Thomas Hampson is an enormously gifted, versatile baritone who combines a commanding stage presence with a rich, warm, fluent voice. Although he was originally better-known in Europe than in North America, he is now considered by many to be the premier baritone working today in both the operatic and art song repertory. With his elegant good looks—his fans call him “Thomas Handsome”—he is quickly becoming something of a superstar, a status more commonly reached by tenors than by baritones.
Hampson originally aspired to be a lawyer. He earned a degree in political science from Eastern Washington University, and was not considering a career as a singer even though he had won voice competitions and had performed in his home town of Spokane, Washington. But a prominent Spokane voice teacher, Sister Marietta Coyle, intervened. As Hampson was quoted as saying in an article in Opera News in 1989, “She came to me and said ‘Young man, God made you a singer, and you have the responsibility to be one. When you’re ready to accept that responsibility, call me.’” Hampson took her advice, and the music world is grateful for his decision.
In 1980, Hampson signed a contract with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, Germany—the first European opera company for which he auditioned. He appeared there, first in small parts and then in more prominent roles. In 1984, he went to Zurich, Switzerland, to perform in the Nikolaus Hamoncourt/Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of the Mozart opera cycle. While in Zurich he caught the attention of Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, who invited him to perform at the Met in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 1986. Since that time he has appeared there in several productions, most notably in the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which won him critical acclaim. He recreated the role for the Teldec recording of the opera in 1990. In 1994 Hampson created the role of Valmont in the San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Conrad Susa’s opera Les Liaisons Dangéreuses.
In addition to his opera appearances, Hampson spends a large portion of his time giving recitals. He is an outstanding interpreter of the art song repertory—particularly classic German lieder—as well as an inspired performer of less traditional solo songs, such as those by nineteenth- and twentieth-century American composers. He can devote a recital program to a somber song cycle such as Dichterliebe, by the nineteenth-century German composer Robert Schumann, and top it off with encores by Cole Porter—enthralling the audience with his ability to slip in and out of the serious and popular repertory while treating each with the same respect.
Born Walter Thomas Hampson, June 28, 1955, in Elkhart, IN; son of a nuclear engineer and a medical receptionist; married, 1975 (divorced); engaged to Andrea Herberstein. Education: Attended Seventh Day Adventist-affiliated schools in Spokane, WA area; Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA, B.A. (political science), 1977; studied voice with Sr. Marietta Coyle and received B.F.A. in voice performance, Fort Wright College, Spokane, WA; studied voice with Gwendolyn Koldowsky and Martial Singher at the Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, CA; studied voice with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Europe, 1980; has studied voice in Europe with Horst Gunther since 1981.
Opera singer and concert performer. Sang with Spokane Symphony and other Washington state groups, 1980; signed contract with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, Germany, and sang roles of Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte; performed with St. Louis Opera Theatre, 1982; went to Zurich, where he worked on cycle of Mozart operas with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, 1984; Metropolitan Opera debut as Count Alma-viva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, 1986; appeared at Metropolitan Opera as Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, Guglielmo in Cosi fan Tutte, and title roles in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Britten’s Billy Budd; recital debut, Wigmore Hall, London, 1984; American recital debut, Town Hall, New York City, 1986; has appeared in numerous solo recitals and performances with orchestras.
Selected awards: Lotte Lehmann Medal, Music Academy of the West, 1979; first prize, Metropolitan Opera auditions, 1981; vocalist of the year, Musical America, 1991 ; honorary doctor of music degree from Whitworth College, Spokane, WA, 1993; five Grammy nominations.
Addresses: Management —c/o Ken Benson, Personal Direction, Columbia Artists Management, 165 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Hampson has shown an affinity, rare among performing musicians, for researching the musical, literary, historical, and philosophical aspects of many of the pieces he performs. For example, he has performed the obscure first version of Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle, which contains three additional songs and slightly different forms of some of the songs found in the more frequently performed later version. Hampson also coedited a new critical edition of the songs of Gustav Mahler—an undertaking that is usually left to musicologists. In an article for Gramophone magazine in 1992, Edward Seckerson observed that “Singing is not so much a career to [Hampson], more a responsibility—to the repertoire, the poets, the composers.”
