A voice to remember
An Irishwoman’s Diary: Why Thomas Hampson is more than a great American baritone
‘Whether singing in German, Italian, French, Hebrew or English, in various idioms and styles there is an individual eloquence about Thomas Hampson; he has presence, poise and empathy. He brings extraordinary tenderness to Schubert lieder, and to Mahler; power to Wagner, charm to Mozart and playful gusto to Figaro’s Largo al factotum in Rossini’s Barber of Seville’
One of the most beautiful things in the world is about to arrive in Ireland on Wednesday: it is as wondrous as it is vibrant and glorious as well as being remarkably versatile. It is the singular voice of the great American lyric baritone Thomas Hampson, who will perform works by Brahms and Schubert as well as Schönberg, Wolf and Barber’s Dover Beach with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta at the National Concert Hall as part of his current 12-concert European tour.
Hampson is internationally revered as an inspired interpreter of the German romantic repertoire and is a Mahler specialist; he is also a tireless ambassador of the 19th-century American parlour song. He sings the much-loved tunes of Stephen Foster (1826-1864), America’s Thomas Moore, as they were intended to be performed, with warmth and longing: favourites such Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, the majestic Hard Times Come Again No More and Beautiful Dreamer, which was published after Foster’s early death at 37.
Hampson who was born in Elkhart, Indiana in June, 1955 and grew up in Spokane, Washington, is, for all the intimacy of his tone as a lieder specialist and recitalist, also one of the world’s leading opera singers. Since making his debut at the famous New York Metropolitan Opera House in 1986 performing the role of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, he has sung most of the major title operatic roles such as Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, William Tell and Verdi’s Macbeth. Another Verdi hallmark performance was his Iago in Otello. In all, his repertoire includes 80 operatic roles. Interviewers who take pleasure in informing Hampson that opera is elite and rarefied are always made eat their words in the nicest possible way as he concedes that the form may inhabit a complex environment. He then argues most convincingly that it is very much art for the people as the global broadcasts, Live From the Met, have overwhelmingly proven.
What makes a great singer? Along with a marvellous voice, there are other elements, intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness and instinct all of which Hampson had been graced in abundance, along with one of the most splendid qualities a human could have: natural curiosity. His musical interests are varied. He believes in placing a work within its cultural context. For him this is often a literary one. Poetry is one of his enduring passions and he has said that poetry set to music is a wonderful art form – “and it is also informative”. That gives a further insight into Hampson’s art – he is intensely cerebral yet balances his intellect with emotion, humour and humility. Anyone on the lookout for a great American, need look no further. Hampson has, of course, given hugely to the cultural life of the world but he has been particularly generous to his native land.
It was Thomas Hampson who first performed the role of Rick Rescorla, in the Christopher Theofanidis opera. Rescorla, the then security director of Morgan Stanley and also a Vietnam war veteran, was one of the many heroes of 9/11 whose bravery saved many lives that day, although he lost his own. Hampson was in New York on 9/11, rehearsing at the Met when the terrorist attack struck. As an artist Hampson is very aware that much of the work he performs belongs to the European cultural tradition, it seems to heighten his sense of being an American and also of being just another human.
He is an educationalist, as his various projects suggest and he has remarked that if and when he retires from performing he is more likely be managing a school than an opera house. His Hampsong Foundation devoted to intercultural understanding explores the depth and meaning singing has in life. “In fact, should our civilisation, all of our culture be destroyed and taken from us,” he points out, “It would be singing, this most personal and natural form of musical expression, that would first reappear.”
Whether singing in German, Italian, French, Hebrew or English, in various idioms and styles there is an individual eloquence about Thomas Hampson; he has presence, poise and empathy. He brings extraordinary tenderness to Schubert lieder, and to Mahler; power to Wagner, charm to Mozart and playful gusto to Figaro’s Largo al factotum in Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Wednesday’s programme centres on the haunting, reflective and emotional aspects of his voice. Inducted this year into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his commitment to the rich repertoire of song, Thomas Hampson opera singer, recitalist, recording artist and ambassador of American song undoubtedly brings genius to his art and with it, warmth and humanity. And therein rests the defining magic of one of the world’s finest singers. See http://tinyurl.com/plo4az6
Thomas Hampson, baritone; Amsterdam Sinfonietta perform at the National Concert Hall on Wednesday at 8pm.