in one’s life is as full and rich now as it ever has been."
"I think we need to be very careful not to manipulate our art form too much in the ambition of selling tickets, I think that would be a mistake."
On how his career might evolve:
"I believe that one should use their talents where they’re best served. For instance, could I be a conductor? Without question! But could I be a very, very, very good conductor? I’m an excellent singer! So I’m going to be an excellent singer."
"I enjoy making people laugh as much as I enjoy making them cry, so… I would like to participate in the next great comic opera. I don’t know who is going to write it; it would be very good for us (laughs) to have a good rolling funny laugh. The Enchanted Island was very close to that at the Met."
... and much more!
Dear readers, don't miss the full text below. This is a fascinating interview!
Thomas Hampson enjoys a singular international career as a recitalist, opera singer, and recording artist, and maintains an active interest in teaching, research, and technology. The American baritone has performed in all of the world’s most important concert halls and opera houses with many renowned singers, pianists, conductors, and orchestras. Praised by the New York Times for his “ceaseless curiosity,” he is one of the most respected, innovative, and sought-after soloists performing today.
Hampson has won worldwide recognition for his thoughtfully researched and creatively constructed programs that explore the rich repertoire of song in a wide range of styles, languages, and periods. He is one of the most important interpreters of German Romantic song, and with his celebrated “Song of America” project (www.songofamerica.net), a collaboration with the Library of Congress, has become the “ambassador” of American song. Through the Hampsong Foundation, founded in 2003, he employs the art of song to promote intercultural dialogue and understanding.
Raised in Spokane, Washington, Hampson has received many honors and awards for his probing artistry and cultural leadership. His discography of more than 150 albums includes winners of a Grammy Award, two Edison Prizes, and the Grand Prix du Disque. He holds honorary doctorates from Manhattan School of Music, Whitworth College (WA), and the San Francisco Conservatory, and is an honorary member of London’s Royal Academy of Music. In the 2009-10 season he served as the New York Philharmonic’s first artist in residence, and in 2011 he received the Concertgebouw Prize.
He carries the titles of Kammersänger of the Vienna State Opera and the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Republic of France, and was awarded the Austrian Medal of Honor in Arts and Sciences in 2004. He is the 2009 Distinguished Artistic Leadership Award recipient from the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and in 2008 was named Special Advisor to the Study and Performance of Music in America by Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress. In 2010, Hampson was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
THE COMPLETE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS HAMPSON FOR OPERA LIVELY
HIS ROLE IN MACBETH
OL - First, let us talk a little about Macbeth, a role you know so well and are currently doing at the Met. Macbeth is a very ambivalent character. How do you define his psychology?
TH – Well, that is an interesting question. Ambivalent? Yes. But I’m not sure if I would say ambivalent. What I found interesting in Macbeth is that we consider him a very evil guy and he does very evil things, but in fact what we experience in the beginning of the opera is that he is actually one of the most respected soldiers and leaders of his people! So, the tragedy of Macbeth, it seems to me, is essentially his tremendous weakness of character and insecurity that is fed on by his own ambitions and certainly those of his wife. Everything that he does becomes evil.
Or actually, if you will, he makes day to day decisions that all of us could have made. I think that the character of Macbeth seems very recognizable to us. It is a good life gone bad. It is a smart man gone evil, it is a completely corrupted morality born of ambition and born of things that he could have simply decided not to do, and I find him a very fascinating kind of character that is different from other murder-type characters like Count di Luna or Iago. They embody a certain darkness of the human character that is, if you will, not negotiable. Macbeth, on the other hand, is a deeply failed human being who didn’t start as dark.
OL - Tell us about your understanding of Verdi’s musical approach to the Macbeth character.
TH - When Verdi created Macbeth in 1847 Macbeth he literally changed the face of Italian opera. Nothing like this had ever been written before. This was the most immediately recognizably dramatic music built around the language and content of what needed to be said in real time in the theater. It is very descriptive music, it is all immediate. Verdi redid this kind of dramatic writing twenty years later in a larger scale in his orchestration, but not as much in his vocal writing – it is in Macbeth that we see it more clearly. In the vocal writing of Macbeth he simply broke bonds completely with the Belcanto period. I think sometimes Macbeth does not get recognized for the startling ingenuity, the groundbreaking innovation that this piece started.