Hampson believes very strongly that a singer should know a language thoroughly before he or she can perform in that language effectively. “I refuse to interpret [Francis] Poulenc, because my French is very bad,” he remarked to an interviewer in the French magazine Diapason in 1993. “It’s the same as someone who doesn’t have good enough German to take on Hugo Wolf. The interpretation of French or German songs is not simply a matter of getting the articulation of the text right—one has to sing.” He holds directors to the same high standards: “My blood pressure really rises when I come across, as I did recently, a director who knows neither the music nor the language of the work he’s staging,” Hampson told Walter Price in a New York Times article in 1990.
Hampson has gained a large and appreciative audience through his recordings, several of which have risen high on the classical music charts. Particularly noteworthy are his interpretations of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [Songs of a Wayfarer], and Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children] on the Deutsche Grammaphon label in 1991, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
His albums of Stephen Foster and Cole Porter songs show his adeptness at interpreting music outside the classical canon. Hampson has also been featured in many opera recordings: the Don Giovanni recording mentioned above, as well as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, and The Magic Flute; Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Puccini’s La Bohème; and Gounod’s Faust, among others.
Hampson’s inquisitiveness and intelligent approach to music make him an original and refreshing presence in the vocal world, a world that is often content with doing the same things in the same ways, and that sometimes places emphasis on glamour at the expense of musical integrity. “I know what’s important to me, and it’s not dollars,” Hampson stated in the 1989 Opera News article. “What’s important is what I do—to be taken seriously, to be asked to sing songs, to try to excite someone to literature, poetry, to thoughts—almost like a priest—to be able to convey that to someone, to reach them—that makes it all worthwhile.”
Des Knaben Wunderhurn (songs of Gustav Mahler), Teldec, 1989.
Don Giovanni (opera), Teldec, 1990.
Rückert Lieder/Kindertotenlieder/Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of Mahler), Deutsche Grammaphon, 1991.
American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster, Angel/EMI, 1992.
An Old Song Resung: American Concert Songs, EMI, 1992.
(With Jerry Hadley) Famous Opera Duets, Teldec, 1993.
Romantic Songs of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, EMI, 1994.
Annie Get Your Gun, EMI.
On the Town, Deutsche Grammaphon.
Christmas with Thomas Hampson, Teldec.
Faust (opera), EMI.
Night and Day (songs of Cole Porter), EMI.
The Barber of Seville (opera), Angel/EMI.
Hamlet (opera), Angel/EMI.
Diapason, October 1993.
Fanfare, November/December 1991.
Gramophone, April 1992.
Newsweek, March 16, 1992.
New York, February 26, 1990.
New York Times, April 15, 1990; May 1, 1991.
Opera News, February 1989.
Vanity Fair, March 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the program notes for Hampson’s recital at Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Ml, November 7, 1993.
Hampson, Thomas, admired American baritone; b. Elkhart, Ind., June 28, 1955. He studied at Eastern Washington Univ. (B.A., 1977), Fort Wright Coll. (B.F.A., 1979), the Univ. of Southern Calif., and the Music Academy of the West at Santa Barbara, where he won the Lotte Lehmann award (1978). In 1980 he took 2nd prize at the’s-Hertogenbosch International Vocal Competition, and in 1981 1st place in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. In 1981 he appeared with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, and in 1982 attracted wide notice as Guglielmo in Così fan tutte with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. In subsequent seasons, he appeared with opera companies in Santa Fe, Cologne, Lyons, and Zürich. In 1985 he made his N.Y. recital debut. On Oct. 9, 1986, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Count Almaviva. During the 1986-87 season, he sang for the first time with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Vienna State Opera. In 1988 he appeared at the Salzburg Festival as Mozart’s Count Almaviva. In 1989 he made his debut at the Berlin Deutsche Oper as Don Giovanni. He appeared for the first time atthe San Francisco Opera as Ulisse in II Ritorno d’Ulisse in 1990. In 1992 he made his Carnegie Hall recital debut in N.Y. In 1993 he made his debut at London’s Covent Garden as Rossini’s Figaro. He created the role of Vicomte de Valmont in Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons in San Francisco in 1994. In 1997 he was engaged as Riccardo in I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera, portrayed Eugene Onegin at the Vienna State Opera, and sang in Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella at the Vienna Festival. After singing Guillaume Tell at the Vienna State Opera in 1998, he returned to the Metropolitan Opera as Werther in 1999. He has won particular success for roles in operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini. As a concert artist, Hampson has appeared as a soloist with orchs. and as a recitalist in principal music centers of the world. His concert repertoire embraces works from Bach to Cole Porter and beyond.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire