BWW Exclusive Interview, Part 2: Thomas Hampson Is Passionate for Opera

EM: Let's now transition into opera. I of course remember with great fondness and was deeply impressed with your debut at the Met, which I was able to see from the pit. Since then opera has been, to me, as large an identification with your persona as anything else. I'd love to talk about how you love to sing Strauss and Verdi. Do you lean toward Verdi, or do you feel equally passionate about Strauss?

TH: I'm not sure I really prefer one or the other composer but for several years I can say that I've enjoyed the ability to only sing operas that passionately engage me. I can only give my body and mind and voice to characters in which I find my connection. They don't have to be nice people, they have to be important people. Don Giovanni is a deeply disturbing person, but he's very important, because we all have Giovanni inside of us. I'm not very good with my favorite this or that, but the musical languages of Verdi, Wagner, Mahler and Strauss are so demonstrably different from one another, that is both the challenge and, quite frankly, the excitement for me. It keeps you on your toes, it keeps you on your edge, you're always rethinking things. Singing Boccanegra and singing Mandryka (Arabella) couldn't be any more different a challenge than you could want as a singer. And to some extent, going back to classical music's own worst enemy, this whole fach mentality, this idea what kind of voice should sing this or that, we get ourselves caught up in the unnecessary. So pertaining to that system, that I would sing both Boccanegra and Mandryka is a curious juxtaposition. I love that challenge. That's just where I live. I love assuming those two different personas, trying to understand and meet the challenges of those two great composing masters. I also loved singing Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride and I'm equally passionate about contemporary opera.

EM: You sound very passionate about opera in general.

TH: I'm passionate about opera as an art form. I love the theatre, I love being on stage. I enjoy characters that have dilemma and development. I've kind of willed myself sometimes into repertoire I'm especially drawn to - people like Hamlet or Macbeth, or Boccanegra. Maybe twenty years ago people were not so convinced that my vocalism would take me in that direction, but I needed more complex figures, and Verdi is one of the true geniuses of musical language in a theatrical context. We're in a tense time, both inside the world of opera and how our public perceives what we do. It's very important to remind people that that opera is a musical art form in a theatrical context. Meaning, every breath I take on stage is from Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, not from an insight into the theatrical context of the pieces. We all need to take a deep breath and refocus on the essence of expression inherent to the musical language. The knowing musician, as well as the unknowing audience, captures the actual expression of the human dilemma in a theatrical context. This should be in the hands of genius, and this is where Verdi stands out amongst all of them. There is a passion in harmonic rhythm and certainly in melody and dissonance that whether you know it or not, being a musician or not, you take that soulful journey through that experience on stage. That musical art form tells us the grand story of epic emotions. Opera is about big issues of life - jealousy, hatred, passion, love, separation, dreams, idealism. It's the big stuff. It's not about plot. It's about the interaction of humans awakened to some part of a dilemma of their existence. And this is given to the next layer of opera that is very fascinating, and that is, there is no opera, whether a saga or a melodram, that is not somehow psychologically and historically based in the story of civilization. We don't just invent this stuff. Traviata is about a particular cultural moment, identifying issues that are relevant today, were relevant then, and have always been relevant. I think those arcs and that relevancy is something we could embrace on a wider scale with our audience than just trying to be more and more clever about updating, or, "Make sure they get it." There's a lot of finger wagging going on in the opera, and I think that's actually our own worst enemy. I'm totally convinced we in classical music are our own worst enemies when it comes to the broader cultural understanding of who we are. I'm not talking about ticket sales or popularity. I'm talking about just understanding what classical music is.

EM: I find that quite profound. You're almost bringing me to tears here. (TH laughs.) Here's one slightly lighter question. I read your essay on the Marquis de Posa (Don Carlos) and am wondering how you feel singing the role in Italian versus French.