OL - How do you personally read the character, or in other words, what kind of acting and singing devices do you believe you need to reach for in order to portray him properly and/or in order to make it unique (that is, Thomas Hampson’s Macbeth)? Is there such a thing as Thomas Hampson’s Macbeth?
TH – I don’t actually look at my work like that, at all. My whole process is completely devoted to a kind of decoding of what any composer wrote, specifically with Verdi. I don’t mean to sound so disingenuous or arrogant, but what I find the challenge and privilege of my life in general, is to put everything I have as Thomas Hampson at the disposal of that which I am singing. And certainly because it is Thomas Hampson, it is going to be those traits and those characteristics of my voice and my body; whatever that is, because I’m 6’4”, and all that. But in fact the only thing that interests me is whether Giuseppe Verdi’s – as you say – ambivalent and very complex character Macbeth is realizable. Realizing the story of Macbeth told in the musical language of Giuseppe Verdi is my absolute only goal in life with that piece.
THE HEART OF A SOLDIER
OL – Let’s shift a little to your premiere of a new opera in San Francisco, Heart of a Soldier by Christopher Theofanidis, so we would like to talk a bit about contemporary opera. Were you happy with the role of Rick Rescorla and the performances? Tell us about your opinion of this opera.
TH – Well, the experience was exhilarating, it was fantastic! The character of Rick Rescorla is this man who was someone that if I had encountered, I would have called a friend, or would have been honored to have met. So, studying his life and all of the various aspects of his history and his behaviors and decisions and so forth, I came to realize that to make this portrayal of someone I’d have liked was just a sheer pleasure. It was a fascinating story because it was contemporary, and because it was parallel to my own childhood and adolescence, it became very near to my own development as a man and as a human being, so that was also very moving.
The production was actually quite well structured. I liked very much the people I was working with, director Francesca Zambello and Donna Di Novelli, the librettist. Christopher Theofanidis is a wonderful composer, and one of our bright lights of the future. It was his first opera after a deep coming of age through symphonic work and to some extend some vocal music. I think he masters the forces quite well. Will he do his next opera better? Without question! Did he learn a lot as well? Yes. But we worked very gorgeously together; the music was very beautiful. The expressiveness of the characters was good. Obviously there are things that we would all like to change if given the change to do again. We would like to see a bigger duet for Susan Rescorla written in the second act; or perhaps there are expanses here and there that Christopher could have done better, but those are normal processes of new pieces.
In general I think that critics are extremely hard on composers today, especially on those who write theatrical works. Most of the critical community is so well studied, and knows this genre so well that their expectations and therefore their measurements of the success or lack of success of a new piece are pretty harsh. I found the treatment of Christopher Theofanidis in the press unfair, in general. Few people looking through the trees saw the forest, but it was a marvelous effort by everyone and a beautiful telling of Rick Rescorla’s story. And yes, admittedly it was the first opera of a major composer.
If you read through my comments, philosophically there is nothing more important than creating new pieces in every generation. And I can’t tell you how firm and strong I feel about that, it reflects on my own work and especially my solo work.
I think the composers should be supported even if they write you something that is maybe not a home-run, that is not the most fantastic piece, but it is an identification of our times, an identification of our ‘now’. That is what I think is so incredibly important.
For opera houses of course is a different question, because it is very expensive to produce opera and all the opera houses are run by the business people today. So their definition of a hit is not necessarily going to be a variation of quality in the artistic sense, if you get my drift.
I think there is just an awful lot of pressure on the whole process, but there is nothing more thrilling than to be part of a creative process. And that world premiere of Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco was an exhilarating experience, and it was a huge public success. Everybody in the show - chorus, dancers, extras and soldiers - were truly deeply sorry that the run had to quit. It was a marvelous experience; we were all trying to find another theater and another time to redo it.
CONTEMPORARY OPERA AND THE AMERICAN OPERATIC GENRE
OL – Great. You kind of partially answered my next question, which will be: is the art form evolving in the right direction with contemporary opera?
