Joseph E. Romero
PARIS, 10 JUNE
1998 The Indiana-born baritone
Thomas Hampson has carved out a mighty career in ten years, regarded in
some circles as a successor to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for his mastery
of a wide repertory to which he is drawn by an intellectual curiosity of
astonishing breadth, as his program notes and website indicate. Equally
at home on the opera stage - where his Onegin and Hamlet have mesmerized
audiences - and the recital platform - where his Schubert, Schumann and
Mahler interpretations are among the best today - Hampson is an artist
at the peak of his powers.
He is also a big man. At 6'4"
and 230 lbs., the 42-year-old baritone from Washington resembles more
America's recent generation of offensive linemen than an international
opera star. Loquacious with a warm manner, Hampson likes a good laugh
and has strong opinions about everyone and everything from 19th century
German poets to President Clinton's politics on race.
Klassiknet's Joseph Romero interviewed Thomas Hampson shortly before the
season's final performance of Eugene Onegin at the Opéra Bastille
JR: How long have
you been surfing on the Net?
Probably two and a half years. My kids are
very active in it. My oldest step-daughter is hugely computer-active.
did you create a website?
I'm a a computer nut and a Macintosh freak. I
am also busy with various multimedia projects with broadcast companies
like NPR, WNET or PBS. We deal with a lot of cross-discipline efforts to
articulate the history of song, opera, poetry, theater, etc., and it
made perfect sense to me.
first reason I actually came up with a website was not necessarily to
give information about Thomas Hampson, but to do back-up of recordings,
so that somebody could actually listen to a recording and get more
information than can fit in those stupid little CD booklets: all those
solo projects that I do are real labours of love and are like children
of mine. I do so much research for the sheer fun and enjoyment, that it
would be nice to put up a time line or a different set of notes,
different cross-references to poets and composers that someone could
access while listening to the album, or scan in the music itself. It was
also a means to tie ends together or link to different sites.
My site is divided into fan information and
accurate schedule information which has replaced having to fax
information all over the world.
The third site area is called the
Conservatory where I keep articles I've written or that have been
written about me, interviews and a planned book-shelf for book reviews
of the humanities and singing, etc. I think there is a genuine desire on
the part of the public to have serious and direct contact with an
artist. I enjoy speaking to people and talking about what I do. The arts
are a lot more accessible than a lot of people try to make them seem. I
think it's all part of our "software". I wanted to find a way
to tie more things together and be more accessible than just the hustle
or advertising of Tom Hampson's stuff.
Anne Sinclair, one of France's leading
television and political journalists; interviewed Bill Gates not too
long ago and asked whether Microsoft was interested in culture. While we
do not know how the translater interpreted this question, Gates answered
that Microsoft was very interested in "entertainment" which to
the French is a bit like replying Burger King when someone asked you for
the name of your favourite chef. What dangers for the future of your
profession do you see in such an attitude?
TH: I think the
danger is endemic to the entire culture. I don't think it is just about
my profession, especially since the Internet is now upon us. We are in a
time where dollars, French francs or whatever are getting shorter for
cultural events and also because we are seeing tremendous pressure on
cultural events to become market-viable like entertainment events. We
are seeing a stronger dialogue as to what is the difference between a
cultural or artistic event and something that is entertainment.
Cultural and artistic events can be
entertaining. If you go to the Louvre there is something terrifically
entertaining about that experience. However, what you are going to see
is an iconography of our passions, of our existence, our telling of the
tale to other human beings before and after us as to why we exist.
Sometimes, that is in a vernacular such as in entertainment, but more
often than not it is a serious use of symbols, language, poetry and
visual arts, and that has more to do with artistic events.
I think we have to recognize that the two are
very separate. If we call the arts, classical music, the "cool"
or "high end" of the entertainment industry, we are in fact
abrogating the very reason classical music is something quite
extraordinary or different or the reason why music is written in that
vein or at that time. However, if you say that Paul McCartney or Elvis
Presley is just shit, it's just popular culture and it doesn't mean
anything, you're missing the point of an artistic event.
