I met Thomas Hampson for an interview before the meeting of a Munich opera club, where he was scheduled to speak. He was only very slightly late, but the well-meaning members of the of the club seemed worried. “Thomas Hampson never shows up alone,” I was told. At one point in our conversation, a painting in the lobby mysteriously fell from the wall to the ground of its own volition.

VAN: When we listen to our own voices on recordings, they sound very different than they do to us when we’re speaking. Does your singing voice sound different to you on recordings than it does when you’re singing?

Thomas Hampson: That’s a wonderful question—I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. The fact, or the bane, of any singer’s existence, is that we can’t hear ourselves. We as singers are guided mostly by our sensations. Certainly we hear things in our head, but I sing much more by radar than I do by sonar. I actually teach that too. Because that’s the only way we can protect ourselves against very unpleasant acoustics. You have to know that your voice is vibrating and functioning, whether you get any kind of acoustical feedback or not.

Then, you start recording your voice, and most of us want to throw up. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship to my own recordings; I don’t listen to them. However, I’ve enjoyed recording, and I feel very passionate about what I sing when I’m working on it. I’m very choosy about producers. I need a very trusting environment.

Can you describe the difference between your voice as you hear it and as it sounds in recordings?

My singing voice is probably a little drier than I hear it in my head—I’m always a little bit startled by that. I’m always looking to find a way of recording that gets me the richer, juicier sound that I want. But recordings, especially of voices, are a science unto themselves. Sometimes what you hear is not necessarily true. I think that everybody feels that his voice is far less interesting in its recorded state than what you would hope it is in your imagination.

In the opera “South Pole,” you play an antarctic explorer. If you were an actor, Daniel Day-Lewis say, you would have spent at least a month alone in the snow to prepare for your role as Amundsen.

I would have loved to do that. If it was a filmed-location thing, we’d probably freeze our asses off. But art forms are art forms. Opera is a musical art form, in my opinion. So it is kind of astounding that [composer] Srnka could kind of conjure up this feeling of loneliness, and even coldness, in his score. I think regardless of what you’re looking at, you get this sort of emptiness, this void of life. I really wanted to go up to the Fram Museum in Oslo, but I didn’t get to that either. So I’m afraid I didn’t do any Daniel Day-Lewis moments.

You tend to read. I watched a couple films. Awful lot of stuff on YouTube. You know, I feel like I know the man. [Librettist] Holloway and Srnka, for the dramatic reasons that they had, accentuated a certain ambivalence that he had to his woman complex. Some of it was reaching right into Amundsen’s life, which I was slightly uncomfortable with. I’m not sure that we either have that right, or that we have that information. But it was essentially articulating Amundsen’s self-sacrifice, almost in a negative way, of his own life to his discipline to reach his goals. And that the skeletons in his closet included completely unfinished relationships. That’s not big news in the world—everybody has that, I suppose.

South Pole: Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen) · Photography © Bayerische Staatsoper
South Pole: Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen) · Photo © Bayerische Staatsoper

Which is a more emotionally vulnerable experience, performing in an opera or singing Lied?

In Lied, you’re closer in your ability to make complex thoughts audible than you are on stage, where you’re part of a larger scenario, a larger story. You can hide behind a costume. It’s more comfortable. You assume a completely different persona and you sing. With Lied, you are deciding personally as a human being to make those thoughts in that musical language audible, for other people to embrace their life, existence.

But I don’t see it so much as me. I’m not communicating, I am the communicator. I want people to have a moment where they think, My God, isn’t that one of the great moments of life. But that’s actually not my job. On stage my responsibility is to invite people into my world, and to do that you have to keep a hot mind and a cool heart. Nobody wants to go to “Tosca” and hear her blow the aria because she started crying. Everybody else wants to wail at the end of the aria. There’s a cold center in there somewhere.

The conductor of a band I played in during high school told us, “Heart on fire, brain on ice.”

Bravo. Well I said it the other way around, but either way works for me. [Laughs.] It’s very Pascalian. He framed that wonderful aphorism, of the thinking heart. The miracle about music, and especially vocal music, is that it does demand an engagement of the emotional and the intellectual. And I think that’s why it’s so controversial, so threatening, there are a lot of things tied up in that.

Sometimes I think the whole Lieder world is so incredibly in-your-face. The emotional structure—that’s not how we live day in and day out. It’s not just that it’s 19th century. Paul Simon is in an apparatus with 10,000 people, or in our iPods or wherever else—great songs. But this is different. Someone is just standing there and literally telling you a poem, and you’re going, That’s making me feel uncomfortable.

