Tag: tribute

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Memories, Magic, And “Significant Presence”

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Trovatore

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky didn’t shock me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The experience of living with a loved one with cancer for over a decade has made me cynical about happy outcomes, but, my reaction yesterday was less related to cynicism than to the direct experience of seeing the baritone this past April, recalling the last time my mother saw him, and accepting, with a heavy sigh, the finite nature of humans living with terminal illness.

Dima, as he was known by friends and fans alike, sounded magnificent on that cool April evening. Part of a concert event called Trio Magnifiico which marked the Canadian debuts of fellow Russian opera singers Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, it was, I later realized, powerful for not only the chosen repertoire (largely by Hvorostovsky himself, as Netrebko had told me in an earlier interview), but for the inherent power of a man clawing at his own fate through his art. The appearance marked Hvorostovsky’s first public performance in several months, following the announcement of brain cancer in 2015. If ever there was an occasion when one could say a man was raging against the dying of the light, April was it. Hvorostovsky didn’t seem sad, but his performance (consisting mostly of Russian repertoire) had the fiery edge of anger, an impulse I remember thinking my mother would have recognized and wholly understood. His body language, especially in one aria (from Rigoletto, an opera about a man struggling against his own dying light, embodied in Gilda, the character’s daughter), expressed rage, sorrow, an intensity of flesh and spirit — of their collision, and the chaos that created. I remember clenching my jaw toward the end of the aria in a vain attempt to prevent tears. (It didn’t work.)

When I learned of Hvorostovsky’s appearance at the 50th Anniversary Met Gala shortly thereafter, I had to smile; I was in Berlin at the time, and I had wondered, with every deep-voiced performance I had heard, “how would Dima have done this?” I wasn’t comparing so much as curious: where would he have taken a breath? How would he have finished that phrase? How would he have approached this role? Why would he have made x or y choice? I equally realized, with many heavy sighs, that I would never see Dima onstage in Berlin, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, again. There’s a bittersweet fatalism that develops when you’ve lived with death for so long, sat across from it at every forced meal, driven with it humming in the backseat to doctor’s appointments, dragged it around shopping malls at the holidays. When it forces you to its logical endpoint, somehow the goodbye feels too soon — too mean, too heartless, and you realize the unfair bargain you were forced to make and live with. It makes perfect sense, and no sense at all. Cancer is grotesque that way, and no amount of fighting language popularly attached to it will ever remove the sting of sudden loss, much less the slow, dull ache of a long one.

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Boccanegra

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

And so yesterday, as I attempted some degree of work productivity, I found myself listening to his voice blazing out of my radio, watching clips of him from 1989 (when he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and being plunged into a deep well of memories, recent and far, fond and bittersweet. In trips to New York, my mother and I saw him in a variety of works, including The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Don CarloRigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. One didn’t merely hear his voice or watch him move; one experienced him and the force of his artistry, his confidence, his je ne sais quoi as a whole. It wasn’t just his considerable physical beauty — there are lots of good-looking people in opera, and always have been — but a kind of magic he conjured, contoured, and conveyed in waves. Few and far-between are the times in my life when I’ve sat in an opera house and been thoroughly, utterly thunderstruck by a perfect combination of vocal power, theatricality, confidence, ease, and … what? It isn’t easy to name. Call it star power, call it magnetism, call it presence; Hvorostovsky had it in jar-fulls, but carried it so lightly, like any star should. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, he commented that “(t)he 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.”

Saint Cecilia

“Saint Cecilia”, Circle of Simon Vouet, 1613-1627

The velvet-smoke sound of his baritone was every bit as ubiquitous in my house growing up as the silvery tones of a certain famous Italian tenor; if Pav was the soundtrack of my childhood, Dima’s filled the role for my youth. I felt what virility was before I understood it. That sound would make everything stop: thinking, activities, hearts, breath. It commanded attention. He existed firmly within the world of opera, but also without, in an entirely different category, one I think he carried inside of him, guided by his homeland, by family, by the responsibility he felt toward the composers whose work he performed as well as the spirit behind those works There’s a bitter irony to Hvorostovsky passing away on November 22nd, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians; it’s the day before Pavarotti made his Metropolitan Opera debut (in Puccini’s La bohème), in 1968. The sad realization that two of my mother’s very favorite singers, both of whom I saw live on multiple occasions, were taken by the same disease that took her, has forced some painful contemplations, though she’d remind me not to be so morbid, to simply “think of the music!”

The last time my mother and I saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky live together was at a 2014 recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto. My mother was suffering the horrendous effects of her umpteenth round of chemotherapy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to use the (great) tickets I’d hastily bought the day they went on sale months before. But something — her music passion, love of his work, curiosity, happiness to escape the house, worry at letting me down (or a mix of everything) — propelled her. I remember dropping her off along a bustling Bloor Street; she waited on a shady bench as I parked and ran back to meet her, trying to hide how rotten she felt, how tired she was, how fragile and thin she’d become. We slowly made our way through the venue, and she clutched her program as she carefully lowered herself into her seat. Trying to describe her face as Hvorostovsky stepped onstage is still impossible; I only remember her being lit from within. Over the next two hours, something happened: suffering stopped, disease stopped, the horrible daily details of illness stopped. There was purely sound, presence, pull — of being with Hvorostovsky through every breath, pause, roar, turn, smile. closing of eyes. We were with him.

