Baritone Thomas Hampson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
It is always informative to look back on a great career and see “whence
it sprang.” Thomas Hampson is certainly a
well-regarded artist in his chosen field, and that field is quite
expansive. It contains opera, song literature and orchestral
concerts, as well as lighter fare. He is here, he is established,
his reputation is secure and his recorded legacy is large.
This conversation took place in Chicago
in September of 1992, when he was in town to open the season of the
Chicago Symphony with performances and recording of the Deutsches Requiem of Brahms.
He was already on his way to becoming an artist of the first rank, but
so many triumphs still lay ahead. Now, as this is being posted to
my website in 2016, we know the full extent of his achievements, and
can still look forward to still more as his career moves along.
Even at such a youthful age, he spoke with assurance and candor, and a
firm knowledge of his own place in the ongoing history of music.
Remaining his charming self throughout, we managed to discuss some ‘heavy’
After a rehearsal, we met in the music library office downstairs at
Orchestra Hall, and while settling in for the conversation we were
chatting about having so much material to learn . . . . . . . . .
Is there any time at all when you stop learning about music?
Oh, I hope not. I hope not, no. Learning is a natural
process of life. It’s fascinating. It’s one of the reasons
why musicians live such energetic lives. We all have our problems
and so forth, but a musician, an artist, is essentially always
curious. That’s the biggest part of being an artist — being
curious about why things were written; in psychological terms, why it
exists, why we exist, why we even want to learn. Why are we
curious? Why do we want to make music? It’s always the
“why,” more than the “how,” that I think is fascinating.
BD: You’re at
the point of your career where some roles are repeated, and quite a bit
of material is new. Do you find it more exciting now to learn new
TH: I don’t
feel like I’ve ever not learned new material, but that’s probably
because of my curiosity. I’m rather restless about old
material. There are some things that I certainly like to keep
performing, and some songs that I think are just wonderful. I
love recreating those moments again and again as I get older, as
different aspects impact my prism of me. What’s coming through me
is perhaps different, but that’s a selfish way to look at it. It
doesn’t have much to do with me, really. But learning new things
is just somehow part of the process. It doesn’t get any easier, I
can tell you that! [Laughs]
BD: When you
come back to a role that you’ve sung, can you learn it again as a new
TH: I try
to. It depends on the circumstance a lot. If it’s really
sat for a while and I haven’t been at it, then I really do try.
In fact, in some extreme cases I even bought a new score and just
started all over, especially if it’s something I learned very, very
early on. I find I’ve done that more with song material than I
have with opera material because of the worth of the editions.
For one thing, I couldn’t afford finer editions, perhaps the cleaner
editions, and also when I was learning a lot of songs and going through
the repertoire, some of the editions simply weren’t available.
The research hadn’t been done. But I do try to relearn things
fresh. On the other hand, it’s also nice to already have that
bedrock there so you can go on farther. You can perhaps develop
more of the subtext around it.
BD: As things
are familiar, then you plumb greater depths in each one?
seems to be an automatic answer, but it seems to me that if you say
that, then it precludes the idea that you’ve plumbed greater depths the
first time you looked at it, and I don’t think that’s true.
Perhaps the depth may remain the same, but you may be more aware of the
depth than you were the first time. You’re always aware of
something else. I’m sure if you asked Barenboim how he felt about
looking at the Deutsches Requiem
again, he would say, “I found...” Great people always find
something new. Again, that’s the great passion of curiosity with
musicians. [See my Interviews with
BD: So it
doesn’t mean that it necessarily wasn’t there the first time?
just bringing it out and highlighting it?
TH: It might
actually be something that you knew the first time and you brought it
out the first time, but you bring it out differently or you see it
differently. Sometimes the color red is extremely vivid.
It’s like the changing of a landscape. Sometimes the light is
just different. It’s wonderful.
mentioning specific names, are there, perhaps, some pieces that you
feel you’ve gotten everything you can get out of, and you’re not going
to come back to them?