It’s also interesting to me, the whole coughing and clearing the throat issues. I’ve never been disturbed by somebody coughing in a movie theater. I’ve heard concerts of my own where you think it’s a fucking tuberculosis epidemic. [Laughs.] And I don’t mean to make fun of people with tuberculosis. You have the people who are very good while they’re playing, and then comes the pause between the first and the second movement and they’re like, ach, ack. It’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon.

I had a piano teacher in college who told me something that stuck with me. She said that there is a certain kind of “eroticism” in good teaching, in an effective music lesson. The topic came up because a teacher had to leave for putting a hand too far up on a student’s leg. When working with Leonard Bernstein, did you ever experience that kind of tension?

Well, I wasn’t really having lessons with him, I was doing rehearsals. Lenny could be very teasing, and there were certainly physical moments, but I never felt offended, I never felt put-upon or harassed. Those are two different things.

I was expecting a question about, how do you teach young sopranos how to breathe, how to keep their ribcages up and their spines straight without necessarily getting touchy-feely in places you shouldn’t.

That was going to be my next question.

It’s a fair question. It is impossible. Singing is athletic. It’s physical. Certainly in public masterclasses where I waltz in from Mars and these poor kids are standing there, I’m very careful. I never touch somebody if I haven’t asked them: do you mind if I touch you? Do you mind if I show you something? That’s the first step.

I’ll try to say, Look, we have to deal with some underwear issues here. We have to talk about your body, about where your shoulders are. Some of that is actually social consciousness, because we think of this world as having interchangeable sexuality, which, in my opinion as a human being, is bullshit. But to get a young woman, to give her the confidence to stand up straight, shoulders back, with a raised chest…

[I try to straighten my own posture, without being too obvious about it.]

…a flat stomach, and a beautiful consciousness of what she wants to sing, and just be in that moment of singing, [takes physical contact]. Much less a young man, that’s not the world we live in today. A lot of people with slouched shoulders don’t want to stand out. I don’t think that’s appropriate to classical singing. We need all of our body.

What would be inappropriate is if while one of those wonderful, young, talented, people, boys or girls, is singing, I just kind of sidled up and put my arm around him or her and said, You’re doing such a wonderful job. That would be kinda icky.

But a hand too far…I’ve heard some awful stories. Wasn’t there a case in Manhattan where some teacher put his hands on her hands on the piano, and she felt like it was going too far? I mean, that is such a tough call. I’m deeply respectful of people’s space, but there are two sides to that story too. It’s a tough one.

Some people can handled it. Other people almost want to say, No, don’t touch me, and I get that, immediately, and I say, What I just want to do is this. I get it and then I’m away. But the point of this question is that singing is physical. There’s no way around that. So you must find the most discrete way to do that.

South Pole: Mojca Erdmann (Landlady), Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen), Team Amundsen · Photography © Bayerische Staatsoper
South Pole: Mojca Erdmann (Landlady), Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen), Team Amundsen · Photography © Bayerische Staatsoper

Thomas Mann wrote that “The vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty—from the difficulty of knowing one’s own self.” What’s your approach to teaching?

I think I’d go at it the other way. Teaching is, especially for someone like me who is still singing a lot, and I’ve taught for 20 years now, incredibly illuminating. I encourage my young colleagues, once we get a focused vocabulary, to listen to one another and figure out a way to talk to each other. It’s very beneficial, as you are working on something, to try and explain it to someone else and have that exchange. I always sing better after three or four days of teaching. I come out refocused, go back to the basics. Do as I say, not as I do—I don’t teach like that.

I was sort of dared to teaching and realized, with all gratefulness and humility, that I have an ear for it. When I’m concentrated on somebody’s singing, I identify as a singer with his or her mechanism. I enjoy lending my body. After a day of teaching, eight hours, I’m exhausted, I’m just wiped out. I don’t feel it’s because of my incompleteness. But I, or any artist, feels incomplete, so I love to work with young kids who are struggling to find that path, since the drop-offs are pretty severe at times.

So I don’t think teaching is a matter of bringing the wisdom down and handing it to somebody. What I like about that quote is that it’s a process, you’re searching together. I have searched more and been at this longer than those who I’m working with. They want to have a life in this profession. Here’s what I’ve learned; here’s what I know; here’s what I trust; here’s what I have to do to prove that I’m not completely insane. Here are the gardening tools. You have to work on your own garden. There’s a lot to be said that teaching is essentially teaching people how to teach themselves.

