Dmitry Khvorostovsky, one of the world’s most celebrated baritones, was born in Krasnoyarsk. After graduating from the city’s Arts Institute, he spent five years as a soloist of the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet Theatre. Dmitry Khvorostovsky inherited his love of singing from his father, a chemical engineer who assembled a vast collection of international opera stars’ recordings, and was himself a fine singer and pianist. Winning the Glinka National Singing Competition in 1987 marked the launch of the singer’s rapid rise to fame. A year later, he won the Grand Prix at the International Singing Contest in Toulouse (France), and in 1989, he became internationally famous after winning the Best Voice title at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Khvorostovsky is popular not only among opera lovers: he also performs concerts of songs from the War Years and romances, captivating audiences worldwide with his extraordinarily fine voice and artistry. Dmitry has been hailed a “national treasure”, “vocalist extraordinaire” and “best baritone of the age”. He is fully booked for the next five years. He lives with his wife Florence, and their son and daughter in London.
Dmitry, do you often take part in charity events?
People in England go in for charity in a big way. I’ve performed at Buckingham Palace on several occasions. Covent Garden is under the patronage of Prince Charles who I’ve been acquainted with for the past 20 years. And Covent Garden is an important place for me – I’ve worked here for many years, and I’m pleased to take part in the events that are held here, regardless of whether they’re fee-paying or not.
You have a huge range of concert programmes. Do you find working in different genres interesting – performing romances, songs from the War Years?
I started my career performing concert programmes, and earned a reputation internationally, first and foremost, as a concert singer. And this gives me a big advantage over my opera colleagues. What I do on stage as a concert singer, perfects my operatic skills, and what I do in opera, helps me in my concert work.
You sing in virtually all the world’s best opera houses. Where do you feel most at ease?
At New York’s Metropolitan, in London, where I live. I’ve got a really hectic life here, loads of work. And Covent Garden is one of my favourite theatres, where I feel really at home.
You apparently get nervous before a performance. How does this tie in with your stage persona - you appear very self-confident?
My shirt covers it up! (laughs) It’s only natural to feel nervous, and, I reckon, this is actually why I keep growing as a singer. If someone’s totally satisfied with what he’s doing, he stops growing!
And what does “growth” mean to you?
Singing and acting potential and, of course, repertoire. You move towards some parts gradually - it takes years of stifling your ambitions and temperament as an actor and singer.
You say you keep working on your voice. How do you decide which direction to take?
I’ve been working on my own all these years, and everything I’ve managed to achieve has been entirely my own doing. There’ve been vocal development issues. But it seems like I’ve always been on the right track. If you have someone who can give you the right advice, who you trust implicitly, that’s a big advantage in your life as an artist but I don’t have anyone like that. It’s possibly because I’m essentially not a very trusting person.
My one and only experience of working with voice coach Yekaterina Iofel who I owe a lot to, was quite stormy – over 5 years it was war and love at one and the same time. But she taught me things that don’t get taught anymore, like how to express emotional experience, achieve authenticity in art. I even had to sing simple scales conveying specific emotional moods! She brought out the artist in me as a singer, and that’s why the distinctive qualities of my singing are emotionality, forcefulness, a sense of what I’m doing. As for vocal technique, that’s where I disagree with her, and I spent quite some time extricating myself from her vocal training methods.
But you discovered how to do it yourself! So, are there any schools where this training method is presented correctly? In Italy, say?
No, there aren’t – just look at the way things are. There are lots of schools teaching contradictory methods. My wife sings, and she’s forever changing teachers.
But can’t you help her, with your experience?
No, I can’t. I’ve tried but I haven’t a calling for it. Especially, when it’s my wife! It doesn’t work. (laughs) Even though she has a lovely voice, perfect credentials, looks, but, it seems to me, two opera singers in the family... There needs to be someone looking after things, otherwise the family will fall apart. What’s more, vocal technique on its own isn’t enough.
In order to sing, you have to know how to observe phrasing, express your thoughts. As far as I know, nobody in Europe or America goes in for this sort of music technique, just the vocal type. There are very few solo performers with stunning acting ability, talent.
Should singers go through drama school, then?
There should be a system in place. There’re some fine programmes, like, say, at Covent Garden, enabling students to work with the world’s best coaches and conductors, study the repertoire, listen to singers’ performances, take part in listening sessions. But only very few get into such programmes. There’s no conveyer-belt system like in the USSR when you were taught whether you liked it or not. And when a seed fell on fertile soil, a talent would spring up like Elena Obraztsova.
You don’t plan on setting up a Khvorostovsky school?
Khvorostovsky is busy with his singing 365 days of the year. There’s no way I can teach - school is a tough routine you have to stick to every day.
How far ahead are you booked up?
