Deep Baritone: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Photo: Pavel Antonov/Courtesy of Blackman & Co.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky may be the opera world’s favorite baritone these days. Sixteen years after he was catapulted to stardom by winning the Cardiff prize at 26, the Siberian-born Londoner is now booked way into 2010. He’ll perform a recital of Russian art songs Wednesday at Lincoln Center and appear next week at Joseph Volpe’s Metropolitan Opera farewell gala. In a chat with Alicia Zuckerman, he reflected on his image, his complex relationship with the motherland, and an onstage flash of anger that almost turned ugly.

Can we talk about this business of people calling you a hunk all the time?
The sex appeal is part of the package. My voice is sensual, too, and it is part of my image and my character and my personality. It has something to do with a little magic called the “significant presence,” or whatever. I’m very happy I’ve been very gifted with looks and stuff.

Any negatives? Stalkers?
All of us have groupies, sex symbol or not. I’ve dealt with several, but I know how to handle it. It’s fun to deal with groupies—you have to appreciate people’s devotion, and I’ve learned how to see the best in people that do not behave normally.

That showmanship seems to come to you naturally.
Once you draw the attention to yourself, you can smile, you can turn upside down, you can do anything—you can read the newspaper, and people will love it. Even five or six years ago, I wasn’t very much smiling. I don’t know—I didn’t have many reasons to.

You’re Russian, after all …
Sure. Ask Russian person, “Are you happy?” [Glowers] “Yeah, I am happy.” It’s a revelation for a foreigner who visits for the first time. None of the people smile at you at first sight. I was very much like that.

Is it true that when you first left, you felt ashamed of being Russian?
I was ashamed to see my compatriots overseas—you can sense them from a distance. Most of them were very lost, unnatural, ignorant. Or I thought so. Obviously, I was mistaken. I was very rude—first of all, to myself. I shouldn’t have been ashamed, but the circumstances were mostly against me to start with. You go to the airports, you stick your Russian passport out at an official, and he treats you like a piece of shit. It wasn’t fun.

But you sing a lot of Russian music now—you’ve embraced it, even made a CD of Soviet popular songs. What changed?
Well, first of all, I’ve gotten an English passport [laughs]. Also, I’ve grown up. Everything came to me so suddenly, I was absolutely unprepared to deal with it.

I heard about an incident when you thought someone was booing you, and he turned out to be developmentally disabled.
That was in Milan. He was trying to shout “bis!”—“encore” in Italian. I was going to go after him. My wife went directly to the stage to stop me. She said, “Dima, he is disabled—he’s praising you.” She managed to calm me down. She saved my reputation. I was absolutely in a state of madness, totally berserk. It was the second or third encore; I was incredibly tired and overwhelmed—pure nerves. You know, when you’ve reached the climax of your performance, you become very, very vulnerable. Thank God she was around, otherwise absolutely ridiculous things could’ve happened to my career.

But you must have encountered booing before. Is it a matter of ego?
No, but I’m self-critical. When you open your heart and your soul, if someone boos you, it hurts you to death.

But fame doesn’t: I hear that you’ve considered doing endorsements for brands like Rolex and Jaguar.
There have been talks. I have nothing against it, as long it pays well. The entire life of my family depends on these two small vocal cords that can be stopped at any moment.

At Avery Fisher Hall
May 17

Deep Baritone: Dmitri Hvorostovsky