The danger that is specific to us as singers
is that if it is just entertainment, then the only regulating source is
ticket viability. If it sells then it must be what the people want, it
must be entertaining, it must be therefore artistic. If it doesn't sell
we can't really support that because it's not viable, it is not
accessible to the people. They are not going to participate in it. The
only way you can maintain that is by the lowest common denominator via a
continual dumbing down by people who are assuming because of higher
numbers that they are getting it right! If everything is based only on
sales and ticket viablity we are in for some very serious problems in
any notion of tradition and quality. It is not to say that one thing is
better than another. That is the key to get off this polemic and start
talking about what it is we are trying to express.
With the arrival of major media groups
on the Internet and their fusion with search engines, push technologies
and other Internet traffic cops, there seems to be a repeat performance
of what already exists in main-stream media, notably that entertainment
is the preferred form of culture on the net. Celebrity news often
dominates culture headlines on the Internet.
TH: The joy of
the net is the ability to tie several different places together and
gather several types of information quickly about what it is I want to
spend a lot of my free time and my passion in developing. At other times
I want to find other sources of books, tapes, video or audio events.
That's a huge plus of the Net. I think that you can have both. The
amount of information is unlimited, but you will have a better audience
if it is quick and you get through to what it is you are after very
quickly. That should not have any effect on the quality of it, which is
of course different from prime-time news on television. There, they do
feel they have a responsibility to say it in a certain way because
otherwise nobody will understand it. I don't think we have to deal with
that on the Net.
do you think internet technology can most benefit the performing and
Again, not only advertising on the Net of the
different events is important, but the Net is a wonderful platform,
especially in the arts, to tie in the various interdisciplinary efforts
that make any one particular art viable. In other words, if it is about
a museum or paintings there is a whole bunch of information on history,
music and sociology. The same is true of opera. Opera is fascinating
because it is such an amalgamation of such strong individual disciplines
that unite in one three-hour period on stage, that it is just
overwhelming. You can tell that story easier in an Internet environment
than you can in a coffee-table book. Plus, it is also a hell of a lot
there seems to be greater independence culturally in North America. Some
European culture writers feel that Americans are fleeing into the future
and view European culture in the same terms as those of an archaeologist
studying the cultures and civilisations of antiquity. On the other hand,
we see a greater number of American artists such as yourself performing
in Europe. Do you see yourself as an archaeologist?
TH: [big laugh]
What a question! That is a very nice way of talking about the Disneyland
complex of Americans. There is a certain validity in it. You have stood
by and watched as the tour buses empty out and somebody says "Oh,
my God they do have flower boxes" as they are going through
Austria. Some of that is inevitable, because of an American sense of
history. While we have an almost egocentric belief in our position in
the history of civilisation, we are nevertheless not told or can't
participate in it because if you are raised almost anywhere in the
United States, anything older than 200 years doesn't have a physical
meaning to us. It isn't there. It becomes our European forefathers. Some
of what happens is an overreaction. We should talk about that more. When
it isn't talked about, it falls into the camp of cliché and
I don't feel
myself an archaeologist in the least. I chuckle because archaeology
happens to be one of my huge hobbies and passions. There is a certain
archaeological aspect to what I do in reconstructing the circumstances
from which either a theatrical event was born or an opera was composed,
but more specially the hot-bed of fermenting personal, political and
historical context that gave us romanticism in the 19th century or Sturm
und Drang at the turn of the 18th century, or Classicism and the
Enlightenment? Why did we need an Enlightenment? Were we a bunch of
idiots before? Why the Renaissance? Why rebirth? What was dead? What
needed to be reborn? All these contexts are something we flit by with
these cliché-ridden marketing terms and they don't necessarily
hit us right in our solar plexus. If you are talking about Heine, you
are not talking about some guy with talking flowers and tweeting birds.
