Operagasm Exclusive: Ameritone, Thomas Hampson!
One of our most exciting moments of 2011 — and Operagasm history — was talking with the ravishing Thomas Hampson! Take a moment to reminisce with us and check out our exclusive Valentine’s Day interview with Thomas Handsome…. er, I mean Hampson!
by Melissa Wimbish
Last week, on a Wednesday morning, I must have paced approximately two miles around my apartment anticipating this phone call. I rehearsed asking the questions and reminded myself not to say “uhhhh” and then, when I got on the phone, it all went out the window.
MW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. We are so excited to have the opportunity! I know we only have thirty minutes, so I’ll do my best to move things along.
TH: Oh, is it that long?
TH: I’m just kidding. (LOL) It’s my pleasure. I’ve seen your site and…what’s the name of it again?
TH: Ah, yes. (chuckles) That’s very good. It looks like you’re really having some fun with it. It’s nice to see that. Are you getting a lot of traffic?
MW: Yes, we really do…far beyond anything we expected for this first year. It’s a fun project and our readers give us really helpful feedback.
TH: Well, good, I wish you continued success with it.
MW: We appreciate that! … So, the way Operagasm works is we set a theme each month and do our best to adjust our content to fit the theme. This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we decided to go with Love.
MW: So, in honor of that theme, my first question is: What do you love most about your life and career right now?
TH: Well, under the auspices of love, not personal love, what I love right now about what I’m doing is this convergence of my abilities, my experience living with Mahler’s music and being at this fortunate time in my life to reflect on one of the greatest lives in history. Performing from January to June in over fifty countries, singing all of Mahler’s songs with wonderful colleagues is a really special thing.
My family is healthy and doing well which is very, very important to me. We are extremely close and their happiness just means everything to me. I have to say my wife and I are a very fortunate couple – this much travel together is a new thing. At the beginning stages of my career she wasn’t able to travel as much but over the last couple of years the contracts have been for two plane tickets…and that’s a wonderful thing.
MW: (Awwww!) It must be very special for you both to have that time together.
TH: It really is.
MW: (I’m typing furiously.) Next question: A great deal of our readers range from young students to emerging professionals who are currently auditioning for every Young Artist Program that will hear them. For many, it can be a very discouraging experience. Did you apply for a lot of these types of programs as a young singer? Was it a discouraging experience for you?
TH: Yes, and in fact the programs now are much more extended, developed and useful than when I started out seventy-five years ago.
MW: Oh! (LOL! Seventy-five years. How did I not catch that faster?! Doh!)
TH: (Laughing, likely at my slowness.) These programs nowadays offer a really solid training ground – there weren’t that many of these programs when I was starting out. Today, there seem to be much more interesting options. It’s a wonderful network.
What I did at that early stage was to compete as much as I could in order to accumulate money to do more competing and traveling. When I didn’t get accepted into the young artist programs, I quickly sort of bounced to “Plan B.” Although…maybe it was really “Plan A.” Anyhow, there was always this idea of European theaters in the back of my mind. For one of the competitions that I had done, there happened to be an agent who worked primarily in Germany, so you never know what can come of these competitions sometimes.
I didn’t go to graduate school, I decided to go and get some experience working in Europe. I ended up going over and getting a job…I was able to absorb the professional environment, the culture, the languages…you know, all of those things really interested me. I guess that option isn’t really available so much today. I think some American singers should really consider trying to find a way to get to Europe.
MW: I didn’t realize that you didn’t go to graduate school. That’s so rare to hear in this new generation of singers, but I guess we forget that it’s an option to NOT go to graduate school. What degrees do you hold?
TH: I have a degree in Political Science with an emphasis on Public Administration, which I always thought would come in handy someday. I also have a degree in Voice and Vocal Literature.
MW: Sort of on the same topic of my last question, what advice would you give to young singers who are having trouble staying motivated due to countless rejections and setbacks? It can be very expensive to apply for opportunities and sometimes singers are left with very little to support their singing lessons, rehearsals and travel expenses.
TH: Wow, this question really breaks my heart. It’s a good one though. I know exactly what you mean and I have spent a lot of time working with young college students in this predicament. The advice that I have is useless. The questions that do have to be asked must come from the singers themselves. If you’re working that hard and invested that much, there must be a reason something isn’t happening. What is that reason?
If you have the belief in what you are doing, then you have no choice than to keep trying. If you lack the motivation then you need to be strong enough to make the decision to participate in the musical world without being a professional performer. It’s a completely and totally personal conversation that may need to happen with a close friend or teacher.
I will say that it is life and death out there in this business. It is a BRUTAL industry. (His diction on the word “brutal” was intense.) What are the qualities of an opera singer? “The heart of a butterfly and the being of an elephant.” What’s sad about today is that you need the elephant. I’m deeply concerned about our industry; it is a ruthless grind. It isn’t about young development anymore. It’s about meeting someone else’s artistic agenda. Something really has to change.
MW: How do you think we can do that?
