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

Friday, August 02, 2013 - 03:00 PM

Thomas Hampson on the BBC's 'HardTalk' Program Thomas Hampson on the BBC's 'HardTalk' Program

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.


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Comments [28]

Anna from Italy

I've only just come across this piece of news and I would be glad to watch the video for myself; I think I got a pretty consistent idea of how the interview went, but I can't find the video anymore and on Youtube it comes up as "private".
Maybe I'm sparing myself some bad taste, but even if I probably would 100% on one side of the conversation, I think I'd still find it educational, in this world and age, to watch it. Unfortunately.

Do you have any other working link for it?

Jun. 02 2014 10:29 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Can anyone knowing opera, its masterpieces and great performers really not laugh out loud when people without such uplifting magical experiences claim that a Michael Jackson or an Elvis Presley was the greatest artist of all time. Commercial interests conspire to keep the public immersed in trivia. But the future belongs to the worthy works of art, the better artists creative in all the arts and their better informed of future generations. THOMAS HAMPSON is the ideal ambassador from the classical world to inform and proselytize the virtues of all good music whatever its format or origins or date line. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute who finds that the sheer beauty of music's greatest masterpieces IS the real wealth and health that everyone partaking may experience.

Aug. 30 2013 09:59 PM
Joe Gilbert from Canada

Thomas Hampson is indeed a cultural ambassador and he acquitted himself very well in the face of the usual BBC anti intellectual approach. I am an opera advocate and work hard to dispel the stereotyping of opera and opera singers. Introducing people to opera with Verdi or Puccini works and transforms doubters into fans. The art form has been with us for 400 plus years and will continue as it is capable of touching the heart and mind in a way that is unique. The addition of "surtitles" has made a large difference to the understanding of opera and has lessened the need for but not eliminated the need for "homework',ie coming prepared. It is most gratifying to learn of about the new operas being composed and performed. A new experience, a new opportunity to think and learn.

Aug. 13 2013 10:29 PM
Julie from New York City

What a heinous interviewer. Why does she keep harping on how expensive opera is? Madonna concerts cost far more. So do Broadway musicals. Hampson is wonderful and good-humored in defending the art form. Fred, thank you for bringing attention to this dialogue (although Montague's arguments drove me crazy).

Aug. 08 2013 05:25 PM

I fell in love with opera when I was 18 and enlisted as extra ( they used a lot of those in the seventies) and having a card to enter backstage, I was able to watch rehearsals and shows even when not acting (security was much lower). I was extremely poor at that time, but through the kindness of the staff, could attend all operas and ballets for free. I must say that when I worked it barely paid for a meal, but all the students who did it, were there for the same reason. Now that I have grey hair, I still love opera but do not think I am part of the elite, it is just a form of art that I enjoy. Of cours, now I am paying for the priviledge, but I see a lot of young people who come for 10 euros and jump in empty seats as soon as the light comes down and I smile because in 40 years they will sit in my place and thhis beautiful art will go on, because beauty always wins

Aug. 07 2013 07:34 AM
Alexander Robinson from Oxfrord, UK

The BBC has responded to my letter of complaint; see the text of their reply here:

Aug. 06 2013 02:45 AM
Fred Plotkin

Thanks, readers, for your excellent and insightful comments about Thomas Hampson's appearance on the BBC's HARDtalk. This has aroused a lot of discussion all over Planet Opera, and that is good. Send the link for this article to people who might find it of interest. I note that one of the commenters is Temistocle Solera, of Washington Heights. An unusual name and I recall that there was a previous person with that name. He lived from 1816 to 1878 and is one of the most important and unsung figures in opera history. He wrote the libretto for Oberto, the first opera by Giuseppe Verdi (1839) and went on to do the libretti for Nabucco, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Giovanna d'Arco and Attila, this last one completed by Piave. He was as politically passionate as Verdi and had, according to Verdi, a character that was tempestuous and violent. We think of the great, courageous early operas of Verdi and how they changed opera and Italy, but we forget whose words inspired Verdi.

Aug. 06 2013 01:04 AM
ginger baker from downtown

Hampson sounds like an affected ham. Opera remains in a cultural bubble. And its suffocating (even when it sells-out in tickets!) because it IS a dated art-form. Its too tonal. Its too long, and it requires too much attention. Its too "live" for today's media saturated audiences. THAT world is gone...its just a museum. Get over it!

Aug. 06 2013 12:45 AM
temistocle solera from Washington Heights

Thank you for your excellent words, Fred. This is my first-ever contribution to any "Leave a Comment" forum anywhere, of any kind -- so you have accomplished something of a feat. That said, I wonder if I am qualified to post a comment, having deemed the video unwatchable after a while . I switched off when the word "elitism" was hurled at the admirable Mr. Hampson for the umpteenth time, as if it were an epithet. Now, let's take a deep breath and ask ourselves, "When did this word become a pejorative? And how?". If, by way of example, I were being held hostage in a hostile country, I would certainly want an ELITE corps of Navy Seals to come to my rescue. Suffering from an acute ailment? Send me an ELITE surgeon who studied at an ELITE school, please. And opera as an elitist art form? While opera speaks directly to the heart as it engages the senses, the rewards are often greater in direct proportion to the level of of intellectual preparation and involved listening that the audience member brings along. I think the world could use more of this kind of elitism: an art form that invites us to rise up and pay rapt attention and then rewards us by putting us in touch with our emotions, our empathy for the human condition.