TH – No, that is a different question, and a very good and pressing question. Because what we call opera in America has so many different looks and interests! We in America like the ‘what we see is what we get.’ And actually the last sort of very lyric heavily metaphoric beautiful singing in contemporary opera in America, (laughs) I have to think long to come up with it! We are very plot-driven here in this country. Our expectation of theatrical experience is extremely realistic, even for non-realistic pieces. In our musical theater there is a believability aspect that is always right there.
What happens is that this convincing text as an understanding of character can work at odds with the operatic form, because the operatic form is a very expansive and reflective form as well. Sometimes in the American idiom that can be hard to take. Many people are impatient with a more metaphorical use of our own language. So again there is pressure there as well.
There are different kinds of operas in America that are being or will be produced, and I think that our American opera genre essentially is becoming a hybrid of grand opera and musical theater, and that’s not a bad thing. We will always be very production oriented in this country because that is what we like. We like to see a lot of stuff happening on stages and we want to be taken into that fantasy world. And I’d also maintain that in our country the opera form in general is under much more pressure, by comparison. There are theatrical, cinematic, and TV influences in our culture, and I think that is a negative. We need to be careful about that.
Classic opera is not an art form that is based on plot, it is based on dilemma. The plot is secondary to the issues being flushed out in the text and the music. I’d like to always remind people that opera, regardless of in what context it is performed, is a musical art form, it is not a theatrical art form. And maybe that is the crux of this decision one has to make: am I going to make more of a ‘theatrical with musical elements’ opera, or to make an opera that is all a musical form but has text that conveys emotions and interior motivations more than direct information?
For instance, if you were to take Macbeth in a contemporary setting today, the kind of almost poetic and most dramatic scene - the first duet when he comes with blood in his hands - would have a completely different feel. It was already a miracle from Verdi to make it so realistic during his time. But if it was to happen today, probably someone would try and set the text of Shakespeare or some other rendition of it, and the libretto would be saying something like: ‘well I went to the door and there I was breathing and Duncan looked at me and I stuck my knife in his heart and his blood splattered on my shirt’ – you know what I mean, all that action-oriented kind of stuff, rather than dealing with the essential shift in his life, that he has actually committed murder. Now, Macbeth is no stranger to death, and he had killed certainly many men, but he had never perpetrated first degree murder for his own advantage. This was an insidious destruction of a human soul! In a contemporary context, I think that process would have been completely different. This is just an example of what I’m talking about.
OL – Excellent answer! Tell us, from the standpoint of a singer, is it much more challenging to learn a contemporary work?
TH – Your musical skills notwithstanding, it depends. I read music very well, obviously, and I enjoy learning new pieces. Learning contemporary pieces, you you can’t grab on to library recordings and see how it went and get a feeling of it. You have to do more of a pioneer work, but in fact that is what the thrill of it all is.
There is no question that the musical languages in the 20th century and contemporary music are far more complicated. All musical languages have their own complications; I don’t want to sound like what I am saying is that singing anything from the 19th century is a snap compared to 20th century. That is not what I mean. But in fact, getting to know perhaps musical voices that we are not so familiar with takes a little bit more time. Some operas and some contemporary composers can be enormously complex. It tends to be that the music is driven much more from an intellectual energy than necessarily an emotional description, and that requires a different approach, without question.
OL – I see. Let me ask you a hypothetical question. If you were given the power to commission a new work or pick a new work that hasn’t been premiered yet, what would you like to sing in your next world premiere, and by which composer?
TH – Well, that is fun (emphatically)! There are several composers for me that I think are doing very well. Rather than giving you specific names, what I would like to see is the one thing that I think has been a very risky idea: to set iconic American literature to music. If say the title I’m thinking of, it will sound like a direct criticism of John Harbison and I don’t mean it, but Great Gatsby is an iconic figure of American psyche that doesn’t fit very well into a musical context that would be anything other than the one typical of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time. We have too many movies of it, it was I think just a mistake to do it as an opera. I would rather see in opera other characters of that time, and other people.
In direct answer to your question, if we wanted to do some amazing biographical work, I would tend to coldly look at a major figure in American literature. I guess if you gave me the keys right now as you are doing, I would like to look at the American psychological landscape and find some iconic characters that may or may not be represented in a big way in literature.
