Straight out of Siberia

Times Staff Writer

Dmitri Hvorostovsky can't wait to get the wig off. The Metropolitan Opera has him wear one of those powdered ones, with a ponytail, for Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades," in which he plays a Russian prince whose fiancee gets wooed away by cavalry officer Placido Domingo. Domingo has to wear a wig too, and so do the singers who play his fellow soldiers, but their hair is not Dmitri Hvorostovsky's hair, a prematurely silver-gray mane that looks as if it belongs on a lion tamer.

"It's become like my trademark," says the 41-year-old Siberian native whose baritone is his other trademark -- especially the "breath control" that gets critics gushing. If you ask whether he has to be careful not to use that ability and show off, he looks at you incredulously and says, "I do show off. I do!" So why not show off the hair as well?

If he was anywhere else, he might have insisted. But this is the Met, "so I do not argue," he says. The rug simply comes off moments after his final curtain call, when he leaves the stage with his sturdy right arm over the shoulder of the great Domingo. Half an hour later, the nobleman's uniform is gone too, replaced by a black leather jacket, as Hvorostovsky emerges from the artists' entrance to Lincoln Center's underground garage and wades into several dozen opera fans waiting patiently for a glimpse or an autograph.

Some are there just for Domingo, certainly, but many call out "Dima!" -- shorthand for Dmitri -- or reach out with programs for Hvorostovsky to sign. Most of these fans are women. "The ladies just drop dead when he walks on stage," says Beverly Sills, the soprano turned Met chairwoman. "He comes on and flashes that smile and the battle is over."

The cliche of opera is that the tenor always gets the girl, even if he's 63 and sags a bit, but Domingo has acknowledged that it might be necessary to tweak the formula, offstage at least. He came up with a revised one the first time he met Hvorostovsky's wife, Florence, who is half-Swiss, half-Italian and has her own remarkable head of hair, a cascading tangle of dark curls. "The baritone has more gorgeous woman," Domingo conceded upon seeing her, "but the tenor has more money."

It's nearing midnight when the baritone with the gorgeous wife signs his last autograph and says, "Let's go," then leads her across Broadway for a bite to eat. He seems the epitome of the artist triumphant, and a man without a care -- except that neither life nor opera ever plays out that easily.

Standing out in L.A.

Hvorostovsky's PR people have touted his recital at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next Sunday as his "first time ever" performing in Los Angeles, but that's a touch of puffery -- he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in 1993 and the Music Center in 1994 and, in fact, his history in L.A. dates to before he was Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The concert programs transliterated his name as Kvorostovsky 15 years ago, when he made his first trip to the United States as a junior member of a tour led by an aging Soviet mezzo-soprano, Irina Arkhipova. Her six-member troupe drew no more than 200 people to the 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 16, 1989, and The Times' music critic then, Martin Bernheimer, had a field day recounting the "embarrassing" night. Other than Arkhipova, the name performer was her "tenor caricature" husband, a Bolshoi veteran who "bleated noisily, even painfully" at times.

But the Times critic also reported on a "revelation" -- the tour's 26-year-old baritone from Siberia. "If he always sings as he did on this occasion," Bernheimer wrote, "he could have the world at his feet." Perhaps as significant was that the review's three paragraphs on the then unknown said nothing about his looks. Every word focused on his technical and interpretive skills, which clearly were the product of old-school Russian training.

Americans may think of Siberia as another Wild West, and Hvorostovsky's accounts of his background don't dispel that notion: how his great-grandfather was "chain-walked" there for "certain crimes" and how he himself was prone to nose-breaking street brawls as a kid; then how he got his first professional gigs as a teenager, as the vodka-swigging frontman for a heavy metal band that performed at a campground. But his city, Krasnoyarsk, had two opera houses along with radar installations designed to detect U.S. missiles. And the young Dmitri, however rowdy, enjoyed sculpting and the piano along with soccer. By the time he was 16, he had settled down to pursue his destiny.

Hvorostovsky says the turning point came after he stayed out all night partying with his bandmates, and his father, a chemical engineer -- and an accomplished amateur singer -- found him the next morning, hung over and stinking of cigarettes, with a girl. "He never touched me," the baritone recalls. "He gave me a look. He left and walked out."

Hvorostovsky gave up aspiring to sing like Queen's Freddie Mercury and obtained a "diploma of choirmaster," then began working with a classically tough Russian voice coach at the Krasnoyarsk Institute of Arts.

Part of him seems to relish having experienced the Soviet era, even how KGB agents would accompany him when he began performing out of the country and take a cut of whatever he earned. It gave him good stories to tell later on and, hey, they gave you an apartment in Moscow when you proved you were a stud at sports or dance or, yes, opera -- and you didn't have to be a tenor. That said, he does not regret that by the time he returned from that first U.S. tour, the Berlin Wall was ready to crumble, and with it, that suffocating way of life.

