With a song in his heart

Every opera lover knows that Thomas Hampson, the American baritone, can sing his heart out. But it's also true that he can talk your ear off.

For as long as many music lovers remember, Hampson has been a prime attraction at the world's great opera houses and concert halls, singing a wide variety of material, including Mozart, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Mahler and Ferruccio Busoni. Even Stephen Foster falls within his ken. But though always billed as an American singer, Hampson was long based in Europe. That changed last year with his leasing of an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The continental shift has seemingly brought a change in priorities too. Though Hampson isn't turning his back on the Old World -- far from it -- he is devoting increasing attention to the New, including an appointment as the New York Philharmonic's first artist in residence.

"I was never an expat, just a dual something," he said by phone last month, continuing a conversation begun in May at a Greek diner close to his apartment. "Though it was sometimes a schizophrenic existence -- an American who lived and worked in Europe -- it's been only a blessing, deepening my understanding of both worlds."

As if to help reaffirm his Yankee credentials, Hampson, 54, is to make his second recent appearance at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, singing Gustav Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," one of his calling cards. The four songs harken back to his earliest fame, as a protege of Leonard Bernstein, but also confirm his present-day status as a leading Mahler interpreter. In May, for example, he performed this music under Daniel Barenboim, as part of Carnegie Hall's Mahler festival.

Though the Bowl's often-wayward acoustics are a far cry from Carnegie's vaunted sound -- and the crowd thousands larger -- Hampson will doubtless offer the thoughtful, impassioned singing on which his reputation was built. The combination of score and geography makes for a special connection, because the first time he sang the pieces was at Royce Hall in 1981, with Mehli Mehta and the American Youth Symphony.

Since then, Hampson has become quite the Mahler scholar, a rigor he brings to much of the music he sings. The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has worked with him regularly since 1990, and though she praises his "rich golden-smooth tone" and "honeyed legato," it is his brain she most admires. "He goes places intellectually that most of us can't even imagine," she says, "and that informs his interpretations. That's what artistry is all about: individuality. There are people who criticize his choices, but he's successful at them. And his cellular connection with Mahler is just incredible."

The "Wayfarer" songs, for which Mahler wrote the words and music, loom large for Hampson for many reasons: "more than we have time to discuss," he said. He calls them "worlds in themselves," noting that the composer takes listeners "on a specific contemplative journey of youth, love and nature." Like most 19th century German art songs, they evoke unrequited love and, often, lingering bitterness. "Mahler saw these poems like a sculptor would see a stone," Hampson said. "Every level is special, from the most intimate detail to the broadest. The music tells us what we already intuit and implodes in us what we suspect the poem to be about."

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, has worked with Hampson for two decades, having been introduced to him by Bernstein. He describes the baritone as musically "omnivorous" and lauds his "mixture of light voice -- almost falsetto -- and real tone production," adding that the size of Hampson's voice has increased over the years.

Mahler is among their shared enthusiasms, and Hampson has participated in the conductor's acclaimed CD survey of the composer's works. "He's not singing Mahler in isolation," said Tilson Thomas of his friend. "It's coming out of his understanding of the song culture of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf."

The pair also share a great affection for American song and have recorded a CD of works by Charles Ives. In addition, Tilson Thomas has written Hampson a song cycle to poems by Walt Whitman. "We're both borderline obsessional; you don't want to mention Walt Whitman to us," Tilson Thomas said.

Hampson has recorded a disc of songs set to Whitman poems, with one of Tilson Thomas' songs next to those of Bernstein, Ives, Paul Hindemith and Ned Rorem. "I've always had this passion for American song, mainly because I've had such a passion for song in general," Hampson said. "And I've long wondered, how do you get a handle on what really is American song? I think I was trapped like so many in looking for our Brahms."

Instead, Hampson has developed an alternative approach, starting with eras rather than people. "I think the best thing is to expose a 10- or 15-year period in our cultural development and look at who we were through the eyes of our poets."

The results, he says, may not yield a single composer on par with Schubert or Schumann, but the cumulative effect provides a window into the American soul. "Song is a mirror of what society is trying to grapple with," he said. "There's a great deal of necessary bitching in songs. I'm not a rap enthusiast, but we damn well better be listening to what is being expressed. There was never a time when we didn't have in song this very deep and personal narration of what it's like to be an American."

So intense is Hampson's love of American song that he's devoted considerable resources to excavating, preserving and celebrating it. He champions it most obviously on the concert stage -- he'll be singing American music at a Dorothy Chandler Pavilion recital sponsored by L.A. Opera on Oct. 3, and at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall on Oct. 9.

But Hampson is also deeply involved in Internet outreach. His website, Hampsong.com, is a source of information about song literature, primarily via the baritone's Hampsong Foundation, whose motto is "supporting the art of song from page to stage."

Then there's "Song of America," formed in alliance with the Library of Congress. The moniker applies to Hampson's American music concerts, but future plans include a website with a cross-referenced database.

Some might wonder if more than altruism is at work here. Certainly the name "Hampsong" smacks of self-promotion. But the singer maintains that his motives are pure. "I don't want to sound disingenuous about the affirmation process," he said, "because recognition is surely important to every performing artist. But a more complete satisfaction comes with bringing something to life."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World