In American theatres – until 2013-2014. On the one hand, this gives life some stability, on the other, your priorities, ideas, wishes may change in five years, and then you have to cancel the contract.
And is there any repertoire you would really like to perform?
This is precisely what I will be doing - Iago in “Othello”, and “Ernani”, and others by Verdi. However, I’ve already performed the greatest roles in the Verdi repertoire – “Simon Boccanegra”, “Rigoletto” and “Il Trovatore”.
Rigoletto’s a very hard part, especially because of its dramatic content. If you really live through it on stage, it drains you emotionally, physically and vocally so much that you simply start seeing stars in front of your eyes in the last act. Energy rushes are a must on stage. If you can’t release an enormous tide of emotion on stage - quit. This year I’ll be performing “Rigoletto” many times and, I hope it will be easier by the end of next year. You see, with every new production you gain new experience, and the role becomes second nature.
Do you have any plans in Russia?
Once the Bolshoi reopens, I’m going to sing in the first opera. A plan is under way for a production of “Simon Boccanegra”. I’ve already sung it in numerous countries. “Simon” has become my trademark of sorts, and I think it’s going to stay with me for some time yet in my artistic life. As for concert work, right now I’m getting ready for a big concert with Igor Krutoi. He’s written 24 songs especially for me. I really hope this programme’s going to be a success.
I’ve heard you never cancel an appearance, even when you’re ill. Isn’t that dangerous for the voice?
No, it’s all right. Just imagine, around 80-90 percent of the top sportsmen and dancers work even when they’re not entirely well - they simply warm up and get their bodies ready with special exercises. It’s the same with singers. It’s a joke, of course, but it goes like this: a singer feels well twice a year - the two days he isn’t singing.
You look really athletic. Do you do any sport?
Yes, a few years ago I started doing regular exercise. What’s more, in the winter, from January onwards, I went ice swimming in New York. Thanks to this, I didn’t fall ill once all winter. The night before a performance it’s important for me to get at least seven to eight hours’ sleep.
When you listen to foreigners performing Russian operas, you can’t make out half the words. I suppose something similar happens when Russian singers perform in Italian or French. Does knowing different languages help you in your opera singing?
I’ve got a good ear, and it helps me with languages. Of course, it’s important to know different languages, and understand what you’re singing about, and work on pronunciation. The Italians are complimentary about my singing in Italian but they still say it really shocks them if ever I pronounce just one letter incorrectly. I started speaking Italian 10 years ago when I met my wife. Her first language is French, and her second, is Italian. I learnt French relatively recently. True, I now speak Russian with her. The children speak three languages – Russian, English and French.
And how about your older children – are the twins interested in music?
They do music all the time. Their Russian school is affiliated to a church with a very good choir that they sing in, and often have solo parts. Dani has a perfect ear and fine voice, and Sashenka, too. My first wife should be given her due: all these years she’s stuck at it, making them do music, the piano. And I’m very pleased she has. It’s not clear yet whether my children will become musicians but music is certainly giving them a lot in life.
You have a strong character, and you find a way to resolve any situation. I read once that you used to take a gulp of water when you needed to keep quiet. This must help in family life and in your work with producers?
It’s a purely Russian thing – there’s a saying about taking a gulp of water when you need to keep your mouth shut. During our first years together, Florence and I spoke Italian to each other – she didn’t speak Russian or English. Despite the fact that we loved one another, those were the most difficult years – the divorce was going through and all the problems really kept getting to me all the time. There were drink-related issues, too. But I didn’t completely lose it for the simple reason that I couldn’t instantly explain in this foreign language exactly what I was going through! I needed time to work out how to express it in Italian. And during these few moments the pent-up negative aggression I was feeling either passed or died down. This pause was just like taking a gulp of water that allowed you to find another remedy. Energy rushes are a must on stage but not in everyday life.
How’s your “Khvorostovsky and Friends” project doing in Russia?
I’ve given concerts with Renée Fleming, Sumi Jo, Sandra Radvanovsky, and Jonas Kaufman. We were given a tremendous reception. They were wonderful concerts. We performed long excerpts from operas accompanied by a choir – “Don Carlos”, “La Forza del Destino”, “The Pearl Fishers”, and Jonas Kaufman completely bewitched Moscow audiences: he has a wonderful voice, and he’s an amazing musician and a smart guy, and he looks great.
Are a singer’s looks important?
Nowadays a singer must have a striking presence and look good – essentially, the same as what you need to have in pop culture, too. It’s not enough for a singer simply to stand on the stage and waft his hand about: he needs to act and have stage presence. I think it’s going to be hard for opera for instrumental voices to survive in the 21st century.
Sometimes it’s impossible to get tickets to a Convent Garden production. People go because they love it.
Opera is a versatile genre, and includes virtually all the various art forms. It’s like a museum. And that’s why it will live on.