TH: I’ve been
criticized about that, because I do think that it is possible to say,
“We know that piece. We know what it’s about. We know why
it was written. We know the ins and outs, and whys and
wherefores.” Then the challenge becomes to keep your hands off of
it and just do it and let it breathe, which seems simplistic, because
that should be the final approach of all of music-making. Even ‘music-making’
is sort of a funny term if you think about it. I don’t really
believe in ‘making’, but
it’s sort of re-making, re-giving, exploring existing ideas. It
always has to be a spontaneous gesture, the prevalent awareness of the
forest and never the preoccupation with the trees. A very good
case in point is working on this piece again. How often have I
sung the Deutsches Requiem?
Daniel and I were going through it, and the phrases were working
fine. It was all fine. It’s intense, and I know what it’s
for and he knows what it’s for. Then he said to me, “Find the
word in the phrase that you want to underline, and leave the other ones
less un-underlined. You can’t underline everything because then
nothing’s underlined.” What he said just stopped me, and he’s
absolutely right. It was a small thing to fix. As
musicians, when looking at pieces again and again we can start
thinking, “Last time I underlined A, B, C, and F, so this time I’ll got
back and get A, B, C, F, and E.” Then you’re left alone.
Will this change from performance to performance, or perhaps from
production to production?
TH: Probably more
production to production, although each performance has its own
life. I think it should, anyway. It’s not just a matter of
learning the format for this set of performances. I would like to
believe that it is always the struggle, or the passion, a liberation to
spontaneity, maybe. I hate the idea of doing something in music
in terms of manipulating it, or thinking I’m going to do this piece
this way, getting my hands on it, rolling my sleeves up on it.
There is a place in the preparation of the work that’s like that in the
detailed sensitivity with which an artist has to look at music. I
believe in that, and in fact I love that process, but it seems to me in
the re-giving, in the — I don’t particularly like the word ‘performance’
but there’s no other word — it seems to me that you have to get rid of
ideas of ‘doing’ and ‘making’,
and it has to be more a point of being and existing. That’s
essentially what a composer was trying to do. He wasn’t trying to
make a musical piece as much as he was trying to create a synthesis of
different thoughts and ideas in a musical moment, which then could
re-live and re-live and re-live.
BD: At what
point in this whole process comes the sharing with the audience?
TH: The idea
of sharing with the audience is oftentimes too articulated, as it’s
something we are handing to the audience from the stage in practically
every genre, whether it’s Lieder
or opera or concerts. I prefer to think of the state of being of
singing, where it closes a chain to the audience. In other words
it becomes a circular giving and re-giving. The audience is not
really so important about what I believe, for instance, Dichterliebe to mean. What is
important is recreating Dichterliebe
in an environment, in a circumstance, in a state of being that the
audience can understand. They can decide for themselves what Dichterliebe is. I don’t
believe much in handing people interpretations. I don’t
particularly like the idea of interpretation.
BD: Do you
feed off the audience every night?
TH: Oh, I
think so. Yes, absolutely. One of the psychological
dimensions of late 20th century music-making that needs to be more
discussed is the audience participation, just simply spiritually.
If you go into a movie theater, you’re drawn into something that’s
rather dark, and you’re observing something go by. But you can’t
use that kind of passive awareness in a live concert situation.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why orchestral music seems to be
predominantly more popular than vocal music is in terms of
concert-going. Vocal music then becomes popular because of the
spectacle involved, and for me, that’s the more irrelevant part of
BD: Is the
spectacle irrelevant even if it draws them in?
as a circus of high, loud notes and famous personalities and TV people
that you’ve seen or records that you’ve seen in racks is
irrelevant. That is not why music exists. We are the
servants of music, and not the other way around. I feel very
strongly about that. I think we’ve gotten kind of off the track,
BD: Let me
get you to answer your own question. Why does music exist?
TH: Why do we
exist? Music is part of existence. I don’t think it’s an
intangible third-person experience that we accumulate as human
beings. It is a natural instinct to communicate, therefore it
falls under that line into communication. It is also a natural
instinct of human beings to reflect and to ponder the why of their
existence. That is essentially what separates us from animals
— being able to even contemplate that — and
as long as we are able to do that, or want to do that, then obviously
music is very much a part of that.
