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American Baritone Thomas Hampson’s BBC HARDtalk Interview with Sarah Montague: Tough, or Just Stupid?

By James Inverne on Aug 05, 2013 03:33 PM EDT

The leading American baritone Thomas Hampson appears to have done his reputation no end of good (not that it needed much polishing, let’s face it) with a gracious and yet eloquent and robust defense of his art form on the BBC’s HARDtalk program. The television show espouses a confrontational house style and interviewer Sarah Montague had clearly been instructed to put Hampson on the spot about the popularity and expense of opera.

However, the show has not been deemed by the classical community to be, let us say, one of the series’s finest (half) hours. The blogosphere has been filled with outrage at what were seen as some inane questions--in one, for instance, Ms. Montague attempted to pin Hampson down by suggesting that opera was completely out of touch with today’s world because it was “classical music” and “written centuries ago,” as well as “in a foreign language." Hampson, for his part, answered with patience and precision--the very “otherness” of opera, he argued, was what allows audiences to focus on the internal dramas and wider resonances of its characters and situations. Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which he was playing at Covent Garden, may have been written in the 19th century, he reasoned, but in fact it depicts a 12th-century ruler who was a feudal ruler elected by the will of his people at a time when any form of democracy was virtually unknown. He left viewers and Montague, herself, to draw the obvious parallels to the Arab Spring and its successors.

In a particularly enjoyable (for opera fans) riposte, he answered the charge that only two per cent of Americans ever go to the opera with, “Two per cent of 300 million isn’t bad!” Montague, for her part, asked her set questions without very much background knowledge and seemed at least wise enough to let Hampson answer fully.

Letters to the BBC have reportedly been sent (and published on the web). And the talkbacks section in at least one YouTube channel where the interview appears is full of damning comments such as, “What terrible terrible journalism! She should be ashamed!” and "'The only people really watching the opera now are the richest, most educated in the world.'" What a profound, probing question--I didn’t realize I was one of the richest people in the world. Just because I enjoy that strange stuff written, oh my God, 200 years ago and can afford a 20-quid ticket. Thank you, Sarah Montague!”

We should also say that young readers shouldn’t probe those talkbacks too far as some of the comments are far less gentlemanly or, indeed, decent. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, typically, presenters are at the behest of their producers and even their research teams. Moreover, Sarah Montague, although a well-known presenter, is new to this high-profile program and so would have felt under pressure to "fit in." And, finally, ignorance about opera is by no means rare in mainstream media these days. The irony, though, which many have pointed out, is that the BBC has a new director general with more than a glancing knowledge of opera--his last job was running Covent Garden.

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TagsJames Inverne, Thomas Hampson, Sarah Montague, BBC, HARDtalk, Verdi, Simon Boccanegra, Mozart, Don Giovanni, Covent Garden

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