Chatting with American baritone Thomas Hampson, which I do in a rehearsal break for his first Covent GardenTraviata, is a stimulating experience.
It certainly one that keeps an interviewer on his toes.
Renowned for his intellectual rigour, Hampson has a habit of wrong-footing one’s assumptions with a precision that he brings to everything he does. He is an artist not difficult to research, with an impressive and comprehensive website, immaculately presented and meticulously organised (his webmistress is his step-daughter, a talented designer). I ask him if it reflects his personality but he laughs the suggestion off, saying that, despite the appearance of order, his life is chaotic. It’s a response not uncommon in perfectionists.
“I’m a complete lazy sod,” he claims, “I live in a permanent state of anarchy, looking for organisation. When I work and study, I like to build layers. I like mind-mapping software, those kind of connecting things. I guess I know most productivity software and use it to try and get on top of this complete mess.”
“And I’m also always late,” he adds. He uses words like “methodical”, “rationality” and “methodology” and it sounds like a very ordered mind to me, despite the fact that he did indeed turn up slightly late for our meeting, having got the times mixed up.
The singer throws me off again (with infinite charm) when I suggest that the casting of Germont père with artists such as himself and Gerald Finley implies a more sympathetic approach to the role these days. “I’ve never seen him as an old curmudgeon,” he says, “If he’s at all sympathetic, it’s because people do identify with his dilemma. We all know people like that. I wouldn’t know how to play him without this societal mindset of a pre-Victorian, Provencal, straight-laced sense of reality.”
Nevertheless, casting singers who are younger, and dare one say handsome and charming, like Hampson and Finley, does bring a glamour to the role that contradicts more old-fashioned interpretations. He’s played Germont in a lot of different, and differing, productions, including Willy Decker’s in Salzburg which, with its minimal setting and frantic rushing about, was, like most of the director’s work, far from conventional.
This month’s run is Hampson’s first time in Richard Eyre’s more traditional production at the Royal Opera House, although he’s been playing the role itself for years now. It’s certainly not his first time working with Renee Fleming, who sings Violetta, either; they have been partnered many times before. He all but gushes when talking about her.
“How do you talk about the Queen?” he laughs, “Renee works as hard as anybody in the business. She’s incredibly beautiful, with a spectacularly beautiful voice. She’s a great friend and a very generous colleague. We do Thais together – it’s the opera we’ve probably done most together. I get to be much closer to her in that; we get into a pretty intensive ping-pong, especially in the third and fourth act. And that’s very exciting. I prefer it to being her father!”
He’s quick too to praise former National Theatre director Eyre, who is rehearsing the revival with them, and also Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s Music Director, who conducts (“we’re in heaven,” Hampson says). It’s certainly a starry team, which should ensure that performance standards for this umpteenth revival of the 1994 production are up to scratch.
Our conversation is wide-ranging, with the baritone enthusiastically talking about any number of topics and referencing a wide range of literature. At one point he veers into business practise, using phrases like “marketable products” and citing Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail. He describes the business model with huge sweeps of the arm: “You have a spike in sales, the first 100,000, and then it tapers off.” It’s not the sort of conversation one usually has with a singer in the Royal Opera’s press office.
The internet and all its off-shoots are important to Hampson (he describes himself as “a committed advocate of new technologies”). He hasn’t yet succumbed to the lure of Twitter but has a Facebook page, which is as presentable as his website, again presided over by his step-daughter but for which he carefully controls content himself. He saw the need to be online more than a decade ago, “when most producers didn’t even have internet access,” he laughs.
“I’m very curious,” he says, “I like to flit about. I was like that as a student. In fact, I wasn’t a very good student (he studied Political Science). That’s not true actually – I was a great student but I didn’t concentrate on grades so much.” He didn’t go through music school, although having played piano since young, he could read music.
He talks with passion about his love of songs and the importance of the words as more than an adjunct to the music. He says he doesn’t sing opera roles that don’t interest him. “Escamillo is just not a very interesting guy. It’s a beautiful opera but I just don’t want to sing it, although when I recorded it with Plasson I found myself thinking ‘this is a walk in the park; you could have a lot of fun with it.’ But I don’t do it on stage.”
I ask him what are the most challenging roles he’s done and he instantly mentions Busoni’s Doktor Faust. In an interview with Sir Thomas Allen a year or two ago, the British baritone told me the same thing. “It’s a huge challenge, needing great stamina. But the libretto is just fantastic. And Mandryka (in Strauss’ Arabella) also requires great guts and gusto.” Hampson played the part at Covent Garden a few years ago. He mentions also the thrill of playing Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth and his most recent debut role, Scarpia. “I feel a better, more rational human being for the roles I’ve been allowed to play.”
We don’t have time to talk, other than in passing, about many other aspects of his work. There’s his foundation, named Hampsong, which he describes as a “laboratory” for the exploration of song and we finish by talking about Leonard Bernstein, his early mentor, who died just too soon to see Hampson’s career reach maturity. “It’s my greatest regret,” he says.
His relationship with the great communicator is a fascinating topic which there just isn’t time to go into fully but one can’t help feeling that something of the great conductor/ composer’s ability to reach out to audiences has rubbed off on this immensely personable artist.
La Traviata plays at the Royal Opera House between 18 June and 3 July. The performance on 30 June will be broadcast live in cinemas throughout the UK and Europe and a complete list of participating venues can be found at www.roh.org.uk