Dance – Song – Parzival
An interview with star baritone Thomas Hampson.
Questions by Andrea C. Röber
On July 1, 2011, a special performance of Parzival – Episodes and Echo takes place as part of the 37th “Hamburger Ballett-Tage” festival: The US-star baritone Thomas Hampson sings The Wound-Dresser, John Adams’ version of a poem by Walt Whitman transformed into music and song.
Apart from being an internationally acclaimed singer of opera and song, Thomas Hampson is Artistic Director of the “Lied Academy“ at the “Heidelberger Frühling” festival. The Academy took place in 2011 for the first time. The singer’s goal of the Lied Academy is to work with younger colleagues on song as an art form, to keep alive this means of artistic expression. He also cooperated with John Neumeier and his ballet school. The workshop, consisting of public performances and discussions, was very well received – to the great pleasure of all participants. Therefore, the cooperation will be renewed next year, not only with the Ballet School of THE HAMBURG BALLET, but also with the National Youth Ballet, which will take up work in Hamburg in September 2011.
Last Sunday, Thomas Hampson was a much acclaimed Amfortas in the premiere of a new production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in Zurich. Regardless of the preparation for this production last week, he found the time to talk not only about the Lied Academy, but also about his relationship to dance, John Neumeier and the challenge to sing for a ballet production.
How did you get in touch with dance and ballet?
So far, I haven’t had much to do with ballet. I admire it, but am a layman in terms of working with it as an art form. As a viewer I’ve seen ballets quite regularly, and I know a couple of famous choreographers and artistic directors, like Peter Martens of the New York City Ballet and of course John Neumeier. I had my key experience with ballet rather late: while watching John Neumeier’s Requiem at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1991. It was the first time I saw a Classical Vocal work, Oratorio, in combination with dance, and I was immediately fascinated.
And how did you get to know John Neumeier?
I met John Neumeier in the same year in Salzburg. Since then, we remained in casual contact through many common friends. I learned that he choreographed his ballet Yondering to one of my recordings. Actually, he choreographed it to the songs of Stephen Foster, but used my recording of it. That was the impulse, and we started talking about dance and word, movement and music – about how to combine different elements and the effect that is caused by it.
In spring 2011 the first cooperation with John Neumeier and the ballet school of THE HAMBURG BALLETT came about at the Heidelberger Frühling festival. Why did it happen and how did it look like?
Thorsten Schmidt, Director of the Heidelberger Frühling, and I have been dreaming of a Lied Academy for some time – one that fundamentally addresses young artists, the future generation as it were. Thorsten invited me as the Artistic Director, and in 2011 we launched it in context of the festival for the first time.
We have tried to bring together different aspects, functions, programs, points of view and goals in this project. As an experienced interpreter of songs, I have an extensive knowledge about what is needed to keep alive the song as an art form: a lively access and comprehension, also for the audiences’ richer understanding. I wanted to design the Lied Academy in a “platonic” style: different topics are addressed, in very different forms of teaching – seminars, lectures and singing lessons. The singing instructions are for “young professionals”, advanced participants, though. With regard to the singing, my intent is always to connect the “how” with the “why”. It is about the expression of the lyrics and the influence of the music. In singing a song the word and it’s metaphor are of predominance: the main issues are the meaning in the imagination through it’s world of metaphor in a song. At this point we reach the topic of movement, of dance. From the outset it has been Thorsten Schmidt’s and my desire to work with John Neumeier. I knew that John cares a lot about the future generations of artists: he founded his own school, supports young choreographers and choreographs ballets especially for students. I suggested giving young choreographers and dancers, jointly with young singers, the possibility to look into dance, music, form and metaphor in a seminar atmosphere. He was very supportive of the idea. We work with text and image presentations at the academy as well, but it seems even more logical and organic to me to work with dance and movement, ie, with bodily expression. The physical connection with music is very important. Singers focus very much on their bodies, too, and sometimes we would love to dance, but unfortunately are not allowed to [laughs]. A dancer engages a lot with the content and with the emotional origin of the song, especially in terms of music and rhythm. I am very enthusiastic to see what kind of dialogue will develop between the young singers and dancers.
How do you perceive the relationship between the interpretation of a song in music and singing, on the one hand, and dance, on the other hand?
