August 29, 2008

Russian Baritone Wholeheartedly Embraces His ‘Boccanegra’ Role

By Cheryl North

Seated in the single chair in front of the security man's cubicle in the lonely lobby of the Zellerbach rehearsal area in Davies Symphony Hall, I had almost given up the possibility of an interview with grand opera's gold medal-level baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Communication problems and hours of phone tag had stretched the time for our prospective interview from 2:30 p.m. on into the early evening.

The great singer is in town with his beautiful Italian-born wife, Florence, their 4-year-old son, Maxim, and 10-month-old daughter, Nina, to begin rehearsals for his starring role in San Francisco Opera's gala opening night and subsequent productions of Giuseppe Verdi's great 1857 opera, "Simon Boccanegra."

Baritones generally need to be at the pinnacle of their capabilities to handle Verdi roles. A good Verdi baritone requires not only a clear higher register and a lyrical quality, but considerable heft and power as well. One writer used the apt words "dark color, bite and snarl" to describe the required voice.

Hvorostovsky's near-perfect Verdi baritone had its beginnings 45 years ago in Krasnoyarsk, an industrial/scientific center in Siberia with a population of more than a million. An only child, Hvorostovsky inherited his mop of prematurely silver hair and black eyes and eyebrows from his still-youthful-looking father, who is a chemical engineer as well as an accomplished baritone himself. His mother, a slim, elegant woman with lovely expressive eyes, is a retired medical doctor.

During a telephone interview I had with Dmitri in the budding days of his career 11 years ago, he said "My parents both worked when I was a child, so I was raised by my grandmother, a deep and wonderful woman who spoiled and cherished me." He went on to say, "I always wanted to be in music. I was bad at math, Russian and literature and I guess I was somewhat of a wild boy. I used to play soccer and liked boxing and swimming. But through it all, I loved music."

He attended the Krasnoyarsk High School of Arts, where he studied voice with Yekaterina Yofel and took classes in music theory, conducting and piano. Interestingly, it was his playing of a couple of Gershwin's virtuosic preludes for piano that won him his initial First Prize.

"After that, I began winning many competitions in voice -- always first prizes," he had emphasized during that long-ago interview.

Suddenly, the Zellerbach lobby silence was broken by the loud clatter of hurried footsteps dashing up the stairs from the hall's subterranean sound-proofed rehearsal studios. I looked up to see the man in the flesh, looking exceedingly fit in his body-hugging blue jeans.

With such sexy, smoldering good looks, no wonder he landed on People magazine's list of the "World's 50 Most Beautiful People." I could not help but remember a Russian girl's description of him when I was in Moscow a few years back: "He is the Russian Elvees Prezley!"

Rousing from my reveries, I stammered out, "Uh "... I'm Cheryl. Do we "... uh "... have an interview?" His face lit up into a supernova smile as he affirmed, "Of course!" We were soon walking together across the street to his Opera House dressing room, during which stroll, in impressive, gentlemanly fashion, he adjusted his long-limbed pace to my slower one. When we arrived, he gestured for me to take the room's single upholstered chair while he pulled up a hard-backed one for himself.

"I very much like the character of Simon Boccanegra," he began. "I admire Boccanegra's innate humanity, diplomacy and peace-making character. The themes brought out in the opera are still modern and important -- the idea of a united society and country, but yet dealing with the political ambitions and difficult personal egos of its characters. It is a role, like life itself, that is both complex and fulfilling."

Becoming even more serious and intense, he expressed his feelings that it is important not to just rest on one's laurels, but to remain open to new experiences.

"Everything in my career seems to happen just at the right time," he said. "A few years back, Constantine Orbelian, the conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, suggested that we collaborate to perform and record some of the famous ballads popular in Russia during World War II. At first, I was not interested -- but I finally consented to give it a try."

The results have been astonishing. "I have to say, with full feeling, that almost every family in Russia suffered terrors, deaths and losses during WWII. After millions viewed them on television, in person, or during our tours through Russia and the West, there seemed to be a new wave of patriotism and gratitude. The music helped people remember what they and others had gone through."

And, sounding more like a mature humanitarian than a matinee idol, he added, "As long as the people have memories of the past, they will have a future."

Reach Cheryl North at [email protected] WHO: Dmitri Hvorostovsky-- WHAT: Starring in San Francisco Opera's production of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra"-- WHERE: War Memorial Opera House, S.F. -- WHEN: Sept. 5-21-- HOW MUCH: $15-$290-- CONTACT: 415- 864-3330 or

Originally published by Cheryl North , Correspondent.

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