BD: So we
should not try to equate our music with the music of the dolphins or
the whales, or any other living things?
TH: A dolphin
cannot contemplate its existence, and I see music as a part of the
natural tendencies of human beings to be awake. We have a musical
thought, whether we are making music or re-hearing music or whistling
or speaking or hearing musical sounds. Music is something very
basic, and in the same way it can become into some animals —
like the music of dolphins, which I find fascinating, or the
music of whales or other natural animal sounds. We are part of
the animal kingdom, and that’s one of the common denominators to the
animal kingdom that I think is fascinating. But humans are able
to reflect on that. “I am going to make music now, versus doing
something else.” We also are cognizant of why we are doing this,
which is more peculiar to the Homo Sapiens than it is to the dolphin or
the cow. [Both chuckle] This is pretty heavy weather for a
Chicago afternoon! [Both laugh again]
BD: You sing
opera and orchestral concerts and Liederabend.
How do you divide your career between those three very different
making assumptions. Are they very different for you?
really. The intent is different. I do not subscribe to the
modern day thought that there are opera singers, and Lieder singers, and concert
singers. If it’s not ridiculous, it’s certainly a perversion of
what basic singing is all about. It didn’t used to be like
that. My great idols in life included Lotte Lehmann, Heinrich
Schlusnus, Gerhard Huesch and others. It wasn’t always
differentiated. One sings different kinds of music with a
different intent, and whether one can have the flexibility of
understanding different psychologies, and therefore different intents
of music making, that’s individual to each artist. But to make it
into some sort of marketing category, or even operatic category, or
just a basic description, I find somehow limiting to the singing
soul. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t mean to get
so metaphysical all the time, but it irritates me on a very basic
level. I just don’t agree with it. I think it’s
nonsense. If opera singers would sing more songs — and
inevitably, if you talk to anybody who does — they
would find a richer experience in exploring the opera repertoire, and
vice versa. The Lieder
repertoire should not be necessarily diminutive of the grand operatic
experience. It’s a different formula. Again, it has a
different intent, a different forum, but it’s still the landscape of
the human condition.
BD: Can Lieder evenings ever make a real
comeback, a solid comeback?
TH: On one
level they don’t have to make a comeback. They may not be as
prevalent, but the evenings that are there are doing just fine.
We’re really walking on thin ice here, but for the solo performance,
the Lieder evenings, the song
evenings the artists themselves need to be more imaginative in terms of
repertoire. The critical establishment needs to be more aware of
what the singing history is all about, both in terms of the physical
production of singing, as well as the intent of narrating and singing
songs to people. That’s very often criticized. I’ve tried
very hard to stay within the norm of repertoire, but at the same time
expand the edges a bit. Not even expand the edges... that sounds
too self-aggrandizing. What I mean is just simply singing things
that haven’t been sung for a while because I think they’re very
good. And for the most part it seems to be accepted, although you
do hear the odd comment, “With his abilities, why does he mess around
with this sort of peripheral stuff? Where’s his Winterreise? Where’s his Schöne Müllerin?”
Well, it’s coming. That’ll be fine, but there’s more to life than
that. Besides that, it seems to be as soon as I do that, it’ll
be, “Okay, that was great, and that was
Hampson’s,” and I might even stay on a couple of
charts for three or four, five, six, seven weeks. Then they will
say, “Well, who’s behind him? Who’s also doing it? Why
don’t we have him do it, or her do it, or this do it, or that do
it?” As long as that seems to be the atmosphere of celebrity and
consumption, then it’ll always be a problem as to how to motivate
people to come into an auditorium and reflect on different aspects of
the human soul through music.
BD: That’s the word
TH: It is
consumptive. It is! But you hear the same arguments from
the visual arts and from people writing books.
it is because you started in the big Mozart roles and a few of the
other large things that they expect you to do the same thing with the Lieder — Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin
— rather than the smaller songs. If you had started
with smaller roles or secondary roles or odd roles, perhaps they would
have a different expectation.
