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.

hampsonThis 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 topics.

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 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is there any time at all when you stop learning about music?

Thomas Hampson:    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 material?

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 piece?

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?

TH:    That 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 Daniel Barenboim.]

BD:    So it doesn’t mean that it necessarily wasn’t there the first time?

TH:    Exactly.

BD:    You’re 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.

BD:    Without 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.

BD:    Will this change from performance to performance, or perhaps from production to production?

hampsonTH:    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 singing.

BD:    Is the spectacle irrelevant even if it draws them in?

TH:    Singing 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, sometimes.

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 activities?

TH:    Very carefully!  [Laughs]

BD:    I’m making assumptions.  Are they very different for you?


TH:    Not 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.

hampsonBD:    That’s the wordconsumption!

TH:    It is consumptive.  It is!  But you hear the same arguments from the visual arts and from people writing books.

BD:    Perhaps 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 Müllerinrather 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!

TH:    Well, 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 placewhich is always the point of departurefrom the historical and literary perspective.

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.

TH:    America 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 interests.


See my Interviews with Kiri Te Kanawa, Neil Rosenshein, and Sir Charles Mackerras.

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?

TH:    There’s 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.

hampsonBD:    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 be.  [Laughs]

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 great conductors. 

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.

TH:    Yes, 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...

BD:    He probably has no time for it!

TH:    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.

TH:    Yes!  [Laughs]

BD:    Another time when you come back we’ll talk about roles and recordings and things like that.

TH:    Great!  Love to.

BD:    Thank you so much.

TH:    It’s been a pleasure.

A few more of the many recordings by Thomas Hampson, selected
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 Johnson, Erik Halfvarson, Jerrry Hadley, and Kurt Masur.


See my Interviews with José van Dam, Janine Reiss, and Michel Plasson.


See my Interviews with Susan Graham, and Antonio Pappano.


See my Interview with June Anderson.


See my Interviews with Barbara Bonney, and Robert Shaw.


See my Interivews with Neeme Jarvi, Paul Groves, and Michael Tilson Thomas.


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 Horne, Kathleen Kuhlmann, and Rockwell Blake.

© 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 website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as 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 like 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.