I can only surmise that the interviewer made the mistake nearly the entire English-speaking world makes and conflated the idea of elitism with that of "snobbery". This placed any conversation on the subject -- informed or otherwise -- on a very slippery slope as interviewer and interviewee were essentially discussing two different concepts. It also needs to be said here that the interviewer's listening skills were...uh, wanting. An example of a snobbish stance would be, "I enjoy opera, therefore I am better than you" or, worse, "You can't come here, this is an opera house". These are ridiculous notions that no one would hold nowadays or admit to if they felt that way! But this seemed to be the implied point of departure for the interviewer. Too bad! A productive conversation could have been had with the argument properly (and non-confrontationally) framed. Mr. Hampson tried his very best.

Here's a radical thought: there's hardly a problem in the world today that wouldn't be ameliorated in some way - small or great - by musical education. Let's observe the 200th birthday of Verdi to reflect on how music (read: opera) can operate as an agent of positive political and social change for whole societies and, as individuals, connect us to our better selves. Bravo, Fred. You, too, are "one of the good guys".

Aug. 06 2013 12:07 AM

After mulling this over for a day or so, I got to thinking about the 'film values' of that interview. Thomas Hampson, it is agreed, is a handsome man -- but even so, the lighting and camera work on him showed him to the best possible effect, in my opinion. The interviewer, on the other hand, looked harshly lighted and came across as, frankly, unattractive. (As this underscores my own feelings about the two I did not notice it at the time ...) Makes me wonder what the production crew thinks of the interviewer.

Aug. 05 2013 07:55 PM
Karin from Seattle, Washington

I was fascinated by this interview and particularly by the charge of "elitism" from a BBC reporter. At first, I suspected that Sarah Montague was a reverse snob, someone from a very upper class family, who had probably attended Oxford or Cambridge, who was "slumming" and being deliberately provocative. (I also disliked the unkind comments about old, gray haired people who attend opera performances). A google search revealed that she had a Bachelor of Science in biology from Bristol and worked as a stock brocker before becoming a journalist. My suspicion is that she really does not know or care much about music or opera and that may account for the not very profound commentary. Thomas Hampson, on the other hand, is from Spokane, Washington, ( I live in Seattle), and first attended university at Eastern Washington State in Cheney, Washington. Believe me, nothing elitist there! He has worked very hard to reach the heights that he has. Not only does he have an incredible voice, but he handled a series of what I consider cliche questions/observations with incredible grace.

Aug. 05 2013 05:24 PM
Tracy from Chicago

Nicely done - smart guy.

Aug. 05 2013 03:11 PM
Robert Poda from New York

I listened to about half of the interview, before turning it off in frustration/disgust. This woman knows nothing or very little about opera and it's audiences. I started going to opera at 14 - then in standing room and 55 years later I am still going. I am not rich, but still sit in the "Cheap" seats. She is completely off on the demographics subject. Opera being for the rich may have been true in the 19th century to some extent, bur certainly not now. I admire Hampson's replies to the interviewer's sometime confrontational questions. That seems to be BBC's way of interviewing process. I listen to the BBC on WNYC most mornings. HARDtalk, indeed!

Aug. 05 2013 12:21 PM
Bo from New York

The interviewer has the typical incorrect misconceptions about opera. I would like to know if this "elitist" has ever been to an opera. She is totally owned by Hampson. Bravo Thomas!

Aug. 05 2013 12:16 PM
Nikhil Goyal from Bangalore/Lodz

I agree with the elegant Mr. Thomas Hampson. Thanks to BBC and the nice lady for allowing for this interview and the opportunity for all this wonderful exploration. It could have been done better by the interviewer, but with Thomas Hampson involved, I'm never afraid that it would be not good enough (to say the least). I agree with Mr. Plotkin too.

I feel Opera is not something to fight over or argue with each other. It should be celebrated. Because it's about us and everything else that we choose to invest in (not necessarily only financially). If there needs to be argument, let's do it at the academies and places where we learn for example, let's do it where the argument gives us better access and more out of this art form.

Thanks Mr. Plotkin, please bring me more of this stuff.. :)

Aug. 05 2013 09:58 AM

A very bad interviewer, clutching at her notes, spouting cliches, radiating aggression. And Hampson did a beautiful job. He softened her up some, she was pinker by the end. He managed to get in so many interesting points about music and opera that I was more enthused even than I was before, for all this musical and dramatic adventure. (I have seen him appear stilted and wooden, and was so glad to see him animated like this.) In terms of the price and access issues, we are very fortunate here in Ireland to have many chances to see small productions and concert performances of operas -- usually for a maximum price of about $25 or $30, with excellent music and imaginative costumes/scenery/stage-direction. The small, excellent company is a very good ambassador for opera.