However poorly Irina Arkhipova had organized the trip, Hvorostovsky will forever be in her debt for pushing him, when they got back, to enter the Cardiff Singer of the World contest, staged by the BBC in the Welsh capital. "I didn't want to go," he remembers. "I wanted to go to [competitions] in Barcelona or Helsinki, because ... they would pay more. She said, 'No, you gonna go.' "

The key, as the 63-year-old mezzo saw it, was that the event would be televised throughout Europe -- making it a classical music precursor to "American Idol." Hvorostovsky wound up in the finals against the local favorite, Bryn Terfel, a bass-baritone with the build of a rugby player. At 6-foot-3, the Welshman had 2 inches on him but was three years younger and less experienced. Hvorostovsky performed Rodrigo's death scene from "Don Carlo" to win.

The ripples from that electrifying performance reached U.S. shores partly thanks to Francis Rizzo, then artistic consultant to the Washington, D.C.-area Wolf Trap Opera Company. He had someone send him a tape of the BBC contest, watched it before he went to sleep at 3 a.m., then began his "evangelical work" as soon as he woke up, sending dozens of copies to critics, conductors and opera producers.

"Everyone thought I was unhinged, obsessional," Rizzo says, "and I was."

No advertising was needed for Hvorostovsky's first U.S. recital. Word of mouth packed Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in March 1990 for a program that included much of what he still makes the centerpiece of his recitals, songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The Times' current music critic, Mark Swed, then writing in the Wall Street Journal, observed how his "stupendous" breathing technique enabled him to "pour out seamless phrases of the richest baritonal sound longer than anyone else." Swed also saw showbiz qualities in the singer who, though not quite sporting a pompadour and smirk, "could have been opera's Elvis." And that would not be the last such moniker affixed to Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Plenty of nicknames

"Ah, the 'Elvis of the opera.' He's the one to be blamed," the baritone says with a laugh when he reaches Cafe Fiorello. " 'Opera hunk' or whatever. Still carrying those titles. 'The Siberian Express.' "

He has earned a few laughs, and a respite, though not a real drink -- he stopped with the vodka as a New Year's resolution a few years back -- after performing two nights in a row. The first saw the hottest production of the Met season, a "Traviata" with soprano Renee Fleming as the free-spirited and doomed Violetta. Hvorostovsky was allowed to use his real hair in that one while playing Germont, the father of her lover, serving as the deep voice of moral authority as he persuades Violetta to abandon the scandalous affair -- an unpleasantness with which Hvorostovsky, in real life, is not unfamiliar.

Settled into a back table at the restaurant, the statuesque Flo explains how they met five years ago in her hometown of Geneva, where she was a 28-year-old soprano, though her role that time did not require her to sing.

"I was supposed to play his girlfriend," she says.

"I did my first 'Don Giovanni,' " Hvorostovsky picks up the story. "I was supposed to do it in the middle of nowhere for my first tryout."

Despite his dashing persona, he has been cautious from the start in plotting his career, building it on roles and recital songs for which he knows his voice is suited. That's why he was in "safe and comfortable" Switzerland for his debut as Giovanni, the dueling seducer, and found himself face to face with the local beauty. Who needs a program to figure out what happened next?

The problem was, he was married. His wife, a ballerina from his hometown, was back minding their toddler twins in London, where his early success had enabled them to buy a five-story home with a garden. "I was married young and stupid," he says. But there's no good way to explain these things.

The divorce took two years and left him supporting two families plus his parents, which is one reason he doesn't protest too vehemently about the "Elvis of opera" hype or about the photos on some of his early CDs that resemble the covers of romance novels, showing him with a variety of smoldering looks while that hair flops over his left eye.

Being a professional artist is all about selling yourself, in any case, without selling your soul -- unless you want to sell it or perhaps rent it out from time to time.

Though nobody has yet tested Hvorostovsky by offering obscene money for a "Three Baritones" tour, he has been a relative purist on such matters. His idea of "crossover" has been to perform Russian songs from World War II, as he will do again next month in Red Square. Baritone arias in opera rarely get audiences crying, but these songs always do in a nation that lost more than 20 million people in the war. One of his grandfathers insisted on serving, despite poor eyesight, and was shot dead in his first battle with the Germans, defending the outskirts of Moscow.

A couple of years ago, the London Daily Telegraph asked Hvorostovsky if he would sing with Madonna for $1 million. "It would be painful," he said, "but I would turn her down."

Nonetheless, his longtime booster, Rizzo, keeps urging him to be more open to such endeavors. Since the success of the movie "Moulin Rouge," Rizzo has been campaigning for Baz Luhrmann to film "The Merry Widow," perhaps with Madonna in the title role and you-know-who as Count Danilo Danilovich, who ends up marrying her.