You are talking about one of the most explosive expressions of the human
being in the first person in poetry that has ever been or ever will be.
Without Heinrich Heine, Jack Karouac could sit on a coffee cup and say
nothing. It just wouldn't have happened. In the same way, without Wagner
we would not have had Delius or without those two boys we wouldn't have
Of course, we would have had jazz. It would
have been a different avenue. Those are our avenues. Go down them.
Listen to it. Have an interesting relationship with it. Let it be your
boulevard. That is what bothers me so much about this polemic with art
or popular culture.
used to be a dialogue. It has now become a table of weights and measures
that you stack up. How high can you hit the gong. That pyramid mentality
has no place in artistic endeavor as far as I'm concerned. What is the
best? Who is the one? Bullshit! It just doesn't exist. I don't think
this dialogue is the road we should go down----at all.
JR: You have
given strong emphasis to American song. Has the day finally arrived when
international audiences, notably Americans, consider American song
composers as important as 19th century European song writers?
it would be nice. My passion is song in general. I am passionate about
poetry--as a diary of the human experience through various epochs. I
revel in that and I think that certainly if you look at it in that
rather wide context you have to see the dearth of effort in American
song and ask yourself why has this been? And then you realize that it is
because the system of weights and measures did not think it was very
important. On the other hand, you start reading just below the surface
of literature of people that we revere and adore as Americans: the
English school. You realize that none of them, Stanford,
Vaughan-Williams, Elgar, Delius, would have done what they did had it
not been for Walt Whitman. It's like Schoenberg saying that the most
significant artistic influence on his life was Richard Dehmel, one of
the great poets of the turn of the century. So, I think that dialogue is
what interests me enormously. It carries over to the American side.
Yes, I do sing a great deal of mid-century European song. I love the
poetry of Heinrich Heine, but these people did not live in a vacuum. The
last book that Schubert was reading was by James Fennimore Cooper. The
American Transcendentalists were influenced by and had a reverse
influence towards the French symbolists, towards the Yeats school in
England. There has been a huge artistic dialogue that we haven't paid
It is time
for American music to unapologetically have a look at its past,
especially as significant a 20th century as we have in American
classical music. The avant-garde is happening in America: young
composers, my generation, in their 40s and early 50s, and even younger.
We are in a heyday.
Well, I think Richard Danielpour, Jake
Heggie, a young guy out in San Francisco, Conrad Susa. Before that, you
have some of the deans like Carlisle Floyd, hugely important man who
didn't get his due. One of the great renaissances of the next ten years
will probably be Virgil Thomson. It's time we finally gave Samuel Barber
his due. He died a tormented and disappointed man. This breaks my heart,
and I think, without any naiveté, involved one can hold Samuel
Barber up in the tradition of song starting from Mozart up until our
time and say that he is one of the major song writers of any culture,
but yes he is American. Does that make him less interesting or less
rendition of Siegmund's aria from Die Walküre on a recital disc
caused a stir in certain circles, some suggesting that you are a lazy
tenor. Is there any part of the Wagnerian repertoire that you would
Do you know what the real definition of a
lazy tenor is?
TH: A very rich
Fischer-Dieskau recorded selected roles but never performed them on
stage. Is that part of your recording strategy?
TH: I would never
sing on record something I wouldn't or couldn't sing on stage. There
isn't enough time to do all the stage projects that I would like to do.
I can't imagine taking the time to do a La Favorite or a Don Sebastien
of Donizetti or a Lucia di Lammermoor, quite frankly, or a Carmen
Escamillo, but if somebody came with an interesting project for any of
those roles, and if I could, I would love to do it. I can learn quickly.
I can imbibe and ingest those roles. I know the repertoire very widely.
