BWW Exclusive Interview, Part 1: Thomas Hampson Talks of Song - and Bernstein

Known for his versatility and the remarkable intelligence and introspection he brings to his interpretations from the opera stage to the concert and recital hall, lyric baritone Thomas Hampson has scored triumph after triumph in a stellar international career whose length and degree of success belie his still youthful age. Hampson performed Aaron Copland's Old American Songs at Tanglewood last summer, and this month returns to his western US roots to star in the dramatically complex, vocally challenging role of Renato in San Francisco Opera's production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). His passion for the vocal arts is inspiring.

EM: It's been a number of years since we last saw each other at the Met. Were you able to look at the review I wrote for your Tanglewood performance of Copland's Old American Songs? (/bwwmusic/article/BWW-Reviews-Thomas-Hampson-An-American-Hero-at-Tanglewood-20140722)

TH: Your starting line was kind of amazing. It was an extremely positive review.

EM: I have absolute total faith in your performances.

TH: Thanks for saying that!

EM: What was it that inspired you to attach yourself to Copland's work, and American song in general? Was it just growing up in the States, or is there some particular reason why you've showed this affinity since you were very young?

TH: Those are kind of three questions, and very good questions. The answer is yes, yes, and yes (laughs). I'm extremely American, I was raised in the northwest, and my folks come from the Midwest. It was not a deeply classical music environment, but a very healthy musical environment. Certainly opera didn't play a big role. I always sang a lot of songs in church and in school. I think songs identify us. There's a general acceptance of that even in the general public, especially in America. We listen to songs and identify a particular time of our history, a particular event. Some songs are very patriotic, some very wistful. The whole gamut is there. We've completely embraced and represent Walt Whitman's great mandate that everyone has a song, and must find his or her own song. I feel particularly connected to American song. I've always felt drawn to it, even in classic song - the term I use rather than art song, literally poetry that's been set to music, and not lyrics or something else, slightly more genre defining than art song. The songs of our culture were the classic songs. I've always found them to be major identifiers. I strongly believe that especially in American culture it's useless to identify something called American. Rather, it is extremely important for all culture heritages to embrace arts and humanities and stories of our creative people, through the eyes of poets and the ears of composers that every ten or fifteen years identify those stories from their culture in America. That's where Song of America (http://www.songofamerica.net) comes up. Copland found a lot of his own American musical language by actually creating a twentieth century music that sounded American. He went back and looked at stories - Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid. His Old American Songbook was actually inspired by Ben Britten's passion for folk song. Britten kind of dared Copland - they were very close in the 50s - in a positive way, to do the same. The first performance of the first book of Old American Songs was in Aldeburgh with Britten and Pears. Copland went back, chose very wisely and beautifully orchestrated the piano songs. The fun thing about folk songs is that often a tune will stay the same and the text will change. For instance, "The Golden Willow Tree" is one of the great folk song stories that traveled around the world, the boats chugging on the Black Sea during the Ottoman Empire. It shows up in the Appalachian Mountains. All of these songs have a genealogy and a particular kind of bedrock in American culture. America is the homeland, as it were, for many different cultures. Singing these songs in schools, you get a broader, more inclusive understanding of our own culture and who we are amongst the cultures of the world. I'm very passionate about it, as you can tell. Your very prescient questions obviously spin me into, unfortunately, a lecture (laughs).

EM: A lecture by you is something a lot of people would kill to get. You have so much wisdom to share. The inspiration for the Song of America project is related to that whole subject, I imagine?

TH: Without question. Its first evidence was back in '98 when I did the WNET I Hear America Singing special. Identifying poets and composers who have told the story of being American, regardless of their origin of birth or nationality or race, is a very lively, healthy, beautiful way to tell the story of American culture. The Song of America tour was an outgrowth of that, and the hugely successful radio programs with WNET that I conceived and co-produced through the Hampsong Foundation with WFMT essentially tell that story - the history of American culture through the eyes of our poets and the ears of our composers.

EM: With such a lengthy list of composers, it must have taken a lot of research to find those that are not as recognizable as the ones we're all so familiar with.

TH: If you're passionate about something and at some point it becomes a very large collection in your mind, or turns into a project, then everybody talks about that project as your research. I've got a whole thirteen-week program with eight or nine writers. People do not realize how unbelievably strong the creative impetus has been in America. There has been this massive effort to articulate some sort of diary, or evidence, or something written in the sand that says, "I live in America, here's what America means to me, I'm an American." We have only scratched the surface of it. Particularly in the classical idiom it's far richer than we give it credit for, and far deeper and worthwhile than most subscription series of our orchestras reflect. It's something we should not run from. As wonderful as Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Mahler are, and they are truly giants of the human soul, we should never ignore that very direct relationship to our own music.

EM: You're so right, and with this awareness it can only get better. To transition from American composers to Mahler, we have Lenny. I remember when your recordings with him first came out. What was that experience like for you, to work with him so closely?

TH: I was very young, and Lenny sort of plucked me out of the firmament. I sang for him and he responded very strongly. He thought my voice was beautiful and he found me very musical, and probably heard and saw in me a potential that I myself couldn't possibly have understood. So first of all I am deeply grateful on every metaphysical level that I've had that relationship. Of course, I grew up with Lenny like we all grew up with Lenny. Lenny was certainly the most collectively Renaissance intellectually stimulating person I'd ever met in my life, just a prodigious intellect and ability - huge celebrity factor, famous personality, great force of nature, unbelievable intellectual and musical abilities. I knew his Harvard lectures before I'd met the man. At the time I first experienced those lectures I probably understood twenty-five percent of it. But to actually meet this man, and be right there - the most striking thing to me was you felt like you had been invited into the eye of the hurricane or the pit of the volcano, but in a safe way. What I learned from Lenny - and I'm not by any means comparing myself to Leonard Bernstein - was in the moment of making music, it's only about the music. That nuclear core of everything for the one moment of music (I'm borrowing a phrase from Daniel Barenboim, the only person I could possibly compare to Lenny in terms of intellect and ability), that essence of the "now" of music that you give yourself up, you give everything of yourself for that moment, and all the intellectualizing, all the theorizing... then boom, it's your time to make music. All that stuff we do as artists, those arcs - embrace them, struggle with them, hate-love yourself, beat yourself up - that's terrific, fine. But when it's the moment of music it's only about that music. And then to make music with him! If I go back I know for sure there are phrases and ways I sang with Lenny that I probably never sang again, or tried to for a while. We used to joke after a performance, "You sang well with me tonight," I would say (laughs). He was just this amazing musical force of nature. And I'm so deeply grateful that I've spent a few years in his orbit.

EM: As are all of us who were lucky enough to be in his orbit in any way. I totally relate to that. What an experience.

Next, Part Two: Thomas Hampson's passion for opera as an art form

Photo credit: Kristin Hoebermann

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