"He's perfect for Danilo," says Rizzo, now an advisor to Washington's Kennedy Center, "His accent, his look, even the fact that his hair is white. Pair him up with the right gal, Sondheim would do new lyrics...."

On a more serious note, Rizzo argues that "within the context of an operatic career, very few can make a lot of money. A handful. [And] it's harder for a baritone....Certainly it's been proposed that he and Bocelli do something together," that being Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor who has won little respect in the opera world but whose romantic duets sell CDs by the millions.

Hvorostovsky suffers from enough honesty to admit that he may see the appeal of a stadium gig. "It sounds cynical," he says, "but what else if not the money?"

From the front of the restaurant, a familiar figure rises, waves and approaches.

"This is greatest German bass!" Hvorostovsky announces, except that he pronounces "bass" like the fish.

Rene Pape is a towering force of nature and, at 39, another youngster in opera years with ample reason to strut. He recently had his first recital at Carnegie Hall and was in the Met's "Don Giovanni" as the nobleman's servant, Leporello.

"He's a Leppo!" says Hvorostovsky, amid hugs all around.

"Great to see you," Pape says -- to the lovely Flo. Then "I like your hairstyle" -- again to the wife and not the Siberian with the silvery locks.

"I like yours," Hvorostovsky tells the close-cropped German. "You're getting darker."

A tricky business

Two days later, Dima and Flo are relaxing in the Upper West Side apartment they are renting for four months while he sings at the Met and travels to recitals around the country. With them is Maxim, their pudgy boy, born nine months before. They say Domingo reassured them, upon seeing the happily squealing kid, "He's gonna be a tenor."

Hvorostovsky's other children, twins Daniel and Alexandra, did not get to see him in action when he and Domingo performed "Pagliacci" in London. His ex-wife said the pair, now 7, could not stay out that late.

Hvorostovsky works out in the afternoon to keep his 205-pound frame fit, doing old-fashioned pull-ups and push-ups, the latter with one arm, 20 at a time. He is intrigued by martial arts, particularly full-contact forms that pit karate experts against boxers and wrestlers. The combatants always start by punching from a distance but wind up on the ground grappling for survival. That reflects his view of the world as a perilous combat zone, his profession included.

He has not had a voice coach since his conservatory training ended when he was 24. "I have no teachers. I study on my own, by records and analyzing my own work," he says, "because I'm not as trustful. Our business is very tricky."

He has a calendar that lists his bookings through 2008, and one of those keeps drawing his attention like a flashing light: a date next year at La Scala, the great opera house in Milan.

He performed there once, in 1993, and isn't sure what went wrong. "I don't know," he says. "I wasn't good enough. I wasn't invited back.... So I want to regain this country for myself."

When he returns, he will be singing in his native language, playing the same part he just did at the Met, the prince in "The Queen of Spades." But he speaks five languages -- Russian, English, French, German and Italian -- and has been perfecting the last with the help of his wife, so he sees no reason why he shouldn't sing Italian operas at La Scala, even if "there is a danger that I'll be just buried there."

It's become a mind game. Though he hasn't been back to La Scala, he did return to Milan recently to do a recital, a form he has down cold, as his audience in Los Angeles will discover. He thought it was going great too, so why not do a Verdi aria for an encore? He sang that death aria from "Don Carlo," the same one he had nailed at Cardiff to launch his career -- only to hear what he could have sworn was a man's "very loud" boo.

"I was going to jump off the stage and go after this person," he says, gesturing toward his wife, "and she went toward the stage and literally grabbed my hands." She told him then that the man in the audience was retarded, "he can't talk," and that what he was trying to yell was "Bis," Italian for "encore."

A luxurious format

In Los Angeles, he's going to do his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs for the first half of the program and opera after that. The format is a luxury for someone who in the opera house gets only an aria or two. It gives him two hours to work the audience.

He's also planning to do some business while in town. His agents have set up meetings to see if he can get endorsement deals or commercials for such high-end products as Rolex watches or Jaguars. He's not sure if he'd have to sing in them. "What else can I do?" he asks. "Of course, talking and posing and going to cocktail parties. But it just got started. I've got to see."

He and Flo hope to get in some sightseeing also. They want to know about the street scene along the beach in Venice.

"Are there any street singers?" he asks. "Is it literally hat down in the floor? Really? Can you make a good living?"

The fantasy is priceless: him out there with his shirt off, and the hat on the ground, giving them a little Prince Yeletsky from "Queen of Spades," and without that wig.

He laughs. He's not sure. What if he got booed?

"I wouldn't risk it. No, no," says the Cardiff Singer of the World and the sometime Elvis of the opera, as he realizes a more compassionate reason not to do it:

"The people," he says, "would go broke."

*

Baritone in recital

Who: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

When: Next Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

Price: $10-$90

Contact: (213) 365-3500

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