Especially in the singing world, there’s a lot of teacher hopping, coach hopping. Who has got that magic key? It’s actually sweat, grind, tears, and perpetual unhappiness. [Laughs.] I’m an artist, I thrive on rejection. [Laughs.]

The phrase “any artist feels incomplete” is interesting, what did you mean by that?

Well, every human being is incomplete. But isn’t that what life is all about? Karajan said, “If you feel like you’ve reached your horizons, they were too low in the first place.” I rather like that.

Joseph Campbell, one of the great philosophers, talked about the power of myth, hero stories. One of his greatest achievements was this idea of mythology being the mask of man. In other words, the essential human being manifests himself in different cultures and different ways, he has different belief systems and all of that, but there’s this core. The idea of signing up for the Catholic or the Protestant is perhaps a process that betters your life, but maybe that end game isn’t what it was all about. He came to this pithy, wonderful statement, he said, “Life is not so much about figuring out the meaning of life, but the meaning in life.”

And if there was ever a quote that was to the heart of Gustav Mahler, it’s that. Everybody gets preoccupied with Mahler’s obsession with death. His obsession with death was about the doorway, it wasn’t about dying. It was about life. It was about, Why, what is this? And the meaning in life—those kind of things resonate very deeply with me.

Have you ever brought an opera role home with you in your private life?

No in one sense and yes in the other. There are some roles, and there have been some nights, where it’s harder to go to sleep, where it’s harder to get down off it. I’ve always said that about Don Giovanni. I need serious unwinding time after Don Giovanni, because you’ve been in some pretty nasty psychological places. I don’t think Giovanni is a very nice guy, he’s not a fun guy to play. He’s an arrogant, egocentric jerk. He’s a psychopath. And certainly a sociopath. You have to wash him off and drink a couple of beers and move on.

"I need serious unwinding time after Don Giovanni, because you’ve been in some pretty nasty psychological places.…You have to wash him off and drink a couple of beers and move on."—@thomashampson in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

But we’re professional theater people. Do you live in it? Yes. But are you aware of living in it? As a singer, you damn well better be. I can imagine that some actors, well you can see it in their private lives too, they just get a little “wiggier” as they move through, we all do I suppose. But actually coming home and wondering, Why isn’t life like Germont, or Boccanegra, or a complete fantasy like “Arabella”—no.  

I want to say I leave it at the theater, but that’s not entirely true. I’m always thinking about all the things I’m singing and have sung, will sing and am studying. It’s a very lively process inside of me. I have to then decide, OK, it’s this now.

Do you have an unwinding ritual?

A chicken soup, a beer, and a movie, that’s a good unwind. I can couch potato worse than anybody. When I want to shut down, I am useless. [Laughs.] I like action movies, mysteries, and forensic shows. Then I have my other weak moments. My wife and I adore “Downton Abbey.” I’ve seen every James Bond movie and every Mission Impossible movie.

South Pole: Mojca Erdmann (Landlady), Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen) · Photography © Bayerische Staatsoper
South Pole: Mojca Erdmann (Landlady), Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen) · Photography © Bayerische Staatsoper

On the subject of movies and movie stars: In a lot of interviews with you, journalists will start by talking about your looks.

Don’t do that. [Laughs.]

I won’t. But it’s mentioned constantly. You’ve been called “the George Clooney of classical music.” How do you feel about that?

If only it were true. [Laughs.] Maybe I could get rich. I’m sure that to some people I’m good looking and some say, Whatever. The only thing that really matters is that my wife loves me, I thinks she’s beautiful and she thinks I’m handsome. I’m grateful that I’m tall; when I’m in an airplane I’d like to be shorter; singing Italian repertoire I’m rather unusual sized. So there are pros and cons. But it’s who you are.

I take it because, the journalists are writing for a public, and the public wants to know, Gee, what was it like sitting down with Thomas Hampson, does he actually smell? I actually saw that, the George Clooney of opera singers. And I thought, Can somebody call Nespresso? I want the 10 percent. I’ve never been asked for an endorsement contract.

Do opera singers often get endorsement contracts?

Yes, sure. Anna Netrebko, and Rolando [Villazón] has some, not too many. What would you do? It’s like the golf players, you know they have [the logos] on their caps and their shoulders; if I had the sponsors on my tuxes and I walked out on stage…

There was a company called Vienna Acoustics, they may still exist, and they made a speaker, and they called it the Hampson Edition. I was extremely flattered by that. I’m an audiophile, and I worked with them a little bit on the development, and they made me handmade speakers for my house, it was quite fun. But no, no endorsements. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.