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And in This Corner: A Baritone Fights For Opera On The BBC

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

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The celebrated singer Thomas Hampson found himself in a verbal boxing match, defending opera and classical music from an unusually contentious host on a recent British talk show.

Baritone Thomas Hampson takes his punches for opera on a BBC talk show.

Baritone Thomas Hampson takes his punches for opera on a BBC talk show.

With an interview show named HARDtalk I suppose the host might be expected to come out swinging. And recently the BBC's Sarah Montague did not disappoint.

She wastes no time (in the video on this page) trying to pummel her opponent in regulation Chris Matthews style. But her adversary is no disgraced politician. No hedge funder accused of insider trading. He is ... an opera singer.

Pity Thomas Hampson then, the celebrated baritone and reluctant rival, who deflects Montague's punches thoughtfully by staying calm and working his point that opera and classical music are still important today.

Even before sizing up the singer, as the show's adrenaline-spiked theme music fades under, Montague aims a preliminary jab. With furrowed brow, she stares into the camera dramatically and asks, "Could one of the most elite and expensive art forms have worldwide appeal?"

I'd like to tell her: "Guess what Ms. Montague? It already does."

Brandishing her pen like a weapon, Montague attempts to knock down the singer and the art form with such loaded questions as: "It is hard not to see opera as anything other than elite and yet you have said that it's relevant to people of all walks of life. Would you really say that of it now?"

"Absolutely," the baritone smoothly counterpunches. Opera, he explains, comes from a deep desire to tell a story of how people interact with themselves. It's "a laboratory of dilemmas of people, and that can only always be relevant in my opinion."

Opinions about Montague's performance are running sharp on YouTube. Some are calling her "absurd." A few say she is just doing her job. Others find humor in some of her boldest allegations, such as: "At the moment, the only people really watching opera are the richest, most educated in the world."

One commenter writes: "I didn't realize I was one of the richest people of this 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!"

For his own performance, Hampson lands a few impassioned points about the perceived barriers between his world and pop culture.

"Classical music gets a hard rap sometimes," he says. "Just because it's a more formalized, structured use of tone, harmony and melody does not make it any less relevant to our emotional impact of what we're hearing or why we're hearing it."

"The impetus of a magnificent song, whether it's the Beatles or Mozart, comes from the same place of the heart and mind. This living thing says, 'I want to express what I feel or what I remember about being alive at this moment.' To me the contexts of different kinds of music and historical perspectives are prisms. It's one river, many wells."

No doubt, opera and classical music will continue to astound some, repel some and, oddly enough, inspire others to take all it into the boxing ring.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Deceptive Cadence

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