Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Russian rock star of opera who "looks like Nureyev and sings like God", dies at 55

Russian baritone opera singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky died of cancer in London, Britain on Nov 22, 2017. He was 55.
Russian baritone opera singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky died of cancer in London, Britain on Nov 22, 2017. He was 55.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Washington (Washington Post) - Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a Russian baritone who was one of the most celebrated opera singers of the modern era, dazzling audiences with a voice that was by turns brooding and delicate, died on Wednesday (Nov 22) near his home in London. He was 55.

His death was confirmed by his office in a statement. He announced in 2015 that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. His medical treatment and failing sense of balance forced him to cancel many engagements, but he rallied for a number of acclaimed performances before his death.

Among them was a surprise appearance at the Metropolitan Opera's 50th anniversary gala in May. Peter Gelb, the opera company's general manager, introduced Hvorostovsky, observing that he had "defied all the odds and the gods" to be there. His rendition of Cortigiani, Vil Razza Dannata from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto received an ovation that ranked among the most emotional moments in recent operatic history.

Hvorostovsky was a rock star of opera - a singer whose talents satisfied even the most exacting buff and whose physical charisma, accentuated by his leonine silver mane, thrilled listeners who had once gotten their opera fix at Three Tenors concerts held in athletic stadiums.

He burst onto the world's musical stage in 1989, when he defeated Welsh bass-baritone and hometown favourite Bryn Terfel in the Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff, Wales. The coup transformed Hvorostovsky from the pride of Siberia into the envy of the opera world.

He was hailed at times as a successor to Luciano Pavarotti, the centrepiece of the Three Tenors who perhaps more than any other opera singer before or after helped bring opera to mass audiences. Elle magazine described Hvorostovsky as the "Elvis of opera", and People magazine ranked him among the 50 most beautiful people in the world.

Baritone roles, unlike tenor ones, are not ready-made catapults to operatic stardom. But Hvorostovsky's vocal cords were their own springboard. "There have been many beautiful voices, but in my opinion none more beautiful than Dmitri's," Renee Fleming, the American soprano, once told the New Yorker magazine.

When Hvorostovsky first performed at New York City's Alice Tully Hall in 1990, so many musical professionals turned out for the show that reportedly few tickets remained for the general public.

He debuted at the Met in 1995 as Prince Yeletsky in Tchaikovsky's The Queen Of Spades. The role became a calling card of Hvorostovsky's Russian repertoire, along with the title role in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. He also distinguished himself in the works of Verdi, including as Germont in La Traviata, the hunchbacked jester in Rigoletto, the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Rodrigo in Don Carlo, Renato in Un Ballo In Maschera and the title character of Simon Boccanegra. At the Met and elsewhere, he sang opposite the most noted sopranos of his generation, among them Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Sondra Radvanovsky and Angela Gheorghiu.

Washington Post classical music critic Tim Page lauded Hvorostovsky for "his dark and unmistakable voice" and "the wild, fierce intensity of his interpretations". So great was his breath control that some listeners were left wondering when, exactly, he planned to breathe.

His extensive recordings included numerous solo albums featuring Russian sacred and folk music, as well as operatic selections. He had a particular sensitivity for the music of wartime in his homeland."The older I become," he told The New York Times, "the closer I feel to Russia."

Dmitri Alexandrovich Hvorostovsky was born in Krasnoyarsk, a Siberian factory city, on Oct 16, 1962. His father was a chemical engineer and amateur singer, and his mother was a gynaecologist. Because of their demanding careers, Hvorostovsky lived mainly with a grandmother, who taught him folk songs, and her alcoholic husband.

Hvorostovsky told The Times that he took up vodka when he was 14 and joined a gang. He wished to study in Moscow, but his parents objected. "They worried that I would live a dangerous life and lose my talent," he said.

He risked doing exactly that by joining a heavy metal band and singing, Freddie Mercury-style, in a high-pitched voice.

All the while, he nurtured an abiding interest in classical music, and he studied piano and conducting before enrolling at an arts institute in Krasnoyarsk. Because the Soviet authorities preferred to minimise Western European influences on culture, The Times reported, he studied the bel canto traditions of opera independently.

He sang widely in the Soviet Union, including at factories. "The men and women sitting in that audience in their heavy boots and big fur hats had never even heard of Verdi, and their tears were more precious to me than all the applause I could ever get again," Hvorostovsky told The New Yorker. "Where else but in Russia would an entire factory stop working at midday to pack a concert hall?"

Irina Arkhipova, the Russian mezzo-soprano, encouraged him to enter the Cardiff contest. "Hvorostovsky looks like Nureyev and sings like God," John Shirley-Quirk, the acclaimed bass-baritone, was said to have remarked after the performance, invoking the Soviet ballet dancer.

As his international schedule intensified, Hvorostovsky was often debriefed by KGB agents. "It was really, really hated from all of the society, particularly our society of singers and young musicians, who were rebelling and progressive," he once told The Post. "And on the other hand, I understood that I wouldn't get there otherwise, so I would have to say, yes, yes, yes, and sign the papers and stuff. It was terrible."

He intimated that he regretted his publicity as a sex symbol, while acknowledging that the promotion did propel his international career. He also described overcoming a battle with alcohol that he traced to his infatuation with fame.

His marriage to Svetlana Hvorostovsky, a ballet dancer, ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Florence Illi, a soprano; their two children, Maxim and Nina; and twin children from his first marriage, Daniel and Alexandra; and his parents.

In autumn 2015, after falling ill, Hvorostovsky returned to the Met for three performances as the Count di Luna, one of his favourite roles, leaving many in the house in tears.

The next year, he sang a recital at New York's Carnegie Hall. One of his numbers was the song To Molly, by Russian composer Glinka. "Do not demand songs from the singer/When troubles of life/Have sealed his lips/To joy and inspiration," the lyrics warn.

But they go on to promise that, with the gift of hope, "in a wild flood will words flow", and "louder than thunder the skies will resound".