Thomas Hampson enjoys a singular international career as an opera singer, recording artist, and “ambassador of song,” maintaining an active interest in research, education, musical outreach, and technology. The American baritone has performed in the world’s most important concert halls and opera houses with many renowned singers, pianists, conductors, and orchestras. This month he will again join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which he likens to being with “family.”
How did your singing career begin and what drew you to opera?
I grew up in a very musical family and environment, but I never really thought about it as a profession. In terms of studying music seriously, that came rather later when I was 18 or 19. When I began college I was introduced to how music and poetry worked together and as I learned more the music really drove me. I was already 20 or 21 when I realized that I had a voice that could sing opera and it started becoming more and more clear that one: I was talented and two: the humanities were really my passion.
Leonard Bernstein had a large impact on your career, could you talk a bit about your work with him?
Those years were extremely exciting. Looking back on a career everything seems to fall into place, but I remember the excitement and doubt in the early years. By the time I was able to work with Bernstein I was having a crisis of doubt that things were not really where they should be, and that even though I loved it, I wasn’t sure music would be my profession.
Then, in 1985 I was in Salzburg and sang for Jimmy Levine, and all of a sudden in the fall of ’86 I’m making my Metropolitan Opera debut as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Frederica von Stade and Jose van Dam and James Levine conducting…it was fairy tale stuff. It was during that time that Bernstein was auditioning singers for a new project – everyone was going and singing for him. I took a Mahler song, and he was completely excited about it and thought it was wonderful. So what was supposed to be a 15 minute audition became a 45 minute class.
To say he was enthusiastic and changed my life is an understatement. The fact we’re having this conversation about Bernstein, one of the classical icons…I was with him for four years, my debut at Carnegie Hall in March of 1990 was Lenny’s last concert.
I’m not sure how to describe working with him, it was intoxicating and demanding. In all honesty, Lenny heard something in me and trusted in my musical abilities in a far more significant way than I could have realized at the time. I’m very very grateful that at that time he saw something in me to be developed that I couldn’t possibly have known.
There’s a lot of discussion these days about new audience cultivation for classical music and I think opera is an even harder sell – what are your thoughts and ideas on how to make it more accessible?
It’s a huge question. I’m very passionate about the arts and humanities being the evidence of who we are as people. As direct and obvious as that sounds, I think quite frankly we forget it. There is a commonality in our humanity through the arts – which in my opinion immediately outranks fear of the unknown or the different, and that is a huge value that we need to reinforce to one another. We tend to be caught up too much in distraction and amusement to separate what benefits our sense of being and well-being. There are things that are written for specific reasons – opera, novels, poetry – which are laboratories that we can revisit to reconnect to who we are.
What is exciting today is this proactive energy of social media and digital possibilities making what we do as musicians more accessible to more people. I see that energy like a public auditorium. I don’t believe I come out on stage and convey something to the public; I recreate something that they can hear and be part of. Presenters and schools and opera houses, we can and should all make ourselves more available.
There’s currently a move to say ‘I don’t want to buy that but I want to know more about it.’ How do I encourage someone who doesn’t know anything about the music I sing to enjoy it? I think if they listen to something from my web presence and they hear something they like then they have a place they can find out more.
And if we’re talking about attending a live performance, if the presenter is enlightened there will be several avenues open that say here is the world you are experiencing and on your own terms in your own homes you can find out more. I’ve seen this happening more and more – it’s so different from 10 or 20 years ago. It’s very powerful.
The Hampsong foundation is a great organization can you speak a bit about the genesis of it?
I created it to put my money where my mouth is. I wanted there to be a platform for people interested in this music, somewhere they could find out more. We talk about song through the eyes of the composers, but I think the experience is much richer. Lately the programs I’ve been designing with radio stations are about the history of culture through the eyes of poets and the ears of composers. When we listen to songs we engage with them, there is a transcendence with them that creates a very powerful experience.
The foundation funds research that expands the song repertory and our knowledge of it, shares findings with the public through workshops, seminars, master classes, recordings and new media, and provides, through its website, a rich interactive resource and meeting place for lovers of song.
Beginning June 19th, you’ll be performing Lingua Angelorum for baritone and orchestra by Sylvie Bodorova, which was written for you. Can you describe the collaboration process with her?
She’s a wonderful friend. Her husband, Jiří Štilec, is the curator of all things Mahler and I’ve worked with him extensively over the years. I only met Sylvie and realized rather late she was a composer. And a few years ago she said she’d love to write a song cycle for me.
Lingua Angelorum is inspired by Rudolph II of Prague. I’ve always been fascinated by him – he invited all these chemists and scientists and artists to come to Prague and so you had this phenomenal mix of cultures there in the 16th century. There was a large body of philosophers that followed pagan beliefs and I thought there must be poetry and text from this time that are spiritual and reflective in nature but not necessarily god-fearing or devotional. So we started finding texts from many different people and that’s why this piece has seven languages in it. This song cycle, which is about 45 minutes, is a real kaleidoscope of what became the renaissance.
It was great fun to participate in the creation of it and Sylvie is a wonderful composer. There’s something about it that just reaches me somehow – it’s difficult to sing but extremely rewarding. I’ve only performed it once, at the premier, and the response was overwhelming. I’m looking forward to having a major orchestra sink their teeth into it and have Noseda, who is a phenomenal conductor, really find the essence of this piece.
You have performed several times with the Israel Philharmonic, is there something that stands out about this orchestra?
Most of my performances with them have been in Israel, which is always a deeply emotional and moving experience and the IPO is just one of the best orchestras in the world. They have a dynamic of independence and collaboration. It sounds banal but some of the rehearsals are so raucous you wonder how the performance will happen but then you get there and there is this unbelievable musicality and expression.
I’ve become quite good friends with the orchestra over the years. To go on tour in Israel with them is a special experience. The first time I went was in ’89. It was the time of the first gulf war and people were cancelling and I said ‘over my dead body.’ It was in December and I was doing Mahler transcriptions, it was my first time in Israel, but from that moment forward it’s been like family with them.
You’ve accomplished a tremendous amount; are there any big bucket list items left?
My bucket list involves places I’d like to see and maybe things I’d like to take some time off and go do – silly things, like play in golf tournaments. Then there are places on the planet I’d like to see, like Machu Picchu.
As for my career and artistic life – I cannot live long enough to sing everything I’d like to. I’m sure I will sing new pieces and rediscover new things. I’m extremely grateful to composers who have written works for me. It’s a very exciting time, I love being part of new and modern operas. There’s a new frontier there that we should embrace. I’ve been so fortunate in the various experiences I’ve been invited to, since you can’t hire yourself. I’ve been trusted by a lot of people and I’m grateful.
What do you like to listen to when not performing or rehearsing?
My musical tastes are very eclectic. I probably listen to less vocal music than you’d think, though I confess to being a country western and bluegrass fan. But probably my real passion is jazz and the great musicians of the day like Herbie Hancock, they complete the circle of the great classical musicians, and there’s a phenomenal tonal language they’re tapping into.
If you weren’t a musician what career would you want to have?
I really don’t know. In some ways my talents sought me out and put me where I am. I’m sure that was the right thing to do. I don’t know whether I would have been a good lawyer. I was fascinated by diplomatic studies, that was what I was studying in college, but I was never really headed for business or corporate work. I probably would have been the director of humanities in some small town. If I was lucky I would have been a pro-golfer.
Below, watch Thomas Hampson sing a selection from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt