Ildebrando D'Arcangelo wants to be more than a pretty face

When Ildebrando D'Arcangelo storms the stage in Mozart's "Così fan Tutte" at Los Angeles Opera, the bass-baritone singer projects a swaggering confidence and dangerous sex appeal that act like a powerful audience magnet. But please don't call him a bari-hunk.

The 41-year-old D'Arcangelo, who is one of six members of the "Così" ensemble cast, has garnered fans around the world as much for his voice as for his model looks — tall, dark and handsome in an earthy way.

Yet the singer appears uneasy with references to his status as a bari-hunk — the group of opera stars known for their pecs and neck size, as well as their deep, sonorous voices.

"To be honest, I'm uncomfortable," said D'Arcangelo when the subject came up during a recent interview. "I appreciate it if people say something about looking good. In opera, if you see a beautiful person, it helps. But for me, honestly, I never thought about it."

He may not reflect much on it, but D'Arcangelo's looks precede him. His recent album of Mozart arias, released by Deutsche Grammophon, emphasizes his Mediterranean smolder. On stage, he is regularly cast as Mozartean lotharios and lady-killers. In "Così," he is Guglielmo, one of two soldiers who test the fidelity of their girlfriends by posing as rakish interlopers. Next season, he will be back at L.A. Opera in one of his signature roles as the title character in "Don Giovanni."

Despite his success playing to type, D'Arcangelo said he doesn't always like being cast as the hunk. "Artistic directors of companies try to classify singers, it makes life easier for them," he said. "They think you are a Mozartean and that's all you can do."

The singer said he has been gradually broadening his repertoire to include Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," which he will perform for the first time in Chicago in 2012, and Verdi's "Attila." He said he is also preparing to one day tackle Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust."

Another point of annoyance for the singer is the "bass-baritone" label, which he said is by agents and managers. "I am not so much a 'bass-baritone.' I am more what we call a 'basso cantabile,' " he said. ("Basso cantabile" roughly translates to lyrical bass and occupies a slightly higher register than bass-baritone.)

D'Arcangelo was born in 1969, in the city of Pescara located on Italy's Adriatic coast. His father — whom he described as "very strict" — was a musician and organist. The young D'Arcangelo studied piano for several years and eventually joined a chorus. "When I saw the first opera in my life, I hated it," said the singer, adding that he doesn't remember what production inspired such distaste. "I was 6 or 7. The second one was 'The Barber of Seville,' when I was 16 years old. I was in the chorus and we sang for pleasure."

The young singer entered a series of competitions and won, helping to launch his career. Since then, his work has taken him to most of the major opera houses in Europe and the U.S. He said American audiences, especially those in L.A., tend to be much warmer than those in Europe.

"People laugh here when we do a funny scene. In Italy, they are silent. They don't laugh. Maybe they don't want to disturb the music," he said.

In "Così," the cast is required to be funny in ways that mix farce and subtler forms of comedy. The production, directed by Nicholas Hytner and imported from the Glyndebourne Festival, is an interpretation that Times music critic Mark Swed described as "sexy, red-blooded," with D'Arcangelo singing "with tremendous command of color and feeling.... Before long, his name on a marquee will be enough to sell out any house."

Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, who plays D'Arcangelo's girlfriend in "Così," described him as a gifted comic actor. "It's important to play the comedy not as comedy," she said. "We try to play the comedy as serious as possible and then it becomes funny for the audience." (They will share the stage later this season in "The Marriage of Figaro" in London and Milan, Italy.)

Looking ahead to his "Don Giovanni" next season at L.A. Opera, the singer said that most singers overplay their hand. "Everyone thinks he is a bad guy. But I think he's a sad guy, someone trying to fill an emptiness of the soul," he explained. "It's not about being obviously beautiful, it's in the mystery — the way he talks and sings."

D'Arcangelo said he models his "Don Giovanni" on two actors he admires — Antonio Banderas in the Broadway musical "Nine" and John Malkovich in the 1988 movie "Dangerous Liaisons."

"It's about magnetism," he said. "Malkovich isn't a good-looking man, but you want to watch him. That is Giovanni."

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