UPDATED: Yes, There Are Rock Stars in Opera

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Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 9.54.08 PM“…Hvorostovsky received his first round of applause, rock-star style, for the mere fact of having walked onto the stage. ..”

UPDATE:  On Friday evening, tenor Javier Camarena became only the 3rd tenor in Met history to sing an encore during a performance.  The first was the great Pavarotti in 1994 during a performance of Tosca.  The second was Juan Diego Florez in a 2012 performance of La Fille du Regiment.”  As I am not a huge fan of tenors, this doesn’t impress me. There should be no encores during a performance at the Met.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:  The other day, the New York Times ran a profile of a dorky little tenor, Javier Camarena.  There’s a very good reason he’s a dork.  He’s a tenor.  I think 99% of tenors in this world are dorks.  Pavarotti was not a dork.  Domingo isn’t one, either, but he’s worn out his welcome by not retiring when he should.  Other than that, most tenors are dorks.  If you know one who isn’t, please feel free to correct me.

The NY Times has declared Javier Camarena rock star, saying he is as close to a rock star that the Met has produced this season.  Oh, really?  Why is it that tenors are considered ‘rock stars’ because they are tenors and the critical world must adore tenors?  He’s a good tenor.  There are very few good tenors today, so that’s not saying much, is it? He’s also Bel Canto, which makes him something of a rarity.

NY Times
NY Times

Let’s be honest, he’s very, very good, but he’s not a rock star. Does the NY Times, and indeed other tenor-loving publications even know what an operatic rock star looks like?  It isn’t Camarena, that’s for sure.  Operatic rock stars require one word – presence.  Very few tenors ever have presence.  That’s one thing you will find with more baritones than tenors.  There’s a reason they are called Barihunks!

“...But for me, vocal honours of the evening went to Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s Giorgio Germont. The emotional core of the opera – the point at which the tragedy really starts – is in Act II Scene 1, in which Germont confronts first Violetta and then his son. A bit of background: when Verdi wrote La traviata, he was living in sin with Giuseppina Strepponi (whom he later married), much to the disgust of his father and the local bourgeoisie. Germont is by no means a copy of Verdi’s father any more than Violetta is a copy of Strepponi, but the sanctimonious disdain with which Germont treats Violetta and the dignified way in which she responds (“I, sir, am a woman and in my own home”) are ciphers for the way Strepponi was treated, and every bar of the music drips with Verdi’s anger. Hvorostovsky’s performance was dazzling, bringing the whole scene to life. By its end, I was filled with hatred for the man, for all the silver tongued, melodious, full-bodied beauty of his voice…”

This is what an operatic rock star looks like:

This is what an operatic rock star looks like:

Peter Hofmann
Peter Hofmann

Tenors aren’t operatic rock stars. There was an exception, the great German tenor, Peter Hofmann, who was an amazing Sigmund. I saw him do Sigmund several times at the Met.  We were sitting there, watching Walkure, at the Met.  My mother watches Hofmann for a moment. “What does he think he is, a rock star?”  I told her yes.   Hofmann was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994.  He died in 2010.

Placido Domingo tried to do the rock star thing when he recorded a duet, Perhaps Love, with the late, very great John Denver. (FYI:  I still can’t listen to Denver’s music without crying.  I’ve only been to two non-operatic concerts.  One was for Denver, the other Sir Paul.)  But – when it came to doing the Ricky Ricardo song-book, no one can beat Domingo.

Pavarotti tried to be a rock star.  He didn’t make it.  His Neapolitan songs are classic.  Then again, so are Hvorostovsky’s. 

Yes, Barihunks can do Oh Sole Mio.  Known as the Elvis of Opera, Hvorostovsky turned down a million dollars to sing with Madonna.  It proves that he had good taste, even in 2002.

“...Elle magazine breathlessly described him as the “Elvis of opera”, a description I asked him about when I met him in his New York apartment the day after seeing him in action at the Met. “As long as I can continue doing what I love, I don’t care how I’m described. Maybe I should be flattered – after all Elvis was a kind of revolutionary. Actually, if he had trained he might have been a great singer.”

Hvorostovsky has a house in London and speaks very good, idiomatic English with a seductive Siberian lilt. He tells me that back in Siberia he was the singer in a rock band who played heavy metal numbers – “it was a way to become a local hero”. All of which might make you think he would be tempted by cross-over pop projects beloved of record companies. But Hvorostovsky is not interested – in fact, he says one of the reasons why he fell out with his last record company, Philips Classics, was its attempts to push him into “tacky” collaborations.

If he were offered a million dollars for a duet with Madonna, I ask, would he really turn it down? He pauses. “It would be painful, I would be embarrassed but I would turn her down.”

He’s no snob, though, and says he admires the Three Tenors. Nevertheless, he’s distressed that the most famous opera singer in America is Andrea Bocelli. “That’s like saying the best cuisine in the world is chewing gum.”

His version of cross-over is a fabulously nostalgic album of Neapolitan favourites called Passione di Napoli in which he sounds like a lost son of Caruso, singing such chestnuts as O sole mio. “It sounds crazy, but perhaps because my wife is Italian I don’t sound so Siberian. I also studied the dialect, which even Italian singers often don’t bother to do. It was a project which made me very happy, and I will probably do some of this material as encores in my upcoming recitals.”…”

This is from 2008 with tenor, Jonas Kaufmann.

Let’s be honest here, tenors drool and barihunks rule.  It is here where I willingly admit that the greatest barihunk of them all, Sherrill Milnes was not a rock star.  No, the greatest of them all was a swashbuckler.  He could buckle a swash like no one since Errol Flynn.  No one in opera can buckle a swash that way, even today.   That’s like the now venerable Thomas Hampson.  He’s not a rock star.  Superstar, yes, but not a rock star.

Jonathan Estabrooks is getting much deserved attention for his first CD.  Estabrooks is not a rock star, even if he is an official Barihunk.  He’s a Vegas showman, through and through.  Opera can’t contain him.  It is going to be exciting to watch his career as it starting to take off!  He is a breath of fresh air.  There is a role that he has been born to play, and, unfortunately it is Broadway (I don’t like Broadway – it is silly, superficial, shallow, and has dancers). But, I suspect, given the opportunity, Estabrooks is the next great King Arthur in Camelot.  He has that kind of a voice.

And so, The Pink Flamingo once again displays blatant bigotry and prejudice when it comes to baritones Barihunks.  It is rather amazing how the so-called critical world thinks that the real stars are tenors.  They worship at the feet of tenors.  The backbone of opera has been and always will be our wonderful baritones.  Yes, I’m an admitted baritone Barihunk junkie!

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