The Siegmund thing caused a stir and it was a rather audacious and kind
of a funny thing to do. I absolutely can sing the role of Siegmund. But
if you start singing that repertoire, you can't maintain Siegmund, Posa,
Dichterliebe and Winterreise in your repertoire. As a singer, you can
sing all of those things, but not at the same time. If I start singing
things like Siegmund, Parsifal or Idomeneo, some of these lower tenor
roles that I probably could achieve, I would have to refine or redefine
my vocal technique a bit. That could build a certain inflexibility in my
voice as a voice. As an instrument that would perhaps limit the
subtleties necessary for the more serious effort that I want to make in
19th and 20th century song repertoire.
The other side of the Siegmund question: when
the aria Winterstürme was published it had two different call
numbers: one for tenor and one for baritone. I have both copies of that
aria in those two call numbers and they are exactly the same music. That
amused me. So, I thought I would call a few people's bluff and throw it
out there. It would not surprise me and I am not announcing plans for
it, but it would not surprise me in the least to be offered in
somebody's next Ring Cycle the opportunity to sing Siegmund. The idea of
changing to tenor is not in my consciousness at all, or starting to sing
tenor roles. For one thing, the roles that I could sing we have plenty
of tenors that can sing them. We need the guys that can sing the
Siegfrieds and the Tannhausers and who can eventually develop into the
We need two
things: we need a little more reasonable realisation of what the 19th
century aesthetic was and get off some of our young tenors' backs and
let them sing their roles lyrically like they should be sung. Secondly,
we need to let young singers develop. I think the right to mature is the
most endangered right we have in the classical singing world today. We
want to get them at seventeen and call them "great" and "finished".
We want to get them at twenty-five and say, "well this is whoever
it is". I can give you names, but that would seem like I'm being
nasty and I'm not. There is not one of these wonderfully talented people
at twenty-five or thirty the same way I was. I wasn't as "hot"
a property. Nor was the world ready for doing the kind of thing they are
doing today. When I was thirty and Lenny came along and I did the Vienna
Philharmonic stuff, it was a big deal and I had a great career, but
there was still the notion, especially from the big opera houses and the
major presenters who were musicians who knew what they were talking
about and people like Lenny [Bernstein] or [Jean-Pierre] Ponnelle who
were really controlling and running the business, that "yeah this
is terrific and he's a wonderful thirty-year-old baritone and gee guess
what, when he's forty-five this is going to be really something special.
We forget that Birgit Nilsson became THE Birgit Nilsson when she was
forty-one or so. Some girl comes out now and she's thirty or thirty-one
years old and makes a big sound and everybody says "Oh you should
do the Birgit Nilsson 'fach'." This is horribly unfair. As a singer
and someone who does know the different schools of technique and has, I
think, a firm grasp as a singer on the history of different kinds of
singers, it is something I do intend to write more about. I think we
have some serious reasons to let people mature.
Cecilia Bartoli is wonderful. She's
absolutely a delight as a colleague. I buy her records. I love them, but
I wouldn't want to say anything about Cecilia Bartoli, that what she's
going to be in twenty years is even going to be more interesting, more
all the lieder you have sung the number of French mélodies has
been very small, is this an area that you have been avoiding and, if so,
I am not avoiding it. In fact, stay tuned.
There is only so much I can do. There are some great plans in the works.
It's a huge body of repertoire that I adore.
Where do you stand on the topic of
controversial productions by directors such as Robert Wilson (Magic
Flute, Pelléas, Lohengrin) and Peter Sellars (Rake's Progress or
Pelléas, or Cosi fan tutte in a diner and Don Giovanni in Harlem
where Don Giovanni shoots up during the champagne aria). Are there
certain directors you do not care to work with? What do you do when you
find yourself in a production you don't believe in?
TH: [big laugh]
I've got to get ready for tonight's performance!