Aug. 04 2013 05:30 PM
Kuky Uber from Buenos Aires

Thanks to Fred Plotkin for helping us to discover Thomas Hampson as a singer and as an admirable human being!
Good for both!

Aug. 04 2013 01:45 AM
Abigail Wrenn from Saranac Lake, NY

May I say that everyone who loves the sound of the voice, everyone who melts even a little at the beauty of the voice, has access to the merits of Opera. How in the world can you say the love of sound is elitist. The rich may be able to more finely define the merits than others who have not made those definitions. However,it is a misnomer to label these definitions as elitist. Is it elitist to follow your dream? Everyone has the power of a brain. But everyone doesn't use that power.

Aug. 03 2013 02:31 PM
Concetta nardone from Nassau

Mr. Hampson is a class act and a gentleman. Ms.Montague is a reverse elitist and a bore. As for opera and classical music being perceived for the elites, my father worked on the old trolley tracks and my mother worked in a sweat shop. They both loved classical music and opera. Ms.Montague comes across as a upper middle class reverse snob who never really got her hands dirty and never had a job. Again, thanks for a fine article Fred.

Aug. 03 2013 11:28 AM
Fern Berman from CT

Thank you for bringing this interview into our homes. It was enlightening, passionate, and well thought out. It was a privilege to watch/listen to Thomas Hampson being interviewed. Thank you Fred Plotkin for opening this art form to the world.

Aug. 03 2013 08:57 AM
Dan Tritter from St.Raphael, France

The late Mike Wallace (and his imitator, David Susskind) invented the confrontational tv interview back in the '50's, with darkened set and
lights focused only on two seated figures, interviewer and interviewee.
The difference was that Wallace (and Susskind) had done their homework
and were familiar not only with the guest but also the field in which he or she worked. The BBC engaged a dilettante who had a prepared list of gossip column clichés and fired them at a gentleman who was polite enough not to undress the rank stupidity of the interviewer, but still try to direct the discussion to educate the BBC audience. Hampson, sometimes a bit stiff in other contexts, came across as affable, articulate and
unwilling to descend to the simplistic questions of the host. Mr. Plotkin is likewise indulgent with Ms. Montague's pitiful performance.

Aug. 03 2013 03:26 AM

A SUPERB spokesperson for opera-Thomas Hampson is so well versed and able to articulate his considerable knowledge (not everyone blessed with talent is as studied or able to communicate as well.) Well done, Mr Hampson-and Mr. Plotkin!

Your own interview, Fred, with Thomas Hampson is one if the best that I have heard, from both interviewer and interviewee-the gold standard. Is it possible to please post a link to that discussion? - a clear difference in approach- and it would be an interesting contrast and addition to the above interview.

I'm all for a lively discussion but some of Ms. Montague's contentions bordered on insult. It was the tone, however, that was so grating- I would prefer maybe a touch less HARDtalk and a touch more PILLOWtalk, a little more love for the topic & respect for the person. But, atleast it is good that people are talking about opera and someone as talented and able as Thomas Hampson is championing the cause.

Aug. 02 2013 11:28 PM
Bernie from UWS

I respectfully disagree that she was so off-base about elitism. We as opera fans know that there is nothing inherently elitist about the artform itself. Anyone can gain an appreciation for it without wealth or power.

But to the mainstream public, opera appears highly elitist. If you're not affluent, or at least middle-upper class, going to a place like the Met is still mainly out of reach. The vast majority of the seats in opera houses are very expensive. The Met's average seat is $156. See:

Opera is expensive to produce but the business must own up to that fact and find more ways to offer low-priced options. But I believe this interviewer is right to bring it up and ask the question in a tough (if perhaps overly theatrical) manner that is her show's trademark.

Aug. 02 2013 11:24 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

I just loved this. Bravo Hampson. And bravo you for your constant acuity and sensitivity, and, in this case, for your generosity in not pouncing fully on the maddening host.

And oh how I loved the Hampson line you quoted. “Nothing is more exhilarating than ingesting [music] acoustically and investing emotionally.” I was immediately transported to a almost meditative place where, to my joy, that was exactly what was happening.

Thank you, as always, Fred P.

Aug. 02 2013 10:01 PM
Gary from UK

Excellent article. More balanced about Ms Montague than I think she deserved. And Hampson was indeed a really class act!

Aug. 02 2013 07:18 PM

This article is #3 for Thomas Hampson on Google.

Aug. 02 2013 06:53 PM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

The wonderment of it was how polite and gracious he remained. I would have shaken her by her shoulders and said"LISTEN TO ME!"

Aug. 02 2013 05:51 PM
Catherine from Salzburg

Brilliantly written, Fred!

Aug. 02 2013 04:37 PM

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