The Curious Life of a Singer : A Conversation with Thomas Hampson

Few singers working today have received accolades as numerous as those enjoyed by American baritone Thomas Hampson. Fewer still work as tirelessly for the education and encouragement of young singers. The company is even thinner when one looks for singers who work to preserve, protect, and expand the repertoire they love.

In the past few years Hampson—who continues to maintain an active schedule of operatic performances, concerts, recitals, and masterclasses—has deepened his commitment to the support and exploration of song. The Hampsong Foundation ( is involved in research projects and the performance of American song as well as Lieder. The foundation’s main focus of late has been a collaboration with the Library of Congress entitled “Song of America,” which consists of explorations of poetry and song through historical research, performance, and interactive online resources. Hampson completed two tours (24 cities in all) for the project during 2009 and 2010 and two albums celebrating the project, one by EMI entitled Song of America: Music from the Library of Congress and the other on his own label entitled Wondrous Free – Song of America II.

A fan of technology, Hampson has described song as “the software of the soul.” His masterclasses have been cybercast, and once again he’s in a select company of classical musicians by having his own iPhone app.

I caught up with Hampson in Zurich, where he was in rehearsal for the role of Francesco in Verdi’s I masnadieri. His repertoire has broadened over time to include heavier, more dramatic roles such as Verdi’s Macbeth. The conversation began with a discussion of current casting practices.

Do you feel that things have gotten more pigeonholed for singers or do you think in the past you might have been able to have a broader repertoire?

Every generation has its issues, and some developments are positive and some are negative. The business that I started in is not the same as the business I’m in today. Singers’ careers used to follow what I’ve referred to as a “salmon ladder”—a maturation process in which you started at a lower rung and worked your way up because of your experience, the development of your voice, and the fact that you had worked with good teachers, conductors, and directors. Every experience built on the last, making you ready for the next one. I think that maturation process is in severe danger today, because there are simply fewer people in the operatic world who know the standards of Gesangkultur and good singing.

There’s a certain uneasiness in the field because the economics of the arts are so difficult and audiences have become so “mercurial,” so it seems everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel. There always seems to be a need for some branding here and some marketing there, but the singers themselves work to develop with precious little industry support, and that’s a problem. Careers are getting shorter, and Fachs are getting manipulated pretty relentlessly.
Is part of what you are talking about that people in decision-making positions are coming from the business world? For example, the Berlin Philharmonic just named a television executive to be its new director, and that’s happening a lot.

A lot. And you’re not going to stop that. You’re not going to stop the HD movement and there’s no reason to. Is there a metamorphoses happening? Without question. Has there always been? Sure.

I’m good friends and have sung with a lot of older singers and have had this conversation with all of them. I know Mirella Freni as a colleague, I knew Lucia Popp rather well, I knew Nicolai Ghiaurov well. They’re all wonderful human beings, but most looked at my generation as not quite as hammered and honed as perhaps they had been. They would say: “Have you ever worked with Tullio Serafin? Your life would have just changed.” And looking back at my own career, I find myself saying: “If you had ever worked with Wolfgang Sawallisch, your life would have just changed.” Now that I’ve hit my 50s, I don’t want to start the curmudgeon phase. I want to be as helpful as I can.

I do know that regardless of the pressures of the business and regardless of what the public wants aesthetically in the operatic form, if something is not well sung, according to the rules of nature and how your body functions, there will be a price to pay—both for the public and especially for the singer, who will have a very short, exploited career. Quite frankly, when that happens, I think everyone loses—because in the last analysis, opera is a musical art form, and the magic of opera is that indescribable emotional musical bond between audience and singer in that moment of singing. There’s nothing we can do on stage—no step we can step on, no goblet we can hold, no necklace we can rip, no costume we can wear—that can ever mean more than that incandescent moment of human emotion palpable in musical language. I cherish the people I know who appreciate that feeling and that moment. That is essentially what drives me in everything that I do. It’s that.

How do you feed that, access that, and protect that passion that you feel? Is it by, for example, what you’ve talked about as “informed performance” and what it means to do an opera role with some idea of the historical, spiritual context?

I don’t understand how you can do an opera role without that understanding of context. It’s been said about me, “Oh, he’s such an intellectual. He’s always looking for books in dusty corners.” That’s nonsense; I just want to know what’s going on! I don’t care what your nationality is, your background, or education. . . . Are you curious? That’s what I care about. Ignorance is not ethnocentric. If your motivation as a singer is just to show yourself off as a voice or type or personality, I don’t know what to say to you.