Certainly if they were for instance Citizen Kane, I think that would be just a silly thing to put to music. NO! But how about the real story of William Randolph Hearst? There was a book several years ago called The Chief. This could be quite an interesting guy. What about some of those oil barons of the turn of the century? I would think that the Washington Irving novels would work very well for operatic casting, you know, something that illuminates the tapestry of the American ambivalence to morality and capitalism (laughs).
There is one plot that I dreamed of in my entire career and just never happened to me, it’s Elmer Gantry! He is the quintessential mixture of salesman and religious zealot that illuminates a dark side of our morality or our sense of morality that is always somehow politically aware in this country. Some figure like that would do very well. There is an Elmer Gantry by Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, I have known about this project since its inception twenty years ago, and I’m glad that they have a successful version out there now. [Editor’s note: it was given at Nashville Opera]. I saw excerpts from that performance. Maybe that will help sell yet another attempt at this complex subject. Some figure like that would do very well.
About the composers, look, we have some marvelous composers around, I’d do another opera with Christopher Theofanidis in a heartbeat. I think someone should give John Corigliano any money he needs to write his next opera. His partner Mark Adamo is about to premier a really sensational piece in San Francisco, so there is plenty of people to choose from, and certainly there is going to be people out there that I don’t know. There is a younger generation coming up.
I would maintain that classical music would be very much benefited by quoting some of those extraordinary Hollywood composers that are continuing the whole circle of the original Hollywood composers that were all classical symphonists. There is some pretty amazing work out of Hollywood for films today that sure seems to me that could work very well for an opera. It’s a great landscape.
MR. HAMPSON'S SONG OF AMERICA PROJECT
OL – You are a great recitalist of, for example, Schuman, Schubert, and Mahler songs. Lately you have been involved with the American repertory of art songs. Tell us about your Song of America project.
TH – Wow, thank you very much for asking! Yes, I have always sung American song, this is a little bit of a misunderstanding. My foundation is about song, and not just about song in general, but as the art form of poetry set to music. It has been one of the great narrators or diaries of who we are as a people. And whether this is German, French, Italian, Slavic, Russian, song is the prism through which we look at the human character, and to me it’s a fascinating story.
Song in general has a tremendous power, and is both entertaining as well as illuminating. I don’t understand why it has become quite rare, because I think it is really a quite extraordinary art form both for the public and the performer. Certainly it was my first emphasis at the beginning of my career, especially German Lieder but French song as well. European works also gave us influence here in America without question. And one tends to view composers in their worlds, and of course the million dollar question in America was always, ‘well who is our Schubert, who is our Bhrams, who is our Tchaikovsky?’ And I have always been uncomfortable with that question. And especially ten or fifteen years ago it seemed to me perfectly wrong to ask that question, never getting a proper answer.
Look at rather the times of our countries, the epochs, the generations, literally ten or fifteen-year slices of America becoming America, and let the people who were creating in that time tell that story. Let even the poets in another time looking back at those times tell it. Look at the byline for my project: it is the history of American culture through the eyes of our poets and the ears of our composers. And that has been a very successful mission, I think it has gained a lot of traction – I’m very happy to say - even in the general academia; they are looking at our songs with a different light, being more forgiving to generations and to music that had been heavily criticized over the years.
People were saying – ‘Oh, that sounds like the music of… [insert the name of some European composer],’ or ‘oh, that’s just an imitation of Brahms,’ or ‘oh you can tell that that’s from the 1870s’ – you know, rather than actually listening (laughs) and identifying our great-great-grandfathers and mothers and all people that lived in that time.
I am not looking at any American song, I’m not trying to define American song. I am looking through my very specific art form of song called classic song – a standing poem set to music by a composer – which makes it no longer the poem and no longer the composer’s own music. It becomes a dialogue of the two, heavily laden or enlivened; shed in metaphor. What it also allows us to do, I think, is explore sentiments and aesthetics of times in our history which we rightfully and forcefully must condemn and say ‘no more! We’ll not do that. We will not feel that! We have grown since that, we know better.’
But yet, we should not necessarily destroy the people that lived in those times. I don’t like to feel like I’m standing on the guilty shoulders of history. I look at the author of a song as just a normal person saying normal things in that context. So, I think we can, regardless of the specifics of that, learn a lot about any culture in song, but certainly here in America we learned a lot about ourselves and our follies and our euphorias, and the beautiful creative spirit of America.