TH: Maybe so;
I don’t know. For me, Winterreise
is bigger than any role I have yet to date sung. For me, Winterreise has such enormous
consequences of life that I haven’t felt prepared to really grapple it.
BD: And of
course, 75 minutes of straight singing is nothing to be sniffed at!
exactly. The physical demand is keen, but that’s less my
concern. If your psychological demand is in line, it transcends
the physical necessity of any repertoire. That’s why a lot of
people feel so completely exhausted after a performance, and they’re
not necessarily aware of it during the performance. You’re being
drawn by something quite clearly not physical.
BD: In songs
or operatic roles or concert literature, how do you decide which you
will sing and which you will put off until later, and which you will
not ever sing?
TH: That’s a
very difficult process. Sometimes it presents itself just because
of the environment — what you’re being asked to
sing, for one thing.
BD: But you
may say yes or no?
TH: That is
correct, but for me, the point of departure for operatic repertoire is
whether I can understand the character more than whether I can
physically sing the role. Then, I must say, I am very aware of
what circumstances that particular opera performance or production is
going to be created — who is producing, under
what intent, and who is conducting also under what intent. In the
world of opera today, there is a tremendous demand for the vocal,
physical, and image side of a singer to somehow be in accordance with
itself. I’m a young man, so I read very young from the
stage. With all the good will in the world, and all the makeup
and beards, there’s only so far you’re going to stretch that dimension,
regardless of my understanding of the role and regardless of my
physical ability and physical sound to do the role. You have to
respect that limitation even though it’s dictated far out of proportion
today than it should be. We could have some very interesting
vocal experiments, to have people with the right intent sing more
lyrically and examine some of this repertoire that’s been screamed at
us for the last fifteen to thirty-five years. I’m really tired of
being yelled at by people... and I’m guilty of it as well! The
whole decibel environment of opera has reached its limit. Each
work needs to come back and be treated for why the piece was written in
the first place — which is always the point of
departure — from the historical and literary
BD: Of course
part of that is the result of the concert halls. Works were
written for smaller halls, and now we’re in big barns.
has its own problems in its tradition, certainly. We have big,
big houses here.
BD: Do you
adjust your voice technically for the size of the house?
TH: You have
to, but the size of the house is sometimes irrelevant if the acoustic
is correct. Most houses want to be sung to and not yelled at,
anyway. More to the point is the ensemble environment between you
and the orchestra and the conductor in any given house, which it’s
going to be understood not just heard. We can hear and see things
without necessarily making changes, and it becomes a property of
observation more than a property of participation. Opera, for me,
is a participatory art form. To sit in an enormous house and hear
somebody singing, you might even hear the words but you’re not actually
participating in that thought process of that character — which
is why the music was written in the first place. All of that
seems to be a negation of the art form. We need to back up and
have a look at that. I really feel very strongly about that,
therefore all of these considerations go along... whether I’m looking
at an Onegin this year, or
whether it should have been three years ago, or a Posa for the first
time this year versus probably being able to sing it somewhere else
three or four or five years ago. Who knows, but you have to time
all of those things. The sorting out of my repertoire has more to
do with just simply physically how much time I have to study and
prepare, and balancing all my different interests. I’m consumed
in my passion for music, and I have a lot of different musical
BD: Do you
make sure you have enough open dates to just rest the voice?
TH: That is
probably the biggest criticism that can be leveled against me. If
I confess to being a workaholic, that sounds almost sort of neat, and I
need to be honest about that. I probably sing too much and I
probably work too much. It’s not easy for me to structure that
differently, but I do need to do that. Most of the publics who
know me have a hard time understanding when I say that because they
only see me sporadically in any given country or place. There’s
no one place that I’m ever at, and that’s part of the problem. I
probably need to be more focused about that.