I am as open-minded a person as anybody. I
always want to be responsible, to be part of an innovative or new
thought process as much as anybody else and I want to work with some of
these men who I consider to be extremely bright people like Peter
Sellars or Robert Wilson. But, my own particular passion and belief is
that I don't think you should ever tell a story that isn't the story
we're telling. I think sometimes we all get, and this can happen in a
lieder recording as much as an opera production, a little too
preoccupied with interepreting or telling people what we think about the
piece, rather than recreating the piece for it to tell people what its
message is. If we are so clever at the end of the twentieth century that
we can take pieces that have been heard hundreds of times and literally
over one or two hundred years and turn them on their heads and turn them
around with different symbols and metaphors that are in the vernacular
of our time, it seems to me that we should be able to take that story
that is laden with universals that transcend all epochs and make
something new out of our own music and our time and our own words, and
not start mixing too many contexts, especially when you are dealing with
highly epochally centered pieces like da Ponte and Mozart where a blink
of an eye or a gesture of a hand means something in a behavioural sense,
not symbolically. We should be very careful.
Shooting up was simply not a consciousness
and it has nothing to do with the Champagne aria. Is, however, the
champagne aria a moment of self-intoxication? Without a doubt. Is it a
point where he is actually feeling weak and therefore I got to get a
rush because I have a party to go to. Yes, it is about that. Do I read
that same Mozartian thing by watching somebody shoot up in a twentieth
century setting. I personally don't in this particular example.
What happens to you when you find
yourself in a production like that?
I don't find myself in a production
like that. I did once. It's not that I am trying to control anything,
but I want to put myself only in an environment that I can offer
whomever I am working with 125% of Thomas Hampson. I would love to work
with these men. I would love to work with Peter Sellars, but I want to
work with Peter Sellars when he's engaging Tom Hampson for something
that he thinks that I've got the talents to do for and I have the
confidence in him to do what he's going to do. So, we can have dialogue.
If there is no compromise or dialogue in the recreation of artistic
events, then there is nothing more than ego or, quite frankly,
masturbation. As an artist I don't want to be part of that.
The public is often unaware that some
opera recordings are a cut and paste operation where artists record
different parts of the work in different cities at different times, or
the recording is made and an artist dubbed their role onto it
afterwards. Teresa Stratas in Lulu and Cheryl Studer in Carlisle Floyd's
opera "Susanna". How do you feel about that and what are your
feelings on live versus studio recordings?
TH: Live or
studio is not really the quesiton. The question is the record. What
essential and final, qualitative effect does any of this have on the
recording? The recording technical ability today is really quite
breathtaking. Frank Sinatra did not sing duets with those people. They
phoned it in on ISDN lines. A lot of the music was actually
transatlantic cut and paste.
good news and the bad news of the classical recording industry right now
is that the point is to make a record and the record should be of a very
high quality. It should realize the work unabashedly and I think this is
where the subjective comes in. Therefore, people should only sing on
record things that they would in fact sing--- a reasonable recreation of
The idea of
cutting and pasting is always negative to the music. You try your
absolute level best as an artist to give a serious and continual read of
something. I can only control the world that I am involved in. Sometimes
that gets compromised for various reasons: illness, technical problems,
horrific schedules. Is it more important to say, and in the last
analysis do you really care, "oh well this recording doesn't
exactly have the cast that I wanted, but my goodness there are only two
cuts in the whole thing in this great, wonderful studio recording".
I don't think so. People want to hear the people do it.
Certainly the best of all possible worlds is
not to cut and paste. To have people come, have them rehearse, have a
dialogue, have a relationship, and recreate that: the Walter Legge
productions were like that. The lack of rehearsal and the lack of time
to work as an entity with the orchestra before the mikes go on because
the financial pressure is one of the great shortcomings of the recording
industry. They would turn around and say that people can't hear the
difference. I think people can hear the difference. Your question
doesn't have an answer. It is an observation for both sides. The goal
has to be the highest quality.
Baroque violinist Reinhard Goebel
spent considerable time in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek
researching the Augustan Age of Dresden in an attempt to better convey
the spirit of 17th century German music and pianist Alfred Brendel has
spent a lifetime examining the socio-political and philosophical
backdrop of the first Viennese school. I gather that you are also a
believer in music in context.