TH: By facing it head-on. It’s a question that needs to be asked by the opera house directors and impresarios. If what we do is not motivated by an intrinsic belief in the greater good than we are no better than some of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood.
MW: Moving on to some of the less depressing things about this field: Spending all of this time with Mahler, have you discovered that he (Mahler) has helped you overcome any technical barriers?
TH: No one has ever asked me that question. That’s very interesting…
I don’t know if he has helped me overcome, but there are few composers that are so musical. His songs are very challenging, big range of expression, big range of dynamics, when he tells you to scream, damn it, scream! (Laughs.) But, it’s all based in a fantastic, musical legato built around the German language. His songs and understanding where they come from have certainly sent me into a different place. The music of Mahler encourages me to sing more musically. By the way, I do think songs should be sung, I like the singing voice. I don’t like this short of “Chatty Cathy” thing we get in Lieder sometimes. I think singing art song is very much like operatic singing. Because Mahler’s songs require legitimately classically trained voices, getting over a barrier or working through problems is not so much an issue, but his songs require attention to the modulation of your singing and letting the emotional technique command your production.
MW: As a recording artist and a regular live performer, do you feel that the expectations for perfection in recording have caused extra pressure in your live performances?
TH: Sometimes. I haven’t so much felt pressure, but I think there are a couple of things to consider on this topic:
People whose primary musical avenue is recorded music can sometimes be confused when they get to the public arena or public concert. It’s such a complicated subject. I believe that the communication of the essence of that song or opera…for it to work in both atmospheres, are two very different things.
I’m happier now with HD because it has given us a new lease on life. I think HD is a much truer electronic snapshot…a more truthful presentation and we’re more likely to get better singing and truer energy. Records can seduce people into a false environment. It might be okay for your car, but that’s not really what we do. The point is to motivate people’s passion to support live concerts. Recording should encourage that live communication of an artist.
I can’t believe you’re typing this fast.
MW: Ha! Well, I guess all the keyboard classes in high school are finally paying off.
TH: I can’t type that fast.
MW: (Now, I realize I should have said something witty and charming like, “Well, I can’t sing the hell out of Mahler!” Instead, I just moved on…) I have a couple of fun questions for you.
MW: This comes from one of our readers who is dying to know: What kind of shampoo do you use?
TH: (So much laughter! I can hear that ringing baritone loud and clear!) I don’t even know how to answer that question. No one has ever asked me that. Well, I’m not sure of the brand, but it is very high quality stuff. I don’t use that sport shampoo or anything like that. I wash my hair every day and tend to use very high quality shampoos…sometimes whatever my wife puts in there. I don’t use a particular brand but it’s very high quality.
MW: You’re around a lot of other very famous people a great deal, but do you ever get star struck when you meet someone you really admire?
TH: Oscar Peterson was one of my musical heroes all my life. I must have seen him live fifteen times. Whenever he played the Blue Note I always came back to New York just to see him. Finally I picked up an LP, I wait in line for him to autograph it and when I get up there, I do exactly what some poor person does to me sometimes: Diarrhea of the mouth. I couldn’t even form words. Every attempt I made at talking was embarrassing. I walked out thinking, “My god what an experience.” (Laughs.)
You’re right; the other thing is when you meet extraordinary personalities. I sang for Bill and Hillary Clinton and that was a lot of fun. I definitely do get star struck. The worst is when I play Pro-Am Golf with really famous golfers, but I won’t name drop. (See, even Thomas Hampson doesn’t practice name-dropping!)
MW: You play golf?
TH: I’ve played golf all my life. I really love the sport, both playing it and watching it. My golf is in a mid-life crisis right now but I’m going to dig it back out! (And, by the way, he’s really good. It’s not just a hobby, people.)
MW: When is the last time you told someone you were a singer and they were like, “REALLY??? Will you sing something?” and they expected you to sing right there and then. How do you deal with those times?
TH: Practically every time I come back to the states and they see that I’ve visited seventeen countries. They ask me if my travel was for business or pleasure and I say “Business” and they say, “What’s your business?” and I say, “I’m an opera singer” and then of course they say, “Will you sing something?” I usually say, “Look, if I gave you a tone, you’d probably have to take a break. Do you want people to look over here?”
MW: (I’m laughing uncontrollably right now. This is the best.)
TH: I try not to show off, but sometimes I’ll give them a few lines. Just depends on when you catch me. One time I was questioned at the airport about being an opera singer and the guy didn’t believe I was from Walla Walla. “Oh, you’re from Walla Walla, huh?” “Yes, I am.” Then he asked, “Okay, well, what’s famous about Walla Walla?” I replied, “Several things, but you’re probably thinking of the onions.” (LOL) I had a good laugh.
Then there’s in the airplane. You always have the inevitable awkward conversation. Most times they’re fascinated with the literature and the detail that is required for each piece. I tell you, a piece of music in an airplane is the most exotic thing these days. Someone could pull out a pornographic magazine and no one would bat an eye, but a musical score is just fascinating apparently. Then they ask, “When you look at the score do you actually hear that?” (Laughs.)
