Soldier of Song: An interview with Thomas Hampson

Soldier of Song: An interview with Thomas Hampson – Athens , May 2011 (BM)

Thomas Hampson © Dario Acosta

In reply to what is not one of his favorite questions, Thomas Hampson likes to say that his favorite role is always the one he happens to be singing. Right now he is keen to discuss his part in Heart of a Soldier , due to premiere in San Francisco on September 10th, 2011, the eve of the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, the opera is based on the book of the same title by James B. Stewart recounting the real-life story of Rick Rescorla, who used his commanding presence and booming voice to literally sing his colleagues down the smoke-filled stairs of the twin towers before they collapsed, successfully evacuating thousands of colleagues, only to make the ultimate sacrifice by going back in to look for stragglers .
What motivated you to sign on for this new project, had you read the book?

To be honest, I signed on even before I had read it (but I have now and it’s a terrific book, a real page-turner that’s hard to put down once you’ve started it!) because I was drawn to the idea for two reasons: first of all because it prompts us to think about what the world is like post 9-11, ten years on, and secondly because it tells a moving personal story. Not to mention that I am passionately interested in new music, so there’s a third reason, too. The role is a great challenge and I feel honored – and very motivated – to meet it. When reading the book, the enormous personal integrity of the main character literally jumped off the pages at me; this identity forged by a host of experiences, including the Vietnam War, was very captivating indeed.

Even so, don’t you think that the title is bound to make this sound like a ‘homeland security’ opera to some?

Not if they take a closer look, because the opera is not making a political statement, it is telling the personal story of a hero, or in other words, the story of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things under exceptional circumstances. Most people with such a brave fate don’t live to tell their own story, and it is only seldom that others tell it for them. So what this opera does is narrate the story of one heroic individual in the framework of a painfully contemporary act of aggression. It is not about politics, nor does it express an opinion about Islam or reflect any political ideology whatsoever. Yes, it is connected to a tragic loss of lives that most Americans still feel very strongly about, but that does not make it a political statement.

What can you tell us about the composer, Christopher Theofanidis?

He’s Greek (said with a smile, since we are talking over coffee at the Athens Hilton enjoying a spectacular view of the Acropolis), or an American-born Greek to be more accurate, and this is his first full-scale opera. I admire his music very much. He has written several oratorios, or you might call them musical dramas, which I think very highly of, and which have proven him to be a powerful narrator, drawing audiences who would not normally be interested in opera. The music for Heart of a Soldier is swift and rhythmic and very accessible, and of course that’s what everybody wants to hear, isn’t it? I say this because contemporary music still hasn’t truly arrived with mainstream audiences in the US, although new concepts in terms of harmony and melody have been introduced steadily over the past 15 to 20 years. The same is true of the UK, of course. As artists, it is our duty to support these advances.

To me you are the DFD of American Song, in that you’ve defied European prejudice about America being a country without culture, not only by making the German repertoire your own but also by reviving and unearthing countless American songs, which are such an important part of the United States’ cultural heritage. How did you start out on this journey?

I believe that what inspired Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and those who made music with him was a passion for their own stories and the desire to tell them, and I can relate to that. I love German literature, and the way I see it, it is a part of everybody’s story. What I am trying to emphasize in my work with American song is that it’s not really helpful to ask questions like “who is our Schubert?” or “who is our Heine?”. There is so much tremendous American art for us to embrace, not just names that usually come to mind to compare artists between Europe and America when, for instance, American poetry is mentioned.

Turning to the composers, there is the great and obtuse Charles Ives, and the giant of melodic inspiration Cole Porter. And because there is so much to learn, I think you have to look at individual periods separately. If you compare the United States of 1840-1870 to what the country was like only a few generations later in 1880-1920, it’s almost as if we are talking about two different countries. The two defy comparison. I believe it is immensely important to have a closer look at where we come from and how our origins have been expressed in art, because it frees us of clichés.

