Beauty and the beast. (Hint: this time, the blonde isn't the beauty.) Calm down. We're not talking about looks. We're going skin deep -- a turn of phrase burdened by as much double entendre as HARDtalk (the HARD is ~extra hard~ caps lock for plebeians), where Thomas Hampson graciously agreed to a half hour interview with Sarah Montague, who gets, at least, one thing right from her bafflingly-outdated lede by introducing him as an "opera superstar".
We're thrilled that HARDtalk has validated opera as a viable industry and glad that they didn’t tap the usual suspects -- genius/madmen intendants, like Barenboim, who was tied up in his agony & ecstasy BBC Proms Wagner Ring. No stranger to international news outlets, Hampson's humanitarian merits and artistic endeavors make him an excellent interviewee. He's the real deal, far from today's famous-for-being-famous scavengers where celebrity status converges through Amex'd twitter follower hacks and faux awards.
Offstage, Hampson’s philanthropy, backed by deep humanity, makes him unique among his colleagues -- his Heidelberg Lied Academy, Hampsong Foundation and Song of America have created cross-cultural, musical frameworks that will outlast his career (although he’s still going strong at 58). Onstage, his artistry is generous and meticulously prepared, divergent from Montague, who didn't bother to learn the pronunciation of Montserrat Caballé (nor cite an opera singer who, you know, has actually sang onstage in the last decade).
Based on her generalization that opera’s possibly the most expensive, elitist art form in the world, attended by a tiny audience of old, rich, well-educated people, we’re pretty sure that she knew what she thought she was getting into with Hampson by cuing up old BBC Pavarotti interviews and expecting nothing more than a warmly-smiling divo whose hands are more expressive than his words.
The pure magic of the Hampson interview is that HARDtalk's MCs normally spar with presidents who eat road kill for breakfast or venture capitalists with Ivy League braggadocio or billionaire briefcases backed by millionaire press secretaries etc., -- yet humble Hampson, buoyed only by his innate graciousness and intelligence, outclassed someone whose robust paychecks (are supposed to) ensure incisive, well-researched interviews. Hampson’s art wasn’t in playing hardball with an out-of-touch interviewer; it was in not getting lost in it.
Despite relegating opera's sterling ambassador as an oddity who’s devoted his life to entertaining thin slices of gray-haired elitists (when she interviewed Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson last year, did she
label his fan base as tattooed, heavy metal degenerates? – don’t know,
didn’t watch!), the real mistake is to make this about Montague.
It’s really about the almost-extinct art of being a gentleman, showing the world with poise, patience and (more importantly) humor that opera isn’t populated by hot-tempered, badly mannered, egotistical singers. We'll leave that behavior to the presenters.