I live in a blessed kind of anonymity as a classical singer. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a movie star. I just get the occasional annoying glance and the I-know-who-you-are-and-I’m-going-to-be-cool-about-it smile. (Laughs.) People are very kind, though. I have never once felt put upon or pestered. I haven’t had anyone come up to me just to yell, “You’re full of shit!” so I consider that a good thing.
MW: Are there any TV shows that you follow religiously? (I was hoping he would say The Office, but I felt like bringing it up would only lead to me embarrassing myself, so I killed that dream.)
TH: Good for you! Nobody ever asks me stuff like that. They all think if I’m not singing I’m sitting around reading a book or something.
I adore Fringe. I don’t consider myself a Sci-fi guy but I really do enjoy that show. I enjoy those forensic-type shows, though I just never got into Gray’s Anatomy.
I like Bones very much….hmmmm, what else? I was very glad to see that Justified has been extended. That show reminds me of my folks’ backgrounds. I think Tim Olyphant is a terrific actor.
Lie to Me was fun for a while. I was sorry to see Numbers go. You know, I tend to like stuff with an intellectual heart to it.
I hardly ever watch TV, but I do enjoy it. I watch the news quite a bit – I’m a news hound.
I’m a Mac guy and a big AppleTV fan.
MW: Awesome. You know, I actually just got my first Mac and I absolutely love it. It has really changed my life as far as productivity is concerned.
TH: Yes, I love my Mac. Apple makes a great computer and it’s also a really great WORLD. Apple finally proved to people that the computer can work for you. The Windows world tends to manipulate you. My family and I are a closer family because of the way it allows us to stay in touch and share things with one another. (He also has an iPad and loves it!)
MW: What composer would you most want to portray in a movie? Beethoven and Mozart are taken so you can’t pick those.
TH: Hmmmm…I’m too tall to be Mahler. (Pause.) Probably Verdi. I know enough about him. His completely complex personality with extremely rough edges was driven by an intense, dangerous perfectionism. He is an overwhelming example of the dark side of human nature, but his release was giving us this beautiful, beautiful music. Getting to show that side of Verdi would be fascinating.
MW: How do you deal with the moments when there is just “too much music to learn?”
TH: (Laughs out loud!!!) You’re never too busy to become incredibly lazy! Wow. (He says “Wow” and I can hear in his voice that he goes through the same things we all do.) When it’s just piled higher and higher and deeper and deeper…sometimes I just go to the movies. (We both laugh.) Then you get into grind mode. The problem with learning too fast is just that you don’t ever do it exactly the way you want to. It’s always nice to come back to those pieces after you’ve crammed them and actually spend the time.
I tend to learn late because sometimes that’s the only option. I try to keep my schedule very sane to avoid that because I have to be realistic about what I can learn. Then there’s memorization. Endless repeating doesn’t help me; I have to know the piece. Just deciding to memorize doesn’t cut it.
MW: It’s somewhat of a relief to hear that even the top dogs deal with that stress!
TH: Oh, sure. I remind myself that even moments before a recital Fischer-Dieskau was always terrified backstage about forgetting his words.
MW: Last question: Any plans for Valentine’s Day?
TH: My wife and I were married after twenty-two years of living together and our anniversary is around this time. We do that really wonderful sort of special, cushy day. (Chuckles.) I’d better come up with something. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it had better be jewelry!
(Photo credit: Dario Acosta)
Operagasm.com is a new media approach to all things opera. Launched on January 1, 2010, Operagasm presents a substantive, cutting edge national perspective to current events, news, reviews, interviews, fashion and editorial contributions regarding opera and classical music. We invite several people to contribute on various topics and past contributors include famed tenor George Shirley, Wolftrap Opera, and Judith Anne Still, daughter of William Grant Still, the prolific African American composer.
American baritone 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. He has performed in all of the world’s most important concert halls and opera houses with many of today’s most renowned singers, pianists, conductors, and orchestras. 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, 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.
A significant part of Hampson’s 2010-2011 season is dedicated to performances celebrating the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death. Recognized as today’s leading interpreter of the Austrian composer’s songs, he began the worldwide celebrations on July 7, 2010 – Mahler’s 150th birthday – in Kaliste, Czech Republic, with a recital from the composer’s birth house, streamed live on medici.tv, as well as an internationally televised orchestral concert, available on DVD. Throughout the season he performs Mahler in many of the world’s musical capitals with orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the NDR Sinfonieorchester, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and the Czech Philharmonic with conductors such as Alan Gilbert, Manfred Honeck, Mariss Jansons, Philippe Jordan and Antonio Pappano. He also features the composer’s songs in a series of recitals in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Vienna, Zurich, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Madrid, and Oslo, and presents the complete songs as “Mahler Artist-in-Residence” at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. His new recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the Wiener Virtuosen – a conductor-less ensemble comprised of the principal players of the Vienna Philharmonic – will appear on Deutsche Grammophon in January 2011.