I think that the fascinating part of the opera art form is what’s tangential to it. It is literarily based, as in words from an author. All of it has a historical context. People will argue that you shouldn’t have to “study” before you go to an opera, but perhaps “study” is the wrong word. . . . For example, I’m now singing Francesco in I masnadieri. It’s an opera based on a Schiller novel, the first major success of Schiller. Why wouldn’t you want to know what “Die Räuber” was and what this novel meant? Why wouldn’t you want to know about Schiller’s short life? (He died in his mid 40s of tuberculosis.) What square in Germany doesn’t have a Schiller statue? And, more importantly, why would a genius like Verdi be so preoccupied with so many writings of Schiller? To me, it’s like Alice in Wonderland—going into the tunnel and all of a sudden you’re in all sorts of different places. It’s not about trying to discover the nugget that no one else has discovered; I couldn’t care less about that. I don’t think I’ve discovered anything! I’m a curious guy [laughs]. . . . If you’re not curious, don’t be a musician, and certainly not a singer!

Is there also a process of sorting and letting go of what isn’t useful?

Perfectly described. There’s another thing that I think is important for singers, and it’s what a lot of directors don’t understand. We don’t always need a theatrical discovery. But we certainly need more theatrical professionals who understand how to “decipher” a musical score written in a theatrical context. What I mean, specifically, is that every breath I take on stage is given to me in a musical, rhythmic context. That context is the thing I need to understand so I can get out of the way of it. Let’s say you’re working in a masterclass. You’re working on everything: “Do this, do that, match this vowel, line the middle voice,” etc. And then, “Now let it go!” And suddenly some moment happens, and it’s as if it happened by itself because it comes from the score—the music and words that are written to convey only one thing. That is the human dilemma recaptured in that single musical phrase. It‘s not about us, the singers. It’s, as you say, the process of sorting out “it” from “you.” This moment that we strive to “attain” is what people will pay a lot of money to experience. And it is never, ever a moment that is from us to them. It is always a moment that enables them to be part of us. That, I think, is a pretty amazing phenomenon.

Is it your experience that when those moments happen, technically, it gets easier for you as a singer, that the technique sort of falls in line as well?

I’ve never had a technique that fell in line! [Laughing.] It’s more like an errant gorilla that I chase with a whip and a chair. But saying that with all due modesty, I realize that I’m a very fortunate person. I’m a pretty natural kind of singer in many ways. The technical ability to produce sound and to take care of my voice—I’ve worked that out. Although, I do get into trouble like everyone else. . . . I get sick, I age, and life happens. But I know what I’m doing and I’m absolutely confident—arrogant though it might sound—in my personal singing technique. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do, for as long as I’ve been doing it, if I hadn’t gotten that worked out for me. And part of that is recognizing what I cannot do.

For example, which repertoire?

Sure. Or even how I sing the repertoire I do sing. You can blow your chops out with the Barber of Seville.

I interviewed Christine Brewer, and she said, “I don’t call myself a dramatic soprano.” She said, “I call myself a lyric soprano with a big voice.” 

I’m sure [Dolora] Zajick would say something very similar of her voice. She calls herself dramatic but is very focused on lyricism. I describe myself as a lyric baritone with dramatic facets—and some of those facets have become more interesting and vocally stronger as I’ve gotten more experienced, older, and even vocally stronger, and I think that’s good. However, my singing characteristic will always be lyrical, and I think it always should be.

So, especially for the younger singers reading this, patience is a good word?

It’s a hard word and it’s not going to mean anything from a middle-aged baritone. Actually, I don’t know when it is going to mean something to you as a young singer. I’ve never liked the word and I’ve never been particularly patient. For me, the idea of “patience” is more like respecting the bird you are at any given point. If you are a fantastic nightingale, you should be a fantastic nightingale. However, the difference between birds and humans is that even if you are the best nightingale you can possibly be for the time you are meant to be a nightingale, you may well metamorphose into a lyric eagle. But you’re a nightingale when you’re a nightingale.

Some people can run 26 miles and some can “only” run great 400-meter dashes. That’s the way they are built. And we see the same principles that we see in athletics—nature and body usage—in singing and one’s technique. Some of us are sprinters, some of us are mid-range runners, and some of us are long-distance kind of “singer/runners.” The most important physical aspect for a singer is that the edges of the vocal folds completely close when phonating and that they are healthy, happy, and in balance. Whether you’re someone who can take that balance into an amazing, unexpected dimension, or whether you stay where you are, that’s a question of vocal “material” and vocal technique.

Birgit Nilsson told me once that she always sang as though she were the highest, sweetest soubrette. But the rest of her body and sound made you think, “Yeah, but you’ve got wings that are 15 feet wide.” But it all started with this. [Closes fingers as vocal folds.]

It concerns me when I hear people today “blowing” their vocal folds in every direction, or people giving credibility to this abuse since, in the short term, it seems to be very exciting. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to understand that a slightly lower-pitched voice singing in their higher register is going to have an excitement in it. That’s precisely why the great opera composers wrote for voices the way they did. As a singer, using that knowledge of where you are technically can be exciting. And if you’re clever and know what you’re doing, then maybe you can go right to your edge. But you better know where home is.