TH: Oh, thank you for asking that! I believe Verdi wrote two French operas: Les Vêpres Siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) and Don Carlos. Verdi of course was popular in France, but what a lot of people don't realize is that it was very normal to sing in a translated language of the country you're singing in. This idea of translation was not just some sort of a convenience. It was part and parcel of the process. So you have the French Macbeth, the French Trovatore and Traviata. But Verdi composed two operas in the French language, Vêpres and Don Carlos. Even when he revised Don Carlos twenty years later, he still was composing and restructuring in the French language, so it was a French opera. What is different with Don Carlos is that he also participated in and sanctioned a completely Italian libretto. So my personal opinion is that there is a French and an Italian version that sit and live side by side. Are there attributes to the French version that are different to the Italian? Without question, even as to how the words work. To me the French language version is slightly closer to the Schillerean theater ambiguity, slightly more Shakespearean. But is there a dramatic thrust in the Italian language that gives us slightly more visceral insight into these operatic sensibilities and experiences? Probably. I haven't sung the French version for quite some time, but I would like to, it was a wonderful project. Vêpres Siciliennes is not the same story. In my opinion it should only be performed in French. It has an Italian translation, which is really quite inadequate and very uncomfortable with the music. The music is extraordinarily French, and French grand opera. I think we do Verdi and the piece a tremendous disservice by insisting it be in the Italian translation. Somehow we still love to claim that Verdi as THE Italian composer thought - even subconsciously - all his operas be primarily in Italian. I see Vêpres Siciliennes as an anomaly. I would like to sing it and I think I will, but only in French.

EM: You mentioned being passionate about contemporary opera.

TH: My calendar is full of contemporary works and has been for four or five years. I'm very excited that some of my projects coming up in the next five years are world premieres. I can't tell you more than that because they haven't been announced by the opera houses or the presenters themselves, but it's extremely exciting, to work with living librettists and composers. It's just a wonderful conversation.

EM: San Francisco's Heart of a Soldier (http://www.npr.org/2011/09/10/140336330/-heart-of-a-soldier-an-opera-at-the-heart-of-9-11) must have been an incredibly deep experience for you.

TH: Oh my, yes, very emotional time for me, and for a lot of reasons. First and foremost is the story of Rick Rescorla, which I got to know through the biography written by James B. Stewart. Rick's specific development, always guided by this internal light of humanity and arc to his own relationship, especially to soldiers but to people in general around him, his abiding sense of decency. I think the world of Christopher Theofanidis and of his music. He wrote a wonderful opera, with a wonderfully synthesized libretto by Donna Di Novelli. We had military advisors there. For example, a really impressive general who told stories of being sent to battle, and then being spat on in a bus by his own people, coming back from what was his noble and "necessary" military duty. I'm old enough to remember the Vietnam War quite specifically. I was probably a year and a half out from being drafted. I certainly did not want to be taken into the swamps in Vietnam and killed, but I would probably have joined some branch of the Armed Services. I lost friends in Vietnam, we all did. But I hadn't really worked through that period. That was a very terrible time, and a lot of working through that for me, through the eyes of this deeply, humanly decent person of Rick Rescorla, was remarkably motivating. Those things have stayed in my heart, and that project became very near and dear. I would love to see a revival and I would do it in a heartbeat. Whether I do it or not, I think a Heart of a Soldier 2.0 would be a very beautiful and valid experience. If I could be a part of that, it would be a great pleasure for me.

EM: Certainly it would be very timely, considering everything that's going on politically in the world right now. I can totally understand how Soldier must have been emotionally wrought for you. Yet, amazingly, you were able to immortalize Rick on stage. I admire that tremendously.

TH: It was indeed emotional. The wonder of Rick's later life sort of ties a bow around everything that he was. This unbelievable relationship with (Rick's wife) Susan, this brief panacea of eternal love, which I believe is possible in the human experience. I think in all of the contemporary storytelling we have, and all of Rick's remarkableness, that beautiful love story is what especially needs to be reworked in the 2.0. I very much loved getting to know Susan. Her participation around the piece was wonderful. I had some visits with her at Rick's home and she gave me a couple things of Rick's which are prized possessions, and I keep in my personal safe - a wonderful elephant hair bracelet he liked to wear, for instance. So there are a lot of connections. I would have loved to have known this man, and been honored to have met him.

