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Thomas Hampson Takes the Hot Seat on BBC's 'HardTalk'

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Marilyn Horne, whose judgment is well-nigh infallible when it comes to things operatic, said to me decades ago about Thomas Hampson, “He’s one of the good guys.” By that, she was not referring to his skills as an artist or to his disposition. Rather, she meant that both his heart and his mind are in the right place and he has the ability to use them to good effect.

Her observation echoed in my ears as I watched Hampson in conversation with Sarah Montague on the BBC’s HardTalk, a television program in which newsmakers and prominent people in their fields have their feet held to the fire by an aggressive questioner. It is very rare to have someone in the arts, especially a performer rather than an executive, appear on such a program to, in effect, defend the worth and validity of the art form they work in.

I should say that, as someone who has not owned a television for more than two decades, I actually heard the program at four in the morning on July 30 on the BBC World Service, which is carried in New York by WNYC. One perceives these broadcasts differently as a listener than as a viewer (just as one perceives opera differently when it is listened to rather than seen). I then watched the television broadcast on the Internet, with the conversation already in my head, and got to see how Hampson and Montague’s faces and postures connected to their words. Very instructive.

Watch their conversation using the link below, or perhaps just listen to it. These are 25 minutes well-spent. Then please continue reading this article.

What did you think? I had many very strong reactions to this discussion. First of all, I think it shows Thomas Hampson as one of America's foremost cultural ambassadors. These are artists of all types who, through their talent and hard work, bring respect to our country by showing that America is not just blockbuster Hollywood films and foreign policy which, even when it is well-intended, is not always well-received. Our cultural ambassadors stand apart and show our nation’s strengths, openness and diversity.

I experienced a significant sense of identification with both the baritone and his questioner. This is because, in my own life’s work, I have occupied both of their chairs. I am not an opera singer but have done just about everything else one can do in an opera company at many of the top theaters in the world. In addition, I teach opera and try—with my articles here and elsewhere, with my classes and lectures, and with my books—to inspire people to love opera in all of its complexity. I am an advocate for opera.

And yet, I have also sat frequently in the interviewer’s chair. One should always be polite—and Montague was just at the edge of being discourteous—in these conversations, but also arrive fully prepared and ready to engage in a serious interchange. I believe it is a privilege to interview people who are accomplished in their fields and that their time should not be taken for granted. But you also are not supposed to do public relations for your guest (and Montague did not with Hampson). That is your guest's job. Your job is to know the subject matter at hand and ask questions that will make for an engaging discussion. Montague instead posed questions that called on and reinforced stereotypes rather than seek edification and illumination.

Montague made the mistake of using the trite gambit of referring to opera as elitist. Why would a journalist, especially one for the mighty BBC, want to adopt an anti-intellectual stance? Whom is she speaking for when she says this? She said that the issue of elitism would come from someone who feels “a psychological barrier to opera—that it’s not for people like me."

Later on, Montague returned to the notion of “not for people like me” when she raised the similarly trite issue of “believability,” suggesting that someone who is fat or not physically attractive would not be plausible in an operatic role. Then she added, “Montserrat Caballé was told she was too fat.” Really? By whom?

[Editor's Note: The BBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the HardTalk interview.]

Hampson said that if Luciano Pavarotti walked through the door now we would certainly want to hear him sing. And then, on the issue of appearance, he said, “I don’t think we need to concentrate on that. I don’t think it’s important." This an example of how Hampson addressed the oft-asked questions about elitism and believability. He did indeed respond sincerely but did not allow the conversation to fall into a long digression on topics that are hardly new.

Montague mentioned that tickets to opera can be expensive. Hampson said that many theaters, including the Royal Opera House in London and the Metropolitan in New York, have offered schemes that provide access to inexpensive tickets. To which I would add that there are many fine companies in Europe and the Americas whose price scale is not as high as we think. Also, let us remember that the cheapest full-view seats in opera houses in America are typically lower in price than the least good seats for Broadway shows, rock concerts and professional sports events.

A program such as HardTalk—and why don’t they simply call it Hard Talk?—is a contrivance intended to engage and provoke not only the guest but the television viewer. Hampson is very media-savvy and knew what he was getting into by going on this show. He even says, during the conversation, "this is HardTalk so I get to push back." But he did it graciously and without edge. And the BBC is to be commended for considering opera worthy of examination and for selecting such an eloquent practitioner of the art form.

Montague started the show by asserting that “opera is one of the least-watched and possibly most expensive art forms” and asked, “can it have worldwide appeal?” Soon after, she said that the “only people who really watch opera” are the richest and most well-educated. It struck me that this person who works in television used the word “watch” twice in describing how she thinks audiences engage with opera, a live art form.

Hampson said that operagoers “bring a lively participation” to “this rather magnificent art form that is as strange as it is wondrous.”

Were I in her chair, I would have asked “how is opera strange and wondrous?” Instead, she tried to heave another HardTalk-type question in his direction. She said that classical music and the foreign languages opera is sung in can make it seem remote.

I shouted at the screen, “We do not understand everything just because we know the words or can read the notes. It is the magical artistry that happens when singers, conductors, orchestra, chorus, stage directors and designers all combine to bring forth something both complex and immediate that we cannot help but feel if we allow ourselves to do so."

What was so impressive in Hampson’s responses was the way he politely dealt with the questions he has heard many times and answered with ideas that raised the level of the discussion. He was never rude or superior-sounding, understanding that such behavior would only reinforce the notion of elitism and otherness that his questioner kept returning to. I felt as if I were watching Roger Federer at his peak, never breaking a sweat in his tennis whites, elegantly returning every ball that a heavy-breathing opponent sent in his direction. When political or corporate crooks appear on this show they either become defensive or counterattack. Hampson did neither.

Eventually, Montague was somewhat engaged by him, though she did not always know how to take his ideas and score points on her own. She raised, but did not push, the idea that so-called elitism could be counteracted with the use of technology. Both agreed that "distance learning" through different media has its merits but that it cannot replace the experience of hearing music live in performance. Said Hampson, “Nothing is more exhilarating than ingesting [music] acoustically and investing emotionally.”

Montague noted that Hampson has been innovative in his use of technology. Not only does he have a website, as does almost every major opera singer but, as Montague observed, the singer provides the means for someone to download an app to watch a master class on a smartphone. In addition, the baritone has a separate website for his Hampsong Foundation, in which he spreads the word about Lieder, American song, and many others. Hampson remarked, “the impetus of a magnificent song, whether by the Beatles or Mozart, comes from the heart.”

It struck me often as I watched the program that the reason Hampson was so effective was that he did not promote—in the sense of marketing and advertising—opera and music. Such efforts inevitably ring hollow even if they are skillfully done. Able journalists know how to push back against marketing. Instead, Hampson educated, shared, enthused and he inspired. Rather than asking listeners to buy or accept, he encouraged us to dream.