The indicators of voice type, I’m finding, are a lot subtler than I thought they were. It’s a lot more than how many high notes you have.

Bravo. I think you’re right. It’s curious that we’re having this detailed conversation about types and voices and repertoire when we’re living in a time in which the sentiment—ostensibly—seems to be that if people are convincing and look right, they should sing a part. Unfortunately the public is kind of buying that idea. But what is amazing is that, with all the lip service that the critical community has given to thinking outside the box, when someone actually comes and sings outside the box, they’re criticized extensively because they’re singing outside of their Fach. Are we actually prepared to hear a Leonora well sung by a voice that’s nothing like a Leontyne Price? That takes courage.

Sometimes conductors have done that. Harnoncourt changed the face of Donna Anna. I did his first “Giovanni” here [in Zurich.] The dramatic voice was the Elvira and the Donna Anna was very lyric. It was Edita Gruberova and people would say, “What is she singing that for?” But it was incandescent when you focused on the structures of the lines and the temperament of the personality and so forth. However, for years and, quite frankly, especially during the “Karajan years,” the aria “Or sai chi l’onore” was La forza del destino’s younger cousin. The same with Florestan: once we got John Vickers, we never went back and said, “Wait. Florestan is Beethoven. People didn’t use to sing like that.” And when I first heard Fidelio with Harnoncourt, it was with Peter Schreier, and that too was riveting.

My point is if something is well sung, no voice type or approach has to mean disaster. Meanwhile, I don’t know if I can name a casting director in the major theaters who, if they heard someone sing like that—a Florestan like a mature dramatic Tamino—wouldn’t say, “Oh, he’s going to ruin his voice. We can’t book him because in three years he’s not going to have any voice left.” We’re still trapped in phenomenal clichés. I think that’s a problem.

You mean generalizations like “if you sing this role, you shouldn’t sing that role.”

Yes, I know that not everything I’ve done is perfect and, in fact, I have no problem with someone saying, “You know, I’d actually rather like to hear a different kind of voice sing that.” But nobody, absolutely nobody who said, “Oh, he’ll be dead in five years if he sings that” was right. Macbeth didn’t kill me. In fact, I think I’ve grown into that literature quite solidly. I just sang nine Macbeth performances in Chicago and I feel terrific. Does that mean that we do not need a [Matteo] Manuguerra or a [Piero] Cappuccilli? No! Do we still need to find a new Cappuccilli and train him? Without question. But let’s have the right conversation about this.

And that goes to the heart of what you were talking about, which is that it’s lyrical. If I were to put it in string player terms: my bow is always on the string. And if I can challenge the corners of the dramatic repertoire and still keep it on the string, then I can do it. But if the bow starts bouncing around on me, I’m the first one to say goodbye to that repertoire. I can name a handful of roles that you’d probably think I would plan for. I will never sing Di Luna on stage. Not a chance. For my lyric voice, that would be trouble—merciless middle voice character work. La forza del destino’s Don Carlo: not gonna happen. Rigoletto? We’ll talk about it. [Laughs.]

A lot of what you’re talking about comes back to knowing who you are and feeling confident in facing whatever experiences you might have. Singers get a lot of input, feedback, and opinions, and it’s very important to have a good compass, which I think is something it’s pretty obvious that you have. You have a self confidence, you have an ability to nurture your own curiosity. What do you attribute that to? Is that even answerable?

Well, it is answerable, but my answer will surprise you because I’m no different than anyone else. I’m as insecure as any singer that ever walked. We’re all just golden retrievers. We all desperately want to be petted and loved and approved of. And yes, through the years of my career, I’ve had a number of good experiences, but also bad ones, where I’ve just had to get on with life.

At some point, confidence becomes a question of experience. I’m confident that I have a right to try. I’m never particularly confident that “that’s it.” My measurement for whether something worked or not is pretty private. So I’m not as figured out or confident as you just described. I can get hung up in the weeds of frustrations and jealousies just like anyone else, even today. That’s just who we singers are by nature—especially if you’re a sensitive person living on that edge and if you want desperately to participate in something that is bigger in meaning than just who you are, then you can err on the egocentric.

I can’t and shouldn’t give a recipe of how one can appear more confident, but I love to share what I’ve found out. I think that the arts and humanities are the very diaries and blueprints of human existence. Period. I believe there’s tremendous fulfillment in a personal life that embraces that knowledge, and I think the arts are a manifestation of that fact. And, yes, I probably wouldn’t have been a very balanced or rational person had I not found the refuge of being in the arts, letters, and the physical discipline necessary to be a singer. So, yes: when I encourage people to go to museums and read books and really listen to musical languages and be curious, it’s not only because it will make them a better singer. It’s because it will make them a better person.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at