What is startling in this project is to realize how creative - and consistently creative - to a volume that is almost unimaginable, America has been. There is no way you can possibly get your head around all the songs that have been written in different times of any quality. It is quite astounding.
COLE PORTER, BROADWAY MUSICALS, AND CROSSOVER
OL – A little bit of a related question: earlier in your career you have recorded songs by Cole Porter, and songs from Broadway musicals. Any thoughts on crossover? How do you feel about it? You stopped doing it at a certain point and went back to classical.
TH – Yes, and that is interesting. The whole genre, the idea of crossover had a new wave in the 80s and 90s which I was part of. There are lots of wonderful things. First of all, I love every record I did, and especially Cole Porter; I confess myself to be a bit of a Cole Porter aficionado and I still do it for benefits and fun Cole Porter evenings. I adore his music and his lyrics. It is just such a deep appreciation of human nature, I love his music.
In American theatrical music post World War II, especially musical theater, there was no big difference between an opera singer and a fine musical theater singer. Cole Porter and George Gerswhin, Rodgers and Hart, they all at some point and in some letters said, ‘oh my goodness, if there are fine singers who can act and can sing this big tessituras and long lines and expansive emotions, send them to me’ and so forth. The training of voices when musical theater was still an acoustical art form was very similar. And that sort of diverges with the event of electronics, with the real separation of genres that went on in the 50s, some of it natural, and some of it unnatural. By unnatural I mean operatic directors saying, ‘my opera singers won’t be soiled by singing this kind of music’ and so forth.
The genres very much separated paths, so that someone in the 80s or 90s felt that they could say it was crossover, coming from a serious or classical trained singing and singing these things that somehow allowed us to use our classical voices. I think it’s rather more complex than that. I mean, if Johnnie Rey for instance, as a young man, or Gordon MacRae especially, these guys who were just amazing singers in the fifties and sixties; if any of them were starting a career today, there’s not an opera house in the world that wouldn’t hire them for Guglielmo, or The Barber of Seville, in a heartbeat! It is just like when I started my career.
What I do think is important is: if you are going to sing Cole Porter, and if you are someone who sings Verdi, or Mahler or Schuman, you need to be damn sure that your only interest is to sing Cole Porter at that point! I don’t want anyone to think when I’m singing Cole Porter that I can sing Macbeth! (laughs). And I sure don’t want them to think that it sounds like Cole Porter is having a cup of tea with Verdi.
So therefore the whole idea of crossover I was never really comfortable with. I chose to sing songs of different musical genres, and one I felt particularly comfortable in was an idiom that in its day, in its original context, was that of these gentlemen I have just mentioned. That my voice, my kind of voice, would have been exactly what was appropriate for those songs. So I felt pretty comfortable, and I enjoyed it.
The reason I haven’t done any more of that is that the recording companies are driven by the sales; and that didn’t really work out; you can’t sell something today called crossover. And the opera singer that takes, like they say, a song that they picnic with quote, unquote ‘lighter music’ is just not singing a sellable genre. People want the real deal, and they want to hear it with people they know and hear about today. So I think that the market has defined it. Given the opportunity, I would love to go back and do a record with a bass and a piano and go back and visit some kind of Algonquin Lounge music atmosphere and the music of Cole Porter, George Gerswhin, Rodgers and Hart, those kinds of guys, I would love to do that.
OL – We have seen you much more often in Verdi and Mozart, but you do have a great DVD of Parsifal with Kent Nagano in Baden-Baden in the role of Amfortas, as well as CD recordings in the roles of Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Gunther in Götterdämmerung. Any insights on the challenges of singing a Wagnerian role?
TH – Look, these are different questions in Europe and in America. You’ll never see me do anything in America more than Wolfram and Amfortas, which I’ll do in Chicago and New York in the coming seasons. I have been asked several times to have a look at Wotan in Europe. From what I know of Wagner and how we spoke of the character and how it is structured I believe that Wotan is a lower voice who sings in the upper regions, with a different kind of emotional impact. My kind of voice, my vocal ability is very much more that sort of streaming legato, the heroic kind of sound that fits the Italian repertoire better. I would love to sing a Wotan, I just am not a Wotan. Where I think I could end up, maybe in ten years, would be a Hans Sachs, I have been asked for that on occasion, and this could interest me actually quite significantly.
