Opera Is Cool

Born in Siberia and living in London, silver-maned baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has been dubbed everything from "the Elvis of Opera" to one of People magazine's sexiest celebrities. Though he'll deny it, he's the closest thing opera has to a pop star.

"What I'm doing is nothing," says Hvorostovsky, who will assume the title role in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of Rigoletto. "The Bocelli stuff, the Charlotte Church, this is the real crossover."

Contrary to the stereotype of posed and pot-bellied Vikings, Hvorostovsky is one of the fit, hip, handsome faces of contemporary opera. He's young to tackle such a demanding dramatic role, and the character of the typically hunchbacked jester had to be modified to accommodate his looks. But Hvorostovsky wants to be taken seriously. The singer so disliked his previous conversation with Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle, in which the critic questioned his preparedness for the role, that this interview with the Houston Press is being chaperoned. The PR agent points out that his Rigoletto performances overseas have garnered good reviews.

Hvorostovsky believes that a lack of arts education -- not a lack of hipness -- is responsible for opera's graying audience. For all its faults, the former Soviet Union emphasized literature and music. Teenagers went to the opera for fun before the free-market reforms allowed pop music to take over.

"It's easy," Hvorostovsky says of pop. "Like chewing gum." Verdi is an acquired taste, like fine cuisine. The first time Hvorostovsky tried French food, he couldn't take it. "Now I like it," he says. "I can even cook this way, but you have to try several times before you've got appreciation."

So a little flash is fine if it entices new audiences to taste Verdi. After all, Verdi's operas were the blockbusters of his day. But we must not lose sight of what makes these operas important. "Verdi is one of the greatest musicians, the greatest geniuses in a long time," Hvorostovsky says. It would be a shame if the next generation never knew that.

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Dylan Otto Krider