The vocal interpretation of a song has less to do with the artistic personality of the interpreter than their artistic efforts to make the song audible. Singers should not introduce personal opinions into their interpretation. It is the other way around: they must really decipher a song; they have to understand exactly where the poem and the lyrics come from, which poet, what reservoir of thoughts, which epoch, which language, etc. The music demands the same analysis. We decipher a lot to make the song come alive in its complexity. Choreographers and dancers, in contrast, proceed to the next dimension and can make a song visually perceivable in space, movement and time. With the cooperation of the Lied Academy I would like to find out how singers and choreographers, respectively dancers, work on a song – together and apart. Our aim is to establish a lively exchange about human topics through singing and movement.
What kind of a feeling was it when the ballet school danced Yondering to your recordings of songs of Stephen Foster?
I only knew Yondering from a video. When John and I sat together in the workshop and I saw the three- and four-dimensional performance, I was positively stunned to see how well dance goes into the semantics of metaphor. In the masterly hands of John Neumeier, the song is made visually tangible by a fundamental understanding of it’s elements. This was a profound experience for me. I was touched and thrilled. I thought that the danced realization exactly hit the essence of the songs and gave a visual image of the life and times from which they originate.
Some students also performed Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen from Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. You have recorded Mahler’s songs extensively, some of them more than once, and you perform them worldwide. What does it feel like when you see something you know so well interpreted in choreography?
It was a very touching moment. Mahler’s musical world and that of Des Knaben Wunderhorn are extremely wide and rich. The dialogue in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen is very hard to describe and even harder to analyse. The dialogue between the so-called woman and the so-called man is actually the anima and the animus, in a Jungian sense, communicating with one another. But I was able to see it; dance manages to express this dimension perfectly. The choreography can express distance, the sense of being lost, which is simultaneously set in dream and reality. To have seen this in dance means a lot to me, as a person and as an artist. After that, John and I decided to have an in-depth conversation on Mahler and Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the future. That will certainly be interesting
When you see a song interpreted in dance, do you think this might have an influence on your own artistic approach?
I do not know if what I see has any direct influence on my interpretation as a singer. But it does augment my personal image and fantasy of a song. It is extremely important for singers to also develop their personalities, their own sense of beauty. I encourage, sometimes emphatically, my younger colleagues about how important it is to visit, for instance, museums and galleries. As artists, we cannot rely on voice and music instruction only. We need a multitude of impressions and images, their vitalities and backgrounds – which is beyond study and business. An album of life, exchanging and interchanging the impressions of human existence is essential for an artist. These are my aims with the Lied Academy. It is very exciting to have a master of the portrayal of human emotion, such as John Neumeier, working with me. His fantasy and sensitivity will enrich the artistic exchange immensely.
As far as next year’s Lied Academy is concerned: Do you already have any ideas or wishes concerning the second cooperation with the Ballet school of The HAMBURG BALLETT and the National Youth Ballet?
We will definitely continue our collaboration. We haven’t determined activities yet, but the cooperation of 2012 should be much more intensive. Our next meeting with John is scheduled for this summer to plan the curriculum for 2012. This year, there was “only” one amazing day of performances, but next year we hope to have various seminars and workshops during which dancers and choreographers can discuss with the singers more intensively, about their respective artistic approaches. There is already a very lively artistic exchange of ideas.
Back to the immediate future: On July 1, you will be singing The Wound-Dresser, John Adams’ setting of a poem by Walt Whitman, in John Neumeier’s Parzival – Episodes and Echo at the Hamburg State Opera. It is the first time you will be singing for a ballet production, isn’t it?
Yes, it is the first time I’m singing while other people are jumping [laughs]. This will be a completely new experience for me and I am very much looking forward to it.
Will your preparation be somehow different from that for a recital or opera performance?
During the performance I will focus on singing The Wound-Dresser, this overwhelming concert aria based on a poem by Walt Whitman, who ranks among the greatest American poets. Jointly with the conductor and my colleagues from the orchestra, I would like to make sure that my interpretation meets the voice and intentions of the composer John Adams. I will take care of the text narration becoming vivid and understandable. After the premiere of Parsifal in Zurich I will study the score intensively, as it has been a while since I sang it. The score is very complex, but beautiful. I will also study the moving literary masterwork by Walt Whitman. And of course I will rehearse. This is just the way I usually prepare for recitals and opera performances. The new experience for me will be that, as a singer, I will not be the most important aspect of the performance: dance will be the essential part of it. On stage, the music will be rendered three-dimensional and thus come alive, while I will only deliver the narrative going with it. I have never had this experience, but I’m looking forward to having it and I trust John Neumeier. This is the reason why I was so thrilled and confirmed spontaneously when he asked me. My only real complaint will probably be that I won’t be sitting in the audience, experiencing the performance from there.
More about Thomas Hampson