Once you start singing roles like Hans Sachs, you need to put a lot of other repertoire behind you, and I think I still got an Onegin on me. Quite frankly I’d like to have one last blush of Don Giovanni if I had a good producer. My problem with Don Giovanni, why I stopped singing it, was not that I stopped getting asked for it, but I had sort of given everything I could to Don Giovanni, it’s the same story and after a while I thought I just wasn’t staying fresh in the role, and I just needed to take on some other roles. But there are some producers out there that I think could be very interesting; I’d love to have one last big hurrah, and maybe take my son-in-law Luca Pisaroni with me as Leporello.
Quite frankly if someone wanted to do a production of Le Nozze di Figaro the way Mozart wrote it (laughs), I wouldn’t mind doing the Count one last time. So more than anything, and I’ll say this, I very much look forward to a run of The Barber of Seville.
I think I’ll always be focused on keeping my voice healthy, fresh and young as long as possible. Wagner… You know, I love the opera Tannhäuser probably more than any other Wagner opera. But you have to have a Tannhäuser. Wolframs you can get, but you need someone who can sing Tannhäuser, and there aren’t many of them. If I’m asked for Hans Sachs again I’d like to do that, very much.
MR. HAMPSON AND PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
OL – Great! You know, I would like if you don’t mind, after we’ve explored this more serious material, to shift to a bit of a lighter tone and get some different kind of interesting material for our readers.
TH – Sure!
OL - You have recently sung for the President of the United States at the Smithsonian for the groundbreaking of a new museum for African-American culture. How was it to sing for Mr. Obama? Did you have an opportunity to talk to him?
TH – Only very briefly, and I was deeply grateful that his wife gave me a kiss after the performance, and to shake his hand. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever in professing a very deep admiration for Barack Obama, and wishing all the best for his re-election. It was a great honor to meet him. But it wasn’t about singing for him. He was there, like all the rest of us, to celebrate this monumental achievement of the African-American community, to get through the commission and all these votes and whatever, to finally have in our National Mall a museum to celebrate the African-American history in this country. And that is going to be a very beautiful experience. I’m very deeply devoted to this community, so being part of this was a great honor.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN CLASSICAL MUSIC AND OPERA
OL – Talking about it, just last week I attended a wonderful symposium about African-American classical music, including the staging of a full opera by William Grant Still, Highway One USA, have you heard of it?
TH – I have not. Oh, how fun!
OL – Yes, it was great. Five days of classical music by African-American composers, symphonies, chamber, song, and also opera. If you want, I can send you some information about it. [Editor's note - the links are[here] and [here]]
TH – Yes, I’d love it, thank you! One of my special projects within Song of America is without question a very deep study of the history of classical music in America seen through the eyes of the African-American. There are some absolutely phenomenal composers - some of whom we’ve heard, some we haven’t heard, and certainly we haven’t heard the breadth of the work of this community to the extent that we should have, here. The story of the African-American classical music is a fascinating story of extraordinary power.
OL – Yes, my impression exactly. I saw this concert with fragments of operatic music by African-American composers, two hours and a half, all by African-American singers, it was phenomenal!
TH – Yes!
OL – So, You have some wonderful DVDs from performances at the Salzburg Festival – such as the Traviata with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in 2005, or the Don Giovanni for the M22 Series. Is there anything you might want to say to our readers about the creative environment at Salzburg, how they do these wonderful avant-garde stagings?
TH – I’ve been in Salzburg since 1998, so I’ve seen a pretty dramatic development there. It is a very special environment, in a way how all festivals should be. It should be something unique to the comings and goings of the regular season. I think that the coming of a new direction with Alexander Pereira will bring a festival specialness to both the creative process and the atmosphere around it that I think Salzburg lost a little bit in the last years.
That notwithstanding, some of the Salzburg productions have been – for American audiences - very avant-garde. Their theatrical pieces have really gone to the absolute cutting edge of European Regietheater. And that’s a different long conversation that I don’t want to get into, but it is a fantastic creative environment, set in a most beautiful small town. It is extraordinary - Salzburg is Salzburg! to be part of these big projects like our Don Giovanni at the end of Nikolaus Harnoncourt tenure. It premiered in 2002 with lots of artistic issues, but in 2003 I think we did get what that was supposed to be, and the producer and I found a way to recreate some of the scenes better and so on.
