One Good Question: Thomas Hampson

Classic Arts Features   One Good Question: Thomas Hampson
Following in the legacy of great American baritones, Thomas Hampson is an equally striking presence in the opera house and in recital. Ben Finane speaks with Hampson about the importance of research in his work.

Hampson's roles run from Mozart's Don Giovanni to Busoni's Dr. Faustus. He is a frequent interpreter of the Lieder of Schumann, Schubert and Mahler and a consummate scholar and teacher.


Ben Finane: I was speaking to violinist Arnold Steinhardt about the challenges of playing Bach's Chaconne. He told me that after all the analysis, research, reflection and planning, you're still left with notes on a page: which is to say that scholarship in music, while necessary, ultimately does not provide the answers. Now I know that you are a great proponent of research...

Thomas Hampson: For me, research is just a huge search for the why. Imagine that a composer is being whispered to by the muse (as we non-mused people might imagine), and the muse, after imparting inspiration, says that there's one catch: you gotta do it with lines and dots. Everything after that moment is trying to figure out what it could mean. Research for me is about opening up possibilities, certainly about exploring what isn't possible, which is very important in any theatrical work, to understand what is not allowable: somewhere you don't go. It is important to establish that in a production because it gives your public the boundaries with which to make the associations we start to create. In Lieder, it is important to understand the difference between folk poetry and classical poetry; why would some composers not care about the source of their text; was Brahms as literate as Schumann? Asking these questions invites yourself into a much more complex relationship into why composers create. In letters that I have read between composers, I don't see them writing about style, I see them writing about people, motivations, emotions, and fears.

So to me, research is a very hands-on, visceral map, trying to figure out what this is, an almost archaeological sense of what is there that gives me a structure, that allows my emotional abilities to re-create that context. Whether this is for three people or three thousand is secondary. It is about recreating a human context at the end of the day. I am not concerned by timbres, fachs, styles, and so forth. I'm concerned about people and some people trying to tell the story of all of us.

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