Homegrown Tenor Sings Puccini at Peabody, by Matt Ward
Baltimore native Daniel Sampson drinks a lot of water.
“So far today, it’s before noon and I’ve already drank more than half a gallon,” Sampson said, laughing, in a recent interview.
Sampson, 26, is a singer—a tenor—so, he has to take care of his voice day in and day out. Right now, he’s a section head in the choir at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore (near City Hall), he’s getting ready to play the role of Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and he’s pursuing a master’s in voice at Peabody Conservatory. It sounds like an intense program, but Sampson comes across as a calm, upbeat, even-keeled. For his instrument to work its best, he says, he has to be.
“For me, the two keys are hydration and relaxation,” Sampson says. “I try to make sure that I feel good, and then I just try to relax and not get too worked up about things.” Recalling a recent conversation with a Peabody classmate, he adds: “If things are going really bad for him, he can put his clarinet down and walk away for a few hours and come back to it. For me, I live with my voice. It’s also just a lot of love an acceptance, too. You have to accept: this is where I am, this is where I am today. But that’s what technique is for, too, to make sure your voice is pretty dependable.”
Sampson is working to hone that technique with husband and wife team Stanley Cornett (voice teacher) and Eileen Cornett (opera coach). “The way the conservatory is set up,” Sampson explains, “is you spend a lot of one-on-one time with your teachers and your coaches. You find a problem and they give you ideas how to fix it, then you come back hopefully better the next day than you were the one before.”
Asked whether the small campus at Mt. Vernon ever starts to feel like a fishbowl, populated as it is with high caliber musicians who inevitably have to compete for positions, Sampson explains his antidote: he lives in Federal Hill—so, at the end of the day, he is able to separate himself a bit. On campus, though, he tries to be happy for the successes of his classmates, and hopes they’ll return that vibe when he does well. “The environment is very collegial here,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not intense. You’re being pushed to do things that you’ve never done before, you’re being pushed to be at the highest level that you can possibly be. For me, I’m not competing against anyone else here—I am bettering myself.”
Sampson grew up in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hunting Ridge, not far from the city/county line in Catonsville. His parents, both lawyers, did not play music, but some uncles did. His earliest musical memory is of listening to the choir at Morning Star Baptist Church. “I didn’t necessarily participate in the music ministry,” Sampson says. “I just watched.” In high school at Loyola Blakefield, he sung in the choir and performed in musicals. He got his bachelor’s in music education and voice from Loyola University New Orleans; then, after graduating, he stayed in New Orleans, teaching music at a Catholic School before taking a job as music director at church. When he decided he wanted to go to grad school for voice, he applied to Peabody. Coming back home to Baltimore, Sampson says, was important.
“It helps that my family’s here,” he says. “I lived in New Orleans for seven years, and I had to plan out for a very long time when I was going to see my family. And now if I want to go home for dinner at my parents’ house, I can just get in my car and be there in 20 minutes.”
Long term, Sampson sees himself teaching at the university level. But, he likes performing, too. So far, he’s been Monostatos in The Magic Flute and Lamar in Godspell; he’s been a soloist in Vivaldi’s Magnificat and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. When we spoke for this article, he was getting ready for a nine-hour rehearsal ahead of his appearance next weekend in the Puccini opera at Peabody.
“We’ve been prepping for this for quite a while,” Sampson says. “I’ve been looking at this role on an off since at least the summertime. Now that I know it really well, it’s all about making sure that everything lines up with the voice. It’s really about endurance.”
Peabody Conservatory’s production of the three-part Puccini opera, Il Trittico, will take place Thursday through Sunday, March 7 through 10. Admission is free.