By the time it got to 2006 Harnoncourt was gone, the cast had changed precipitously in significant ways, and the rehearsal period was odd. I’m not trying to dog that document, but I certainly wish that we had done the DVD in 2003 and not 2006. But one always feels this way about filming.
I want to see a big, further emphasis on HD in Salzburg, which I think is a wonderful development. If you are going to film, HD is certainly the way, at this point. All of these things - recordings, all the multimedia which I am a big fan of – it is all about enhancing the live experience, about encouraging the live participation in the arts and humanities.
With all the preoccupations we have with multimedia forms, marketing forms, celebrity here and there, and all that sexy stuff - for me it is important that opera is always about the substance and the content of the pieces themselves. It's easy to be trapped into thinking that this art form is simply the high end of the entertainment industry, and that would be a very serious mistake. The pieces are fundamental to identifying ourselves as people.
For me the great wonder of the HD phenomenon is that it allows us to take the art form so seriously that we can devote our attention to the inside of what’s being said and how it’s being done. I think we are just now learning how to do that, and I hope it goes forward. Salzburg is certainly a leading forum for this, and I look forward to going back.
WOULD MR. HAMPSON BE AN OPERA DIRECTOR?
OL – Listening to the depth of your understanding of the art form and its history, it occurred to us: do you ever think of becoming an opera director towards the end of your career?
TH – (laughs hard) – You know, I just can’t… Right now, not at all! Because I still believe… I believe that one should use their talents where they’re best served. For instance, could I be a conductor? Without question! But could I be a very, very, very good conductor? I’m an excellent singer! So I’m going to be an excellent singer.
Could I run an opera house? I suppose; I’d have to have a bit of a learning curve, obviously. But don’t kid yourself. Opera houses, especially in America, have as first priority the funding. The second priority is a palatable and fair working environment, which means a great deal of effort, and unions, and people who earn their livelihood, and quite frankly, some level of sacrifice to perhaps other occupations within that context. So those are your two big stalwarts that you must maintain.
What I would be good at, would be finding that marvelous young person, or giving that marvelous other person the right repertoire for her. So what I could imagine, sooner or later, would be to be part of that team of an opera house. I think I could offer something like the old German version of what was called the Operndirektor; I think I would have some confidence to that.
But I have no ambitions to do that, and I’m very gratefully booked in my own ambitions as a singer in the future and in every context and in the houses that I want to work in. And more important and more exciting, I have my personal plans right now. There are just so many extra projects, for instance the Song of America project is a huge success on the radio, and of course radio is a medium that interests me a great deal.
I think radio and Internet radio and web publishing is probably where my next non-singing priority will be, and that is all of course in the context of education. Those elements are what drive me more than actually the commercial enterprise or even the non-profit commercial enterprise of an opera house.
OPERA HOUSES, MARKETING VS. THE ART FORM, AND HOW TO RIGHTLY PROMOTE OPERA
OL – Talking about opera houses, how do you compare them and their public?
TH – I’m not going to go there and I’ll tell you why – it’s because it would be a short answer in a long interview, and it’s going to sound like there is really a comparison. People are people, and people come to the opera in their various cultural contexts for various reasons. What we should concentrate on - and this is what I can tell you - is the tremendous enthusiasm, is that the opera public in this world is alive and well.
We may have this and that crisis in how we sell the product, and how we market it, and how we fund it, things that are economic factors, but the drive, the desire, the need to have classical music in one’s life is as full and rich now as it ever has been.
I’m really tired of hearing people talk about the crisis of classical music. It is nothing more than the same crisis of sales of music that every other genre has in every other context, whether it be CD, or Internet radio, or radio, or television, or DVD, everything. That is not the question. It’s not about classical music, it’s about the consumption of things in our non-working environment that enrich our lives. I think we’re better off celebrating what we do as classical musicians and realizing that our publics, thank God, are different in different countries and different communities like the Met Opera House and Covent Garden. The enthusiasm is no less, the appreciation is the best.
