It’s good to be the Doge: Hampson makes the political personal in “Simon Boccanegra”
Chicago audiences last saw American baritone Thomas Hampson on the Civic Opera House stage two years ago. He was opening Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season in the title role of a Verdi opera based on one of the world’s best known, most easily summarized tales–Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The next time they see him—starting Monday, October 15–he will be singing another Verdi title role, that of the 14th century Doge of Genoa, Simon Boccanegra. This tale, however, is one of those convoluted stories whose plot twists–ranging from a long-lost, illegitimate daughter to intricate political intrigue—can flummox even the most devoted opera fan.
Sitting in his dressing room backstage at Lyric last week during a break between costume fittings and rehearsal, Hampson acknowledged the problem with something between a chuckle and a sigh.
“Plot is, for some reason, to Americans, extremely important,” said the 57-year-old singer whose stellar career has taken him to opera houses and concert stages all over the world. “It’s something strange, but we have to accept it to some extent.”
Tall and handsome, looking relaxed in jeans, desert boots and a dark shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Hampson counseled patience. Which is not easy in a world of instantaneous 140-character tweets and constant news updates crawling across our TV screens
“We live in a [world of] very fast consumption,” he said. “The wonderful thing about opera is that you don’t have any of that. I don’t think it’s a negative. I think it’s a refuge.
“Do not be dependent on plot,” he advised. “Be fascinated with dilemma. Operas are about human nature in historical contexts. The contexts change—languages, times change. But the genius of the operatic art form is this re-exploration of who we are as human beings in a musical language.”
Simon Boccanegra, a failure at its premiere in 1857, was widely acclaimed when Verdi revised it in 1881 with librettist Arrigo Boito. Like many Verdi operas, it is based on a real-life figure—Genoa’s first doge, a man who has achieved great power but is ultimately poisoned by his political enemies. The opera is a probing psychological portrait of both the public and private Boccanegra
“With all of Verdi operas,” said Hampson, “you start with Verdi. If you follow his path through letters and his notes, you can get to what it is that fascinated him about these people. For me, Verdi writes so directly, exposing in his music psychological dilemmas. You sing his phrases, and I think most of your homework is going to be done.”
Hampson has been singing the opera for nearly a decade, and he is still fascinated by the resonance of its themes for modern audiences. We are still grappling, he argues, with the issues that drove the politics of Renaissance-era Genoa.
“You’re looking at an intrinsic drive by common people for a sense of liberty, of democracy,” said Hampson. “This cuts to the almost contemporary theme of Boccanegra. You have the power of born entitlement, the power of organizations that dominate society whether it be government or, in this case, the church. And then you have self-determination. This conflict probably runs through all of civilization. But certainly for the past 300 years, we’re still working it out.
“The big ticket item, what Verdi really was focusing on,” he continued, “is this whole idea of hereditary hatred, of never letting go of the passions of an abusive time gone by. And the second big ticket item for Verdi is always this paradox of private fulfillment—personal life and dreams and love– being sacrificed or manipulated or stolen because of public responsibility.”
For Lyric’s performances, Boccanegra’s deadly enemy, Fiesco, will be sung by Ferruccio Furlanetto. The renowned Italian bass made a much-belated Lyric debut last season, giving a searing portrait of Mussorgsky’s doomed czar Boris Godunov. He and Hampson have sung Boccanegra in several productions from the Metropolitan Opera to Europe.
“We’re worked a lot with one another over the past 20 years,’’ said Hampson. “He’s one of my closest friends and one of my most treasured colleagues. There’s no one I’d rather be onstage with. We’re always learning new things, trying new things. He came up with new ideas in rehearsal the other day. I’ve learned a lot from Ferruccio.”
Stage director for Boccanegra is Elijah Moshinsky, an Australian who has overseen ten productions for Lyric since 1985, including a luminous staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin last year. In 1995 he directed this production of Boccanegra, which originated at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with Alexandru Agache in the title role and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the Doge’s daughter, Amelia.
Though both Moshinsky and Hampson have high-powered international operatic careers, this is the first time they have worked together. The process seems to be going well.
“[Hampson] understands the line of a dramatic scene as well as the singing, which isn’t always the case in Italian opera,” said Moshinsky. “Sometimes people are ruled in this particular opera by their voice. It’s very nice that he’s also ruled by the dramatic context.”
For his part, Hampson enjoys Moshinsky’s meticulous analysis of the libretto’s text. “What’s great,” said Hampson, “is that he sits there and simply works with us. He’ll ask, ‘Why did you say this word then rather than that word then?’”
“This is the key to Verdi in terms of stage action,’’ said Moshinsky. “You must pay very close attention to the text, and the text will tell you exactly what gestures have to happen. When you watch a good production of Verdi, it looks undirected, which is absolutely what it should be.”
Hampson is famous for his thorough research, whether he’s preparing an operatic role or a concert in his wide-ranging study of American song. Moshinsky likes the combination of open mind and insight the singer brings to rehearsals.
“He’s done [Simon Boccanegra] several times, but he doesn’t come with a fixed set of mind,” said the director. “Anyone performing a major Verdi role has to have an interpretation. You can’t just come out and sing it. But it’s not a matter of my interpretation versus his interpretation; it’s having an attitude toward the role. If you have no attitude to the role beyond vocal dynamics, there’s really very little for a director to talk about.”
Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, has worked on recording projects with Hampson and also conducted the baritone’s Lyric debut in 2002-03 in Massenet’s Thais opposite soprano Renee Fleming. Conductor of Boccanegra, he praised Hampson’s intelligence and flexibility. He also poked gentle fun at the singer’s tendency to talk non-stop about any given topic and his passion for 19th and 20th century American art song.
“If you want to spend several hours with Thomas Hampson,” said Davis with a sly smile, “say ‘Walt Whitman’ to him.”
In 2003 Hampson founded the Hampsong Foundation to promote American art song through performances and research. This week he traveled to Cambridge, Mass., for induction ceremonies as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He will perform two songs, including one set to Whitman’s Ethiopia Saluting the Colors by African-American composer Henry T. Burleigh.
“I always sang American songs in recitals,” said Hampson, “and I was always fascinated by how much was written that nobody knows.” During his research he came across an academic book about Stephen Foster by William W. Austin. Among other points, it linked the popular American composer to Mahler’s use of folk songs from the Das Knaben Wunderhorn collection and the whole phenomenon of German lieder.
“The idea just exploded for me,’’ said Hampson. America’s songs, he realized, could shed valuable light on who we are as Americans and how our society developed.
“It’s not about finding the composers,” Hampson said, “it’s about finding the stories. It’s the history of American culture through the eyes of our poets and the ears of our composers.”
Simon Boccanegra opens Monday October 15 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. lyricopera.org.
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