Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Fifty years of Russian Belcanto

by Olivia Kroth

Russian Belcanto is renowned in the world, Russian voices, Russian singers being one of Russia's most prominent "export goods" in the domain of culture. 

One such marvellous voice belongs to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who celebrates his 50th birthday on the 16th of October 2012. He was born during Soviet times in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, on the 16th of October 1962.

Today, Krasnoyarsk is a city of one million inhabitants, the administrative center of Krasnoyarsk Krai, located on the Yenisei River, a transit stop for the Transsiberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Krasnoyarsk was founded in 1628. In the south and west, the city is surrounded by mountains, of which the gigantic rock cliffs of the Stolby Reserve are probably best known, because they recently became a UNESCO Heritage Site. The Russian author, Anton Chekhov, judged Krasnoyarsk "the most beautiful city in Siberia." 

During the times of the Russian Empire, Krasnoyarsk served as a place of banishment for all those who opposed tsarist rule. Dmitri Hvorostovsky's forefathers belonged to these outcasts. His paternal grandfather was exiled to Siberia after blowing up a bridge in the attempted revolution of 1905. His maternal grandfather was banished, because he gave shelter to a comrade who had killed a policeman.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky stems from a family of staunch Communists. One ancestor, a fighter in the Red Army, fell in 1918, during the Russian Revolution. Another one was killed in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1944). Dmitri's father was an engineer, his mother a doctor. 

They recognized his singing talent early and started sending him to music school every afternoon, when he was seven years young. After finishing high school with 16, Dmitri Hvorostovsky enrolled in a vocational school that trained young musicians. "I sang constantly," he remembers, "my only dream was to become an opera singer." His entire musical education took place in Krasnoyarsk. 

The city was closed to foreigners in Soviet times because of its defense industry. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union constructed a phased array radar station at Abalakova, near Krasnoyarsk. The city was also home to the Krasnoyarsk North East air base.

At the Krasnoyarsk School of Arts, Dmitri Hvorostovsky studied with Elena Yofel. The singer described his music teacher as "cynical, honest, possessive, powerful and tough." She made a star out of him. 

Under her strict regime, he learned all the techniques of the craft, especially breath control. Nowadays, his masterful breath control is far beyond what most opera singers can dream of. 

His cultivated baritone voice has been described by critics as "luscious," "mellifluous" and "sumptuously textured."  He is especially renowned for his beautifully sustained, long legatos. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's timbre is very Russian, charged with emotions, oscillating between brooding intensity and romantic introspection. He owes his great acting skills to Elena Yofel, the teacher in Siberia, who taught him to use his "mind and heart," according to the Stanislavsky method of acting, which was being taught at all conservatories in the Soviet Union.

He has sung all of the roles that the international world of opera has to offer for a baritone voice, but due to his Russian temperament, Dmitri Hvorostovsky is best suited to impersonate Russian characters on stage, such as Prince Yeletsky in the "Queen of Spades" (Pique Dame) or "Eugene Onegin." 

Both operas were composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The librettos were written by the composer's brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, based on texts by Alexander Pushkin: the story, "Pique Dame," and the novel in verse, "Eugene Onegin/"

The character of Eugene Onegin is probably the operatic persona to whom Dmitri Hvorostovsky relates most deeply. "I can barely keep away the tears," he admitted, "I must restrain myself and rechannel my raw emotion into beautifully crafted musical phrases."

His raw emotions, the beautifully crafted musical phrases, in combination with his good looks, fill concert halls and opera houses around the globe. Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a slim, tall man with a striking silver mane of hair. His handsome face features high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes.

He graduated from the Krasnoyarsk Conservatory in 1986. By the age of 24, he had won the most important singing competition of the Soviet Union and was named an "Esteemed State Artist." 

After his debut at the Krasnoyarsk Opera House, he won several singing competitions abroad and has been in high demand on all the five continents ever since. Dmitri Hvorostovsky has sung in every corner of the globe, from the Far East to South America.  

Despite his nomadic life style, he retains a strong musical and personal contact with Russia and still feels nostalgia for the homeland. "It is the country, in which I had my first struggles and triumphs," he says. Dmitri Hvorostovsky visits his parents in Siberia as often as his tight schedule will permit and phones them every day.

He was the first opera singer to give a solo concert with orchestra and chorus on Red Square in Moscow. In 2005, he went on a historic tour through the cities of Russia at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin, with whom he remains in friendly contact. 

On this tour, like on many following tours, the star singer presented Russian soldiers' songs in commemoration of the Great Patriotic War. His family has had their fair share of fighting soldiers and people killed. He sang for them and in honor of all the fallen soldiers of Russia.

This is one of his favorite war songs, with lyrics written by Evgeny Domatovsky, the music was composed by Dmitri Shostakovich:

Motherland hears, Motherland knows,
Where in the clouds her son is flying,
Full of friendly caresses and tender love,
With her eyes of red Moscow Kremlin stars,
Kremlin towers' stars,
She watches you.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky likes to present his Russian repertoire abroad: Russian operas, Russian romances, but also Russian folk songs, war songs and liturgical chants. When questioned about this crossover, he pointed out that the famous Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, his idol, set a precedent. 

"He was one of the first crossover artists, with songs such as Ochi Chernye (Dark Eyes). It is café music that was sung by gypsies, the pop singers of their day. The great Feodor Chaliapin was singing these songs, along with folk songs that were in those times seen as compromising the style and image of an opera singer.  Because he was born into a working class family, he liked it and carried it throughout his life," Dmitri Hvorostovsky told a journalist. 

Singing crossover music never damaged Feodor Chaliapin's brilliant career, nor did it hamper Dmitri Hvorostovsky's rise to stardom and wealth. His wonderful baritone voice has made him famous all over the world and a millionaire.

About the culture of Russia and growing up in Soviet times, he has got this to say, "The cultural background in any part of the country where I come from is very rich and profound. One of the greatest achievements of socialism was education, it was at the highest level."

In his work and performance routine, the star remains very much marked by the socialist principles he grew up with and which characterized the best of the Russian ethos during the Soviet era. 

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's self-criticism can be harsh and severe.  "My professional goals are so high and so unquestionably extreme that I am miserable when I am not at a certain level," he once confessed in an interview.

After his performances, the singer likes to relax in a hot bath, then read a Russian book, preferably by Nikolai Gogol or Feodor Dostoyevsky.

In 2012, Dmitri Hvorostovsky toured cities in Belarus and Russia again. In May, he appeared at the Sports Palace in Minsk, Belarus. In June, he gave an open air concert at the Palace Square in Saint Petersburg. 

Later that month he sang in Belgorod, which is situated on the Donets River, 40 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border. Singing war songs such as "Dark is the Night," "Soldiers are Coming" and "The Last Battle" was especially appropriate for Belgorod, because the city was occupied by the Nazis on the 25th of October 1941. On the 12th of July 1943, the Battle of Kursk raged near Belgorod, the bloodiest tank battle in world history.    

In July, Dmitri Hvorostovsky took the stage for a concert in Abakan, Republic of Khakassia.  In September, he appeared in the Moscow International House