Absolutely. I don't think that
anything in our lives happened in a vacuum. I believe so firmly in
interconnectivity in all of the arts, all of the humanities as a basis
for the arts. You cannot understand Schumann without understanding
Heine. You cannot understand Heine without understanding the Paris of
1840. You can't understand Paris in 1840 if you don't know what happened
in 1794, ad infinitum. We can't understand ourselves if we don't take
those things seriously. If we don't understand why people were willing
to die in 1848, we have no right to be as audacious and opinionated as
we all are today in 1998. It's just not fair. It's irrational. So, I
think there is a tremendous interactivity and I don't think you can
understand Mahler's songs without understanding the basis of Das
Wunderhorn or the first-person awakening of 19th century poetry that
culminated in an orientalist expunging his personal grief in the name of
return to the Net, do you subscribe to mailing lists such as the lieder
or opera list and news groups, and if so, do you participate or lurk?
No, I don't, and when people send threads
from them to me I delete them without reading them.
Do you have an opinion of the
No, mine is an emotional one.
TH: No comment
are some of your favourite intenet sites?
TH: Ready for
this? The PGA Tour. I am a huge golf nut. I go back and forth and follow
some of my friends on the PGA Tour. I tend to do a lot of surfing. I try
to get to as many museum sites as I can. I love to see how they handle
the multimedia because I would like to design some things.
There are a number of literary
references on your website: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Emmerson,
Willa Cather. Are you interested in the rural American tradition? Willa
Cather suggests the American Middle West for example.
We wrote the notes to the big Stephen Foster record that I did and the
American folksong record that I am planning. Certainly, Willa Cather is
going to come up in a big way. I would like to do a Carl Sandburg album
in the way that I did the Walt Whitman album, and of course, bring in a
lot of early American quasi-folk roots.
It's quite a contrast, your interest
in Central European lieder and American song.
TH: There have
been some wonderful new songs from these guys in America. Not just from
black composers either. From Jewish, white, whatever. Everybody's going
to this literature and saying "listen to this power, anger,
passion, and love". The wonderful and terribly disturbing poetry of
Langston Hughes. I think it would help in the States a lot if we would
read each other's poetry more. You cannot read Langston Hughes and not
say somebody was not listening to Walt Whitman. He is wonderful and it's
a wonderful story.
racism something you think about as an artist?
TH: I think about
it daily. It is one of the most horrifying cancers of our time in every
country. Certainly the American racist question is huge. We could have a
longer conversation about this. I think I am sensitive to it. I am
angered by it. I don't understand it. I grew up in an environment in the
Northwest where we didn't have it---that kind of animosity: I won't sit
next to that person because he's a this or that. That was not part of
our makeup. I have never understood it and I am appalled by it. And I
get physically very angry when I am confronted with it. I would like
somehow to participate more in the eradication of it. I think if there's
anything Clinton should be given credit for, it's approaching and
attacking this question on the highest level possible in our country.
Bill Clinton may have a lot of problems, but to me he has had more
effect in a serious political way of talking about things that really
are day to day concerns in our country than any president that I have
been alive for. Maybe Kennedy would have gotten to it. I don't know. I
don't think so. I think Kennedy would have been a disappointment by the
end of his term.
Internet links of interest:
The Official Website of the PGA Tour:
recent recordings by Thomas Hampson
Britten: Billy Budd
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Captain Vere), Eric Halfvarson
(John Claggart), Russell Smythe (Mr Redburn), Gidon Saks (Mr Flint),
Simon Wilding (Mr Ratcliffe) Martyn Hill (Red Whiskers)
Hallé Orchestra & Choir
Kent Nagano, conductor
Schumann: Heine Lieder
Thomas Hampson, baritone
7243 5 55598 2 1
Trevor Leightin / EMI