The extreme adulation that's so much a part of the opera world has hit a new peak with the Nov. 22 death of Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
Now-legendary figures such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, and Franco Corelli were all lamented when they died, but in all of those cases, their days of stardom were distant memories. As recently as May, Hvorostovsky — one of the few Russian singers of any sort to sustain multidecade success in the West — appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, singing an aria from Rigoletto with his typical go-for-broke intensity, though he had been in treatment for a brain tumor since spring 2015.
The opera world knew all about that, but you could easily be lulled into thinking all was well from his video messages on his website saying he had plenty more singing ahead of him. Only days before his death, his new, complete recording of Rigoletto was issued on the Delos label. The Siberian baritone was 55, and he would easily have had another decade of good singing had he been in good health, especially considering that, for all his operatic savvy, he was even better on the concert stage. That's how Philadelphia experienced him in 2006 at the Kimmel Center, where he often seemed to physically reach out to an audience that indeed wanted to be reached.
I know fans who wept for hours upon hearing the news of his death. Impromptu memorial gatherings have been organized. At one such event in a Manhattan public restaurant, you could hear people breaking into the Russian national anthem in his honor. Others I know have been binge-listening to his 40-plus recordings: One of his best was made after he began cancer treatments: "War, Peace, Love and Sorrow," a 2015 collection on the Delos label of arias from great Russian operas, including Prokofiev's War and Peace.
"He made it seem so easy," said baritone Ethan Simpson, a third-year Academy of Vocal Arts student who first encountered a video of young Hvorostovsky that had a life-changing impact on him. "I became, all at once, inspired to achieve a rich tone and seamless legato that I heard in Dmitri. All at once, I decided to sing opera. "
Another admirer described Hvorostovsky's singing more simply: "I believed everything that he sang."
That's all everybody really hopes for in a singer, operatic or otherwise. Hvorostovsky not only delivered that but did so with a freedom and clarity that comes with knowing his craft in detail. Interestingly, his new Rigoletto recording has a climactic note that never quite reaches the proper pitch. Certainly, he could've done a retake. But it's an honest moment in a compelling characterization of Verdi's least glamorous but most soulful baritone role. So there it is: A portrait of a broken man who can't quite reach his note.
From the beginning, Hvorostovsky had a bad-boy aura. Only in later years did it come out that during his Siberian upbringing, he had been in local street gangs and was one of those people who, to put it simplistically, was saved by music. But he still smoldered with danger. When he smiled — as he did particularly in recent years when welcomed back to the stage between brain tumor treatments — it was the unguarded smile of someone who was threatened by no one. When he achieved that ironclad communication between his voice and his listeners, you were on his team, the winning team, and if you didn't feel like bad boy yourself, you felt tacitly protected by one.
Men with such allure carry themselves with emotional aloofness. But once as I was interviewing him in a New York cafe — and as he was scanning the room to see who might be noticing that he was there — a casual mention of the beloved retired soprano Teresa Stratas (who lived in the neighborhood) transformed Hvorostovsky into somebody else.
"If you ever talk to her," he said in an almost-pleading voice, "tell her that I love her so dearly … that I love her art very, very much." Like him, Stratas went to the heart of everything she sang.
We all like to believe that our idols are just like us, only a little more so. Well, he wasn't. He knew his worth. When he gave lessons to younger singers, which he did infrequently, the fee was $1,000 an hour — but worth it because as one who knew his singing mechanism so well, he could pass on singing wisdom backed by concrete anatomical knowledge.
The voice itself seemed to consume him physically. I first heard him after his 1989 breakthrough at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition at London's Wigmore Hall. He was so possessed that he scrunched himself into an onstage crouch, as though buckling under the weight of the emotion that was passing through him. "When I open my mouth, it becomes another personality … for which I'm not necessarily responsible," he once told me. "I'm not a religious person at all … but to me, music is another way to believe. I'm not saying I'm a god. I'm very sinful and a weak person. I only do what has been written. I'm helping people to hear that."
Another thing you hear from his admirers: Hvorostovsky kept getting better. The younger Hvorostovsky liked his vodka, which took a toll on his personal life and career. Vocal decline was inevitable. So he quit drinking. "I made a lot of mistakes," he said, "but I've always had people around who somehow helped me to avoid even bigger mistakes."
And when he rerecorded repertoire from 25 years before, the 50ish Hvorostovsky had a bigger voice to work with and even more control over it, improving on his younger self in every way.
When facing catastrophic illness, performing artists are publicly stripped bare. One thinks of the intense simplicity of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006) singing the "Neruda Songs" by her husband, Peter Lieberson, with the words "My love, if I die and you don't …" Or Arleen Auger (1939-93), who sang Mahler's Symphony. No. 4, describing a child's view of heaven, with extravagant vocalism and emotional freedom that suggested she was halfway there.
Then there was Hvorostovsky's war-torn Rigoletto. When he first sang the role, he buried himself under wigs and makeup to portray the aging hunchback. Critics weren't convinced. But for his Rigoletto excerpt "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" six months ago at the Met, he wore only a concert suit and was convincing on every level. Which makes us miss him all the more.