My knowledge of opera was, frankly, for many years limited to the funny use the music was put to in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. When I hear the overture from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, I invariably begin singing Welcome to my shop/Let me cut your mop/Let me shave your crop/Daintily/Daintily. . .
However, it was that Rossini overture, quite inadvertently, that led me to the operatic love of my life: the American baritone Thomas Hampson.
Picture this: it’s February of 1992, my opera-loathing father is already abed and snoring busily, and my opera-loving mom and I are watching PBS’s broadcast of a Met gala celebrating Rossini’s two hundredth birthday. The Met orchestra, with Maestro Levine on the podium, opens with that overture, and of course I sing along. Don’t be so perplexed/Why must you be vexed/Can’t you see you’re next/Yes, you’re next/You’re so next. . .
I heard Hampson before I saw him. He was already singing when he walked out onto the stage:
He had his back to the audience at first: singing “Largo al factotum”, Figaro’s first big appearance in The Barber of Seville, flirting with the ladies in the chorus, who were giggling like schoolgirls–and then he turned around.
Good Lord, he’s HUGE!! Six feet four, brown hair, blue eyes–and that voice–oh, that voice—
And although I have flirted with other baritones both musically and in my fantasy life since (Bryn Terfel? Nathan Gunn?), he had me at Figaro/Figaro/Fih-gah-roh–
Ever had the desire to sing with him? Not really–for, although I have a mezzo-soprano voice that could pass for operatic among ordinary singers, Tom Hampson is no ordinary singer, and I’d sound like Minnie Mouse alongside him. Actually sitting down with him face to face, I’d be tongue-tied and blushing too badly to speak, although, as he would admit himself, he can hold up both ends of a conversation.
I have had a sort of half-assed Q & A with him. He has for the past year (alas, the appointment ends this month, I think) been the NY Philharmonic’s inaugural Artist in Residence, and awhile back the Phil gave his Facebook fans (of whom I am indeed a loyal one) the opportunity to ask him a question about his music and career. Although the following was not identified as my question, it is indisputably my question (I made a note in my personal journal about it at the time):
Question: is there an operatic role that you have always wanted to sing but have not had the opportunity to perform yet?
Thomas Hampson: Well there are some roles that are coming up in my life that I haven’t sung yet, and one of them is Iago in Verdi’s Otello. That will come to life in 2011 and I’m very much looking forward towards that. There’s a lot of things I wish we still had in repertoire. There’s a lot of repertoire that doesn’t get played at all, like Henry VIII of Saint-Saens’s, the King Arthur of Chausson, or a handful of other operas that I would adore to do if somebody would do them. But that’s more my lament, that the repertoire has become extremely institutionalized. And other than the Baroque specialists, it’s very difficult to get people to produce unknown titles or titles that they’re afraid the public won’t get because it’s very expensive. And I understand the pragmatic side of it. But that’s my bigger lament. I’m fine. I like what I sing.
A very kind, if somewhat loquacious and a bit meandering, reply to an operatically challenged knobite’s naive question, no?
I sent him a message on FB thanking him, using that exact phrase, operatically challenged knobite.
I would have thought I’d died and gone to heaven had he come back and asked: what in the hell is a knobite?
Alas, he didn’t, so I never got the chance to explain it’s a person from the Appalachian foothills who, thanks to him, had a whole new world of music opened up for her, one that just keeps getting bigger.
Take This Tune is a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie. Each week she posts a video and participants are invited to write about their associations, impressions, or memories connected to that video. If you’d like to join in, click on the link above. Full instructions are given there.