EM: There's nothing like being able to immerse yourself in personal connections with a person you're playing, which you can only do with a contemporary opera.

TH: I think the process is very special in a contemporary opera. As contemporary and visceral as that seems, because the guy just died and the event is right there, this immortalizing of personalities who tell stories bigger than their contemporary events and relate to any epoch, is the essential thrust and magic of the art form of opera. This is what I want to invite people into. Opera is in landscape far greater than the sum of its parts. If we embrace that with wonder and respect we would have more of a general understanding of the art form. It's about us, about human beings, whether 1980 or 1950 or 1720, or ancient times, or 9-11. It's about the big questions of who we are as human beings, and whether we are actually going to be brave enough to ask the central questions of the meanings of our lives amongst one another. This is to me the bedrock of the world of opera.

EM: That's a very powerful statement, and you've put it so beautifully. To wrap up, what, if anything, haven't you done in your life that still begs to be accomplished?

TH: I've never won a golf tournament (laughs). I would desperately like, just adore, to win one. I realize that's a bit of a sassy answer to your question, which is probably much more about repertoire and artistic event. I've got all sorts of musical projects and plans involving the pedagogical world. I think the world of digital education technologies is very exciting. I'm very enthusiastic about new on-ramps we can build in terms of accessibility to the arts for our general public. The new developments to education are very exciting. In the world of opera, I think the HD development should be more ubiquitous amongst all theaters. I think the technological ability to share our stage experiences - in the sense that it awakens people and enlivens their curiosity to come to the theater - is wonderful. But whether you watch opera in the theater or a cinema, you really do have to come to an opera house. I think that message has been somehow thrown under the bus. It is a live arts experience, and my arts experience is what I'm dedicated to until my last breath. I have a lot of fun times. I do not live in a world of frustration - "I hope to get this right," or, "Gee, I hope to get this done before I die." I live in waves of possibilities. There's no limit of things I would like to try. I'm grasping and putting together things that come to me as well as ideas I want to visualize. I think radio is a wonderful medium. I enjoy designing and making these programs like Song of America. We're in the middle of the next project or layer, which is called "Song Mirror of the World", also a WFMT project, where I take song as the identifier of many cultures across several languages over the last two hundred years, the heart of the lieder repertoire. Can we identify Paris in the nineteenth century via song? Was Schubert just writing curious song, or was he trying to also tell us what it was like to be alive through the teens and twenties? Can we identify the issues of freedom and democracy through song as seen through the revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century? Do we understand the conflict of racism in America through poetry and song? Without question you could spend thirteen thirteen-weeks on that. We have many issues we can visit through the world of arts and humanities, and these kinds of projects are also usable in the educational world. Everything I'm doing that we've talked about is the whole purpose of the Hampsong Foundation (http://www.hampsong.org) - to create digital artifacts that embrace this song essence, this poetry and that composer, in various languages that identify cultures, and therefore our jumping boards, our entrance platforms into a multi-cultural understanding. Everything we do in the Hampsong Foundation is public domain and free, and lives on the Net - creating, recreating and redesigning this year more curriculum with more help for teachers to teach history and cultural history in the context of the schools by using music. It's a wonderful thesis and quite fun, but it's also a way to get music back into some sort of experience for K through 12 as well as entrance college level. So there's just no end to things that we can be involved in, mainly because I'm not in a state of, "Gee, if I get to do that, otherwise I haven't lived." And that's how the golf thing comes up. I would like to win a golf tournament (laughs).

EM: Then come to San Diego! But seriously, Tom, thank you so much, this has been great. And good luck with the rest of your run of Ballo.

TH: Thanks so much, Erica.

Mr. Hampson's remaining performances of Ballo in Maschera are Oct. 10, 13, 16, and 19 (http://sfopera.com/Season-Tickets/2014-15-Season/A-Masked-Ball.aspx)

Photo credit: Kristin Hoebermann

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