Thomas Hampson, © Jiyang Chen

“A song is always an island”

Thomas Hampson, one of the most famous singers of all time, is coming to Klosters Music to perform songs together with the Janoska Ensemble from the “Great American Songbook”. Georg Rudiger spoke to the American baritone about his connection with Switzerland, musical spontaneity and what playing tennis has to do with singing. 

You’re celebrating your debut in Klosters this summer. Have you ever been there before? 

I don’t think I have ever been to Klosters. But I do know Switzerland very well. Switzerland has been my home for around thirty years thanks to my work at the Zurich Opera House. My wife and I have hiked a lot – on the Mythen near Schwyz, in Interlaken and also in the Mont Blanc region. The Swiss Alps really are quite unique.

You are known as an opera singer and above all as a performer of art songs. In Klosters, however, you will be performing songs from the “Great American Songbook” together with the Janoska Ensemble. How did this project come about? 

I have been friends with the Janoska family for years – even during the time when Roman and František played in the Philharmonics. Their repertoire is huge and ranges from Bach to Bernstein. We did the American songs from the 30s and 40s together early on.

What is your own connection to these songs, such as “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin or “Love Walked In” by George Gershwin? 

I grew up with it. My mother was a famous pianist and singer in our small town – especially with this repertoire. To sing the songs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin or Irving Berlin, you need a larger vocal range. The Janoskas also love these songs. We will improvise a lot on stage. I find this spontaneity in music very rewarding. Concerts with the Janoskas give me a lot of energy for my future work.

There is not much spontaneity in the normal classical music business. Do you miss that? 

I understand what you mean. But I do believe that there is spontaneity in classical music as well. You have to know the different styles well in order to be able to act more spontaneously in the interpretation. You can and should also incorporate spontaneity in Schubert’s “Wanderer” or his “Erlkönig”. Without it, music is pretty dull.

George Gershwin said of Irving Berlin that he was America’s Franz Schubert. What could he have meant by that? 

Song composer and songwriter are not as far apart as you might think. We love Franz Schubert because he reflected human life in his music: a rushing stream, a galloping horse or the steady whirring of a spinning wheel. This opened up a new world. This special combination of text and music can still be found today in songs by Sting or Paul Simon. A song is always an island with its own world.

Normally there is a significant difference between pop or jazz singing and opera singing. How will you sing these songs?

That’s a very good question. I always tell my students: whatever you sing – Johann Sebastian Bach, Cole Porter or Sting – you are singing music that was written down at a certain time in a certain style. And my job as a performer is to know this context and to adapt my voice and the way I sing. In tennis, there are concrete courts, clay courts or grass. The tempo is different, the bounce of the ball is different, the spin varies – but it’s all tennis.

Many of the songs from the Great American Songbook were composed in Tin Pan Alley – a block of houses on 28th Street in Manhattan. The most important music publishers congregated there in the 1920s and 1930s. But you also have songs by Kurt Weill in your programme, which are different in colour. What do you appreciate about works such as The Threepenny Opera“, from which some of the songs in the Mack-The-Knifemedley are taken?

Kurt Weill was a genius – I love his music through all periods of his life. As an American, I am eternally grateful to him for showing how social issues can be brought into musical theatre, as in his musicals “Love Life” and “Lost in the Stars”. He showed that musical theatre can also be a laboratory of human coexistence and not just pure entertainment. This was also significant for later musical theatre composers such as Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Kurt Weill’s songs, shaped by New Objectivity and based on poems by Bertolt Brecht, are exceptionally concise and catchy. “Mackie Messer” was also a huge hit in the USA. We do our own version of it in two languages, with an effective change of tempo and lots of improvisation.

The Janoska Ensemble with its line-up of two violins, piano and double bass is not a jazz band. Why does that suit this music? 

A typical jazz trio consists of piano, double bass and drums – they have two of these instruments. The two violins really add a special touch. The melodies are skilfully distributed. And I get to be a part of it.

You have already performed the programme in a similar way at a New Year’s Eve gala in the Vienna Konzerthaus. What can the audience expect on Swiss National Day? 

Joy and an irrepressible desire to make music. The songs are really catchy. Experiencing this family in concert is special. We will also be hosting the concert. So the setting is very relaxed and informal, making it suitable for the whole family.