Magazine | June 12, 2017, Issue

A Still-Dangerous Don

Milan, Italy — Years ago — maybe a dozen? — Thomas Hampson told me, “I was a young Giovanni, I’m a middle-aged Giovanni, and I’m going to be an old Giovanni.” He was talking about the famous, and infamous, title character of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Hampson is a famous — not infamous — baritone from Spokane, Wash.

Here he is in Milan, singing Giovanni at La Scala. He is an “old” Giovanni, I suppose — but those quotation marks are necessary. The calendar says he’s to be 62 this summer, but he’s still Thomas Hampson, looking like a million bucks. (“Thomas Handsome,” they sometimes call him.)

“Do you have to work at it?” I ask. “At what?” he says. “At this physique of yours. Is it natural — a lucky constitution — or do you starve yourself?” “I starve myself,” he says. He doesn’t really mean it. But he is careful about his diet. Plus, “I exercise daily. I do yoga daily. Have ever since college.”

In college, he took an acting class, taught by “this crazy artist-type guy. We spent the first six weeks putting on leotards every morning and doing yoga.” It stuck, with Hampson. “It’s just a ritual for me, every day. I can’t function till I’ve popped the right things and gotten my back and legs in the same conversation.”

“Does it help your singing?” I ask. “Oh, yes,” he answers. And when he teaches, he spends a good amount of time on the physical aspects of singing: posture, the workings of the body, etc.

In his classes, he likes to ask his students a question: “How many keys does a piano have?” They all know the answer is 88, though there’s usually a wisenheimer who will point out that a Bösendorfer can have more (either 92 or 97). Then Hampson will ask, “And how many ribs do you have?”

“Clueless,” I say. That’s right, says Hampson, they are clueless. I explain that I am clueless. Hampson says, “But you’re not trying to sing” (as far as he knows). Incidentally, the answer is 24: 24 ribs, twelve on each side.

“The structure of your ribs is one of the most important things about singing,” Hampson continues. And “this is not some typical Hampson Wissenschaft bullsh** that I get accused of.” (That German word means “science.”) “If you’re going to play tennis, you have to know how to hold a racquet and how to swing it.” If you’re going to sing, you had better know about ribs and such.

I press Hampson a little: Caruso, Pinza, Pavarotti — they didn’t know about all this Wissenschaft, did they? I mean, they were children of nature, who simply stood and sang. Hampson lets me know in no uncertain terms that this is baloney. Caruso, for example, wrote an excellent book on singing: How to Sing.

Go figure.

Hampson has an immense collection of books on singing, in many languages. So did his longtime teacher, Horst Günter (who died in 2013, three months short of a hundred). “Everyone thinks I’m overintellectual about things,” Hampson says. “I don’t think that’s true. If I’m curious about something, I go find out about it.”

Early on, Hampson was taught the fundamentals of singing by an extraordinary woman: a nun in Spokane, who, by the way, served as the music director of the Methodist church. She had been taught by, among others, Lotte Lehmann (the great German soprano) and Pierre Bernac (the French baritone who was one of the most famous teachers of the last century). Her name was Sister Marietta Coyle.

Hampson later studied with a great German soprano a generation younger than Lehmann: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She was a piece of work, in addition to a singing genius.

There are a number of options available to a baritone as he ages — or matures, let’s say. “We start out as attractive young Guglielmos,” Hampson says, “and, if we’re lucky, we end up as dashing Don Alfonsos.” He is referring to two characters in Così fan tutte (another Mozart opera). “I’m going to start singing Alfonso next year, and I’m looking forward to it. I didn’t put it off because of a complex; I just hadn’t had time to learn it and put it in my repertoire.”

Don Giovanni has been in his repertoire for 30 years. Indeed, Hampson is one of the outstanding Giovannis of this age. He first sang the role at the Zurich Opera, where Nikolaus Harnoncourt was the conductor and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle the stage director. “That ruined me for the rest of my career,” says Hampson. He means that Ponnelle was supreme in his understanding of the role and the opera. Hampson began at the top. “Either you get it or you don’t,” he says, and Ponnelle got it.

Of course, Hampson has had a lot of time to grow in this role. To deepen his understanding of it. But he has always believed one thing about Don Giovanni: He is a sociopath. (A charming, seductive one, to be sure.)

Believe it or not, Hampson — who has sung everywhere — is making his Scala debut. His schedule and the company’s have never really matched up until now. How does he feel about singing in this historic house? Hampson is a golfer, and he gives me a golf analogy: “I feel like I’ve played in the majors, and won a couple of them, but to finally be at La Scala — my Grand Slam is finished.”

In golf, the Grand Slam is the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA. And in opera? I would hazard — you could get arguments about this — the Met (New York), Covent Garden (London), the Vienna State Opera, and La Scala.

A Giovanni needs a Leporello, his servant and sidekick, and Hampson’s at La Scala is Luca Pisaroni, an Italian bass-baritone and one of the best Leporellos of our day. He is Hampson’s son-in-law.

“I’ve adored Luca since the day I met him,” says Hampson. That was in 2002, in a production of Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival. Pisaroni was not Leporello in that production, but rather Masetto (a lesser, though still important, character). “It was obvious that we were cut from the same cloth,” continues Hampson. “His curiosity was boundless, and his ability to work was equally boundless.”

One day, during a rehearsal, Hampson’s daughter Catherine came into the Great Festival Hall to say a few words to Giovanni (Hampson). And taking notice were two young men: Pisaroni and the Leporello of the production, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo. After Catherine had left, Hampson took them by the collar and said, “Understand something: Over my [frickin’] dead body.” D’Arcangelo took this to heart. Pisaroni, not so much, and Hampson and his wife, Andrea Herberstein, were delighted.

Hampson has a long way to go before he hangs it up. He will continue to sing — to champion American songs, for example. And he would also like to direct an opera or two (stage-direct them). He has an idea for Rossini’s Barber of Seville, for example.

And, of course, there is teaching. “My passion today is not to ‘give back’ but to pass on” — to impart what he knows to rising generations. He recalls an old man who coached him when he was in his early twenties: Fritz Zweig (a cousin of Stefan Zweig, the writer, who was an occasional librettist for Richard Strauss). Zweig was working with Hampson and some others on an excerpt from a Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. The youngsters thought they were humoring the old man.

At some point, someone asked, “So what was it like in Vienna, in the old days?” Zweig answered, “Well, it was pretty exciting when Mahler was running the opera.”

That jolted the imagination.

Zweig went on to talk about the young and the old. “When I was very young,” he said, “I had a composition teacher who was very old. And he remembered Beethoven walking through the streets like a madman, because he was deaf.”

Stunning.

I can tell you that Thomas Hampson is a joy to talk with, on a range of subjects. He is both an artist — a cerebral one — and a guy’s guy. The night after our talk, he is onstage as Giovanni. It’s a Hampson Giovanni, and a Giovanni Giovanni: magnetic, deft, and bad (as in “bad hombre”).

This opera is now 230 years old. And there have been many great Giovannis, including Pinza, Siepi, and Wächter (to name only 20th-century singers). You can’t see them all. A lot of us feel that we’re lucky to have seen — and to keep on seeing — Hampson.

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