BD: Do you
like being a wandering minstrel?
just so many different things that interest me. I couldn’t
possibly not sing in Germany, or Italy, or Austria, certainly, as well
as not sing in America. There’s different places in America;
there’s a lot of places I would like to sing in America that I haven’t
been to — different towns and different
areas. I’ve been through most of America, both as a kid and now
as a working professional. The traveling gets very
tiresome. I’m a good, solid ten and half months of the year on
the road, and that’s not saying that the month and a half is at
home. It’s two days here and four days there. I’m young so
I’m holding up, but in some ways it’s a bit like the performance of a
very strenuous role. I’m so motivated by my real love of music
and singing and different kinds of music, that oftentimes I am not
aware of the fact that I haven’t actually been home for four
months. The only reason I really know that is because I haven’t
been in my library. But you have to find the compromises.
You have to get control of it. I’m trying to get more focused.
BD: Despite all of
that, is singing fun?
TH: Yes, it
is. Singing is physically a lot of work, but the fun... ‘fun’
is a funny word because fun for me is something that is fulfilling and
rewarding, like playing a really good game of golf or having a great
game of tennis, or feeling like you’re starting to understand a piece
of music, or perhaps even catching on to a clever moment that the
composer stuck in there as his own little joke on you. Or fun can
be simply discovering a poem or a piece of music that somehow ignites a
spiritual and harmonic response in you as a human being. Those
things are fun for me. Fun is somehow always put together with
the notion of hobby, and I don’t think artists have hobbies; their life
is a hobby. Everything has to do with the re-giving, the
recreation of music; this means everything physically,
entertainment-wise, the books you collect, what you read,
everything. Everything has to do with it because being an artist
is one of the highest callings as a human being.
BD: It sounds
like you really are focused.
TH: On that I
am focused. I think so... I would hope so. I try to
BD: Are you
coming back to Chicago?
TH: Oh, I
hope so, many, many times. Yes, I’m coming back in the winter of
’95 for The Barber of Seville
at Lyric, and I’m quite sure that Barenboim and I will be working in
different mediums here together. I really like what Barenboim’s
doing with this piece... and talk about the evolution of an artist,
he’s the perfect example. When he started conducting, everybody
was saying, “Danny, what are you doing??? Just play the piano and
leave us alone!” I think he’s turning into one of the really
BD: We’ve had
him as a guest conductor for over twenty years, and he has done well
and made records for a long time.
exactly. You took a risk on him a long time ago. He’s one
of the few people today that I would really truly call genius. I
do believe that he is genius. He’s one of the few truly composite
musicians. There’s very little about the structure of music, the
re-giving of music in different mediums that he doesn’t know. In
fact, I don’t know any facet that he doesn’t understand. I’m
surprised he doesn’t actually compose. Maybe he does...
probably has no time for it!
Exactly. He’s so busy. But I think he’s really
wonderful. We’re going to be doing something good together.
We start this fall doing Schwanengesang
in Berlin. We were talking last night, and we definitely would
like to do a recital here in Chicago. So I’m sure that we will,
but again, his time is so limited.
BD: [With a
helpful nudge] Book him ten years in advance and hope that he can
keep the date.
Another time when you come back we’ll talk about roles and recordings
and things like that.
Great! Love to.
BD: Thank you
TH: It’s been
A few more of the many recordings by Thomas
for their inclusion of some of
my other interview guests.
See my Interviews with Felicity Lott and John Aler.
See my Interviews with Anthony Rolfe
Hadley, and Kurt
See my Interviews with José
van Dam, Janine
Reiss, and Michel
See my Interviews with Susan
Graham, and Antonio
See my Interview with June Anderson.
See my Interviews with Barbara
Bonney, and Robert
See my Interivews with Neeme
Groves, and Michael
See my Interviews with Paul Bowles, Ned Rorem, and Ernst Bacon.
See my Interviews with Tatiana Troyanos,
and Thomas Moser.
See my Interviews with Marilyn
Kuhlmann, and Rockwell
© 1992 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on
September 14, 1992. Portions were broadcast on WNIB a week later,
and again in 1992, 1994, 1995 and 2000.
A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.