This past Wednesday, November 22, Dmitri Hvorostovsky died at the age of fifty-five from brain cancer. He was a baritone opera singer who played major roles in such operas as Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), Don Carlo (Verdi), Il Trovatore (Verdi), and Rigoletto (Verdi). He also gave a number of concerts and made numerous recordings of popular music in various languages, including his native Russian.
Hvorostovsky had a self-deprecating humor and a truthfulness that were not just refreshing but part of what Fred Plotkin of Casa Italiana at New York University called “soulfulness.” He joked about being from Siberia but then declared how he wouldn’t sing with Madonna for a million dollars, referring to the idea as one of those “tacky collaborations” you see nowadays. He also wondered how Andrea Bocelli could be the most popular opera singer in America. “That’s like saying the best cuisine in the world is chewing gum.”
Not only did he have musical virtuosity with a deep, haunting voice, but his honesty was virtuous. I can’t object to anyone who takes his work seriously and demands professionalism from those around him. This is speculation on my part, but I believe he was courageous, disciplined, and committed to his work as a vocation. Considering the origin of the word vocation (vocare, to call), this is both an observation and a pun, which Hvorostovsky might have appreciated.
But, you might say, other artists are committed to their work as a vocation. What was so special about Hvorostovsky? Didn’t he even pose bare-chested like Vladimir Putin? Yes, but not on a horse or wrestling a bear. I suspect it was a public relations stunt to highlight his notoriety as the “Elvis of opera.” No lie there. Apparently, collaborations were out but associations were in.
This actually proves a point about Hvorostovsky. What made him different was his playfulness, or humor, which you can see in his various performances on YouTube. He had fun, which is the qualitative difference between the good and the great.
Once you get beyond a certain level of competence, virtue characterizes the great. Great people are not small-minded but magnanimous. After all, what is there to fear but your own mortality? Aristotle did not include humor among the virtues, although he mentioned agreeableness. Aquinas thought humor was indispensable for living the good life.
I think humor is virtuous and separated Hvorostovsky from his contemporaries, except for Pavarotti, who had it in spades. He recognized the seriousness of his work and what each composer was aiming for, but he also did not take himself so seriously that he became intolerable. In fact, at times he was like a kid showing off on stage.
He showed humility at times, too, but a humility that could get overrun by competitiveness and bravado. But if virtue does not have backbone, it becomes ineffectual. Whether that means indignation over an injustice or insistence on the phrasing of a line, sometimes you’ve got to throw a fit. I don’t know that he threw fits as much as he insisted upon making things real and, by implication, holy.
Hvorostovsky was diagnosed in 2015, and you can see the physical decline when he came back several times since then to perform. In the Russian ballad, White Cranes (below), it is as if he is peering into his own death.
But he looks into it with courage and love. Requiescat in pace, Dimitri.
You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: You’re out of slivovitz and borst. For quoted material, go to The Telegraph (2002). Feature photo from New York Times; middle photo copyright © Pavel Anotnov; bottom photo The Guardian.