Warm Up: Thomas Hampson is a 'Cheap Drunk,' but Never on a Show Day

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 03:00 AM

For Thomas Hampson, the secret to being able to turn out 100-110 performances a year is balance.

It may seem a simple enough word, but it can actually get quite complicated when you have as longstanding a career performing many of the greatest baritone roles, unearthing and recording American songs as part of the Hampsong Foundation and also performing lieder of intensity varying from Schubert to Mahler. And that’s all taking place when Hampson isn’t teaching, Tweeting or talking (he does the later with the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Mastersingers series on March 22).

“These thoughts just come to me every morning when I wake up,” he laughs after breaking down the differences of singing a secondary role like Valentine in Faust and a title character like Verdi’s Macbeth (he makes his Met role debut as the latter on Thursday). Fortunately, Verdi provides some balance of his own in what Hampson finds to be a “well-paced score.” It may be a long role, but as Hampson argues, “you’ve got everything in it, but it’s not just hammering at you.” Here's how Hampson gets focused and energized:

The B Word
For me, a performance day is not so much about sleeping in or being completely rested. I think I am more attentive to resting after a performance. The word in my life is “balance.” This is the whole sum game of everything I do: as much traveling as I do, the different kind of repertoire I do, the different schedules that I keep, the climates that change… all that stuff. And it all bears down on me in particular on the day of a performance. So the equation for me starts with the word “balance.”

The Heart (Rate) of the Matter
If you ask me if there’s one absolute thing that has to be done on any day of any performance, it is certainly work out, it is certainly exercise. If I’m in a hotel that doesn’t have an exercise room, then I’ll have a nice jog and a stretch. I stretch every day of my life, otherwise I’d turn into a pretzel. I always have some kind of yoga discipline in my life, which is absolutely part and parcel. My voice is completely hooked up with the rest of my body. So I gotta be awake in my body before I can be awake in my voice. Again, it’s a balance question. The sine qua non is certainly exercise, getting the day started and having a good and proper lunch, and eating earlier in the day.

Match Point
I’ve already been training back into Macbeth, which is an extremely physical endeavor. So I tend to be more religious in that rehearsal or performance period with cardiovascular -- that sort of thing. With recitals, your voice needs to be very pliant, very flexible and with emotive qualities. I might concentrate more on stretching and getting awake rather than a heavy-duty cardiovascular because sometimes you get kind of blocked up. It’s a very different kind of singing. They all have their own particular subtlety in finding the balance. I always liken it to a tennis player: It’s still a game of tennis, and it’s still your technique and your basics and how your body works. But if you’re playing on grass, it’s different than playing on clay and it’s different than playing on asphalt.

Fueling the Fire
I’ve always preferred to sing rather more empty in my stomach than full. I tend to stay away from sugar, even more than usual. I probably will concentrate more on a good protein lunch. That might be a steak or salad, or that may be a good fish. I’m not a vegetarian, but I am extremely selective about the things I eat. I don’t eat pork to speak of, other than a really fine prosciutto. For breakfast I tend to have a good stiff cup of coffee and a protein drink, either based in some powder I’m discovering or a bunch of vitamins. I like a protein shake in the morning to keep me going. Lunch is going to be substantial, especially depending on what you have to do that night.

Tempering with Temperance
I don’t drink much in general. I certainly wouldn’t drink alcohol on the day of a performance, mainly because it makes me tired. I do like a good red wine and a light beer once in a while—I’m pretty careful with beer because it’s so fattening. But spirits are not a big deal. You can tell if I’m on vacation, I have a margarita. I’m a cheap drunk; I’m an extraordinarily cheap drunk. [Laughs.]

Small Noises
I know Macbeth very well. I can be very busy reading some Ravel songs or some Schumann music that I’m memorizing for a couple hours during the day, quietly. A lot of people probably don’t realize that we study music very often without making any sound. The point of reading is really the point of quiet time. I try and stay out of the hustle and bustle of the day, especially if I know that the second part of the day is going to be as intense a performance as Macbeth can be. Any performance is intense.

Big Thoughts
When you go out onstage, you need very specific and simple thoughts that keep you inside of your boundaries and your abilities. This is not a place to go out and wag your finger and lecture, and God knows I’ve been criticized for that—probably legitimately. Anyone can get caught up in that, there’s no question. But the goal is to leave that where that belongs.

Ramp Up
The crunch time starts at about 4:30 or 5:00 in the evening for me. That’s when nothing is going through my mind except what I’m going to do that night. I’m very protective of my down time, my private time and my pacing. We’re like racehorses. We’re all ready to go and tanked up and we’ve just got to get into those slots before the gates go. That half hour, 15 minutes before downbeat is a very excitable, energized time. It can be a torturous time. Quite frankly, there’s nothing like going out to sing Winterreise knowing that, 90 minutes later, you will have sung 24 songs. It’s like, ‘Yeouch!’ At least with an opera you get a couple of intermissions or something.

Unplug
I’m a big Apple fan. I may be in fact looking at some emails [before a performance]. But I’m not on my iPhone. Mostly you’re getting ready. You’re getting makeup, you’re getting wigs, you’re checking that last thing, you’re looking at your score… or not depending on how it is. You’re checking some tones here and there. You’re just getting ready to go. That process is going to be defined by the security of what you’re doing. If it’s a new piece or a new role you’re going to be going backwards and forwards. But it’s an intensely personal time. Whether it goes by quickly or not, it certainly goes by inevitably. 

No Rest for the Wicked
I try to make sure that I keep my energy up. I will re-sing a few things or re-tune, I don’t just sit and think, “Oh, God, I’m glad I made it through that. Let’s see if I can make the rest of it.” The intermission is more of a convention of the public than a narrative of the piece—I’m also happy for intermissions—but it’s a refocusing, reenergizing or whatever needs to be done, whether it’s sewing on the button or re-stretching the hamstrings. It’s not really halftime, it’s just kind of a lull in the character’s and the evening’s narration.

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Fred Plotkin from New York

Thomas Hampson will join me for a conversation at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU (24 West 12th Street) on March 21 from 6:30 to 8 pm. Admission is free. Note that seating is limited and the auditorium always fills up. Operavoreans would be most welcome!

Mar. 16 2012 12:53 AM

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