It’s been said that at your “Song of America” recitals you convey the idea of an oral tradition that it is your mission to pass on – and you’ve always been interested in the link between poetry and music

Poets are the identifiers of who we are in a specific timeframe, and “identifier” is something of a key word to me. I have never tried to define American song. Rather, I am interested in the marriage of poetry and music as an answer to memory, in the form of what is referred to as ‘art song’ – or ‘classic song’ or ‘concert song,’ which I prefer to say since too many people still think art is bound to be something difficult and inaccessible to them. The network I’ve built with the “Song of America” project is based on concentric circles, providing a wealth of information about American poets and composers via an interactive database, It allows you to find out who E.A. Robinson was, for instance; Teddy Roosevelt discovered him! Or the post-Romantic composer Amy Beach; many of her peers felt threatened by her because she was self-taught and because she was a woman, and her work was often criticized as being “too romantic” (apropos clichés) or “terribly like Brahms”, as a critic once wrote (and one wonders what exactly is wrong with that…). But I have to say that I am proud even of many “mediocre” artistic undertakings that have come out of the United States. Certainly, all in all, there is more to celebrate than not to celebrate when looking at the American cultural heritage.

How are your American song recitals received outside the US?

The initial Salzburg concerts in 2001 were a huge success, and so have been many others since. I’m sure one reason for this is that America is still a fascinating concept to many Europeans. Don’t forget that Schubert died with Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales on his nightstand, dreaming of going to America. That feeling is still alive today to a certain extent. I may even be back to do an American song recital here in Greece – interest has been expressed.

Bringing together people from different countries is also one of the ideas behind the Mahler Youth Orchestra, with whom you performed here in Athens. What an honor for them to have you back (after the enormously successful South America Tour you did together in 2007).

Well, it’s mutual, and I am big on education. I’m due to become a member of the Advisory Board of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and am already on the Board of Trustees at the Manhattan School of Music. Also, I’ve just finished a series of master classes at the Heidelberger Frühling Music Festival in Germany, where I am artistic director of the newly founded Heidelberg Lied Academy.

It’s important to remember that the arts and humanities are not a “hobby” or “luxury”. They are the diary and blueprint of our society. This is why the dismantling of our education system is bound to lead us into ruin. We can’t leave it up to the entertainment industry to represent the arts.

What was it like to perform here in Athens? Greek audiences are quite fond of opera, but they don’t exactly flock to song recitals, which are generally considered to be ‘challenging’ (the program included songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, of which Hampson has just completed a new recording for Deutsche Grammophon, Das Lied von the Erde, and Mahler’s 1st and 10th symphony) , and they are also notoriously noisy. And I read your piece about coughing at concerts in the German newspaper Die Zeit … The last time the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th was performed here, the conductor broke off after the first few minutes, and almost no one realized because there had been so much strident coughing. Most everyone thought the violas had lost their place in the score…

The concerts weren’t sold out, but I didn’t mind at all, since in general that means that those who are there really want to be there… I was quite surprised to see that very few people were following the song texts in the program during the performance. They were really focusing on what was happening on stage, and I like that. I’m not a satirist, but in that article you mention I poked fun at how people always seem to choose the softest passages when they need to cough the loudest. This was no particular problem in Athens, but seriously: no one should underestimate the impact of a cough! Being in Athens again has certainly been a memorable experience. It brings to mind Thomas Cole’s monumental painting The Titan’s Goblet , which to me points to the impact of the Greek struggle for liberation on US philosophy. Athens and Jerusalem are the bedrocks of that philosophy, not only in terms of religion.

You’ve achieved so much already – where do you go from here?

About five years ago I made a decision to enjoy my career more. It’s a privilege to be an artist who is employed, but from now on I’m no longer hirable, only engagable! What I’m doing at any given point in time is going to be exactly what I want to do, whether it’s Mahler or Massenet… And I’ll certainly keep on going places, since travel is a big part of the business I’m in. Despite all the hassle of airports, security checks, taxis, traffic and hotels, travel is still a glorious opportunity to get to know new and fascinating, even exotic, places – pretty good for a person who grew up in Spokane, Washington!

Not only does he know where he is going, he also knows where he comes from – perhaps the most important thing of all.

“I hope he wasn’t too formidable – or even too charming?” asked my editor as I returned from this interview. To be honest, I would have to say he was both!

Bettina Mara