You know, we shouldn’t have ‘one opera fits all.’ It should be very different, according to different characteristics. The English in general are more reserved; fine. If they are standing and screaming at the end of the night then it is different. It is the same thing in America: to get the American public to be totally enthusiastic in all levels is not an easy thing to do, and when it happens it’s a very exhilarating moment.
But the point is: people keep coming, they want to come. Should they come more, are there ticket sales problems, are there sales problems at the Met? Yes there are, but those are not necessarily problems of the genre. In fact I think we need to be very careful not to manipulate our art form too much in the ambition of selling tickets; that would be a mistake.
We should use this sensational new world of podcasting, of interactive Internet relationships, to build entry points for people who don’t know much about the art form or are curious about it, and want to know more about music. We should give away more things than we do, and we should somehow disarm this intimidation factor, whatever that means. I’ve been hearing more and more about this, it’s hard to make much of it.
But this is how I think there is a way to talk about different publics. And everybody is asking the same questions, in Vienna or Germany or Paris, or England or St. Petersburg: ‘how can we ingratiate the public? How do we enliven our base, and how do we build a new public?’ Everybody is asking about that.
I think that clearly there are other factors here about arts and humanities, than just cracking an economic issue. And this is what I have as an artist a great deal of energy for and should be very passionate about. I think it’s all about re-invigorating liberal arts education, and understanding arts and humanities as the diary of any culture of all people: where we came from, and who we are. If we do not embrace that as a substantial need to know who we are as people and only look at these arts regarding their entertainment value, I think we miss the point of these art forms.
OL – We’ve interviewed an opera house director, and a young opera singer Jessica Cates, and they both answered to this question of what to do to keep the art form alive in a wonderful way that we think you will like. We asked the director: “what kind of help does opera need?” And he said, “none, opera doesn’t need any help, opera is this great art form with sublime music that talks about the human condition.”
TH – Bravo! Who is this person?
OL – Eric Mitchko, general director of North Carolina Opera.
TH – If you’d send it to me… do you have that in writing?
OL – I do, it’s on our web site, I'll send you the link. [Editor's note: link [here]]And that’s what our web site tries to do – we try to educate the public and foster the love for the art form.
TH – I know that you do, I know that it is exactly what you do, and that’s why we are having this interview. I would love to read that; my goodness, I haven’t heard an opera director say something like that for a while (laughs hard). Wow!
OL – And this young soprano, a very insightful young lady, she said – “You know what, opera will never die; if we need to perform it in a barn or someone’s garage we will, because it’s sublime.” [Editor's note: link [here]]
TH – I agree. (laughs) I don’t want to perform it in a barn, but yes, she’s right. (laughs)
OL – We have also interviewed Mr. Robert Ward, the composer of The Crucible…
TH – Oh, yeah!
OL - … and he told us about his experience with an informal opera company in Durham, North Carolina, in a tobacco warehouse, where they survived for a decade doing excellent work, with minimum expenses. [Editor's note: link [here]]
TH – Fantastic!
THE CURSE OF THE BARITONE
OL – Yes, it was really interesting. Anyway, last question, maybe a bit of humor to finish up with some anecdote or some funny story. Baritones are often bad guys… Any insight or anecdote about this ‘curse of the baritone?’
TH – (laughs) I’m not very good at anecdotes, but I will say that the baritones are usually some very complex people. We are one of the few opera characters who actually can have the good and the bad side. We have more development of character in our roles than a lot of other characters. The Heldentenor gets to be a brat and the dramatic soprano becomes kind of that dramatic person, but the baritones can be very funny and tragic.
They are not just bad guys, they are kind of jaded guys. But then there’s the Barber of Seville, who is just as wonderfully charming and ingratiating as possible. I don’t know where to go with an anecdote about that, but I enjoy making people laugh as much as I enjoy making them cry, so… I would like to participate in the next great comic opera. I don’t know who is going to write it would be very good for us (laughs) to have a good rolling funny laugh. The Enchanted Island was very close to that at the Met. I won’t write my review, but there were some very beautiful funny and touching moments in that. Falstaff is not a bad comparison, but we need to find someone who will be able to write a deeply human comedy, I think it would do us all very well.
OL – Thank you sir for your thoughtful answers!
TH – My pleasure. Thank you for a great interview.
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