Trio Magnifico Hvorostovsky

Hvorostovsky at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts for Trio Magnifico, April 24, 2017. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

I felt this once again in April, and I remember it now. Watching Hvorostovsky, I am in that world where everything stops; death gets out of the car, steps away from the table, is rendered powerless. It’s what magic does, and what music does, and it is pure magic.

Loss (& Magic)

Roughly an hour after my review of a new musical was posted came word that Chavela Vargas had passed. There was something eerie in the timing; my review had got me thinking more than ever about Astrid Kirchherr and women like her  – the strong, uncompromising female artists who refused to fit into tidy pre-determined roles around their femininity and whose art was never determined solely by their gender or the place that put that at in the world.

Vargas, the throaty Latin singer had long been a favorite of mine. The first time I saw her, in Frida, I was entranced. What a voice… what a soul… what a presence.

It feels as if this year has been a horrible one for losing strong female artists and presences. Zelda Kaplan, who passed in February, was another sparky figure I greatly admired; my clubbing days would’ve extended longer, I think, had I had gone with her. There was an Auntie Mame-esque joie de vivre about her. Alternately, Nora Ephron and Maeve Binchy felt like confidantes -the sort who’d be hilariously blunt with how ugly those jeans look on you, and why you (I) should stay from men who don’t do a lot of reading or like art galleries. Donna Summer was the woman who stopped everyone talking (and got them dancing); self-contained in her sensuousness, confident in her calm sexuality, she never had to try hard, she simply was. Real sex appeal, as I recently told a friend, can’t be faked. It only fools some of the people some of the time.

Donna Summer’s moans, simpers, sighs and statements were a declaration of her independence, alright -the exact same way Chavela Vargas’ anguished, fierce, defiant tones were. They still are, for me and female artists everywhere. Their tunes didn’t definer them as a woman; they defined them as fleshy, living human beings: let me be what I am, here and now.

There’s so much more I could say, should say, about these women, but it’s not the time or place, and I still haven’t finished meditating on their role in my life, or mourning their loss. Lou Reed’s 1992 album Magic And Loss captures much of this feeling, of losing personal friends who were also artistic heroes. Creative and personal so often bleeds over in life, and in art. That’s probably a good thing.

All I can say at this point is: Dear Ms. Kirchherr, please hang on. I haven’t met you yet, and I want to.

Watching The Wheels


Thirty years ago today John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman.

Along with local events, memorials, specials, a loving tribute, and, of course, music, everyone who was alive then remembers where they were, and/or what they were doing. Because the shooting happened in the evening, I only heard about it the next morning. As a child, I grew up thinking of John as an acidic solo artist with a strange wife who was once in a cool band that wrote really catchy tunes. He was the guy with the crooked smile who had strong opinions and an unusual voice. He wasn’t Paul’s cute, smooth operator but rather, an eccentric, subversive bad ass whose influence, I later realized, was much, much bigger than I could ever fully understand.

Even now, I can’t wrap my head around it -this amazing life, this unique voice, this consummate artist, this motherless hell-raiser, this husband, father, icon, Beatle, not-Beatle, this gifted man creating and defining a new universe, happily moving between the world of stardom and the gritty 70s streets of New York City. I want to think of him holding his infant son’s hand walking through Central Park; I want to think of him smiling and chatting with a friend of mine who’d regularly run into him in the neighbourhood; I want to think of him snuggling with Yoko, or playing the piano, or singing, or jamming with his bandmates, or going to see new bands, or drawing, sketching, jotting down words and ideas and speaking out on things he believed in, even if it made him unpopular. I want to humanize him, even while paying deference to his status and acknowledging the long, skinny shadow he casts, even -or especially -now.

John’s passing was different than that of Elvis Presley (whose death I also remember); Elvis was, and will always be, the quintessential rock and roll icon. Trying to humanize him feels, for me, rather difficult, even when I’m told stories by those who knew the Memphis Flash personally. Elvis wasn’t as direct (or angry) when it came to his art, and besides, I didn’t grow up with someone named after him. My best friend growing up was named after a Beatle; it wasn’t John, but easily could’ve been.

I don’t remember his reaction that fateful day thirty years ago. All I remember is pulling on my ever-uncomfortable tights the morning of December 9th and hearing the news, repeated over and over, about how Mark David Chapman called out to his “hero”, about the blood, about the mounds of flowers placed outside the Dakota. And “Imagine” was played over and over, along with so many beloved Beatles hits. I didn’t get it, but I couldn’t get over it.

By the time I reached my late teens, I asked for, and received, the CD box set of John Lennon’s solo work. Now, many years later, I still listen to them, on and off, and try not to think about “what if” -because really, that feels like a creative and spiritual dead end. Patti Smith, reflecting on the passing of her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe, then later brother, mother, and husband, said she didn’t like to think of death as a “loss”, but rather, as a “gain” -for what the deceased offered the world during their brief time.

And so to John Lennon I say: thank you, times a million. You are here, and you are everywhere, and even if I didn’t know it that cold December day, you were right there with me, and you still are with us, all of us, as we shiver, and cry, and laugh, and sing, and paint, draw, and go about our lives. You’re not here -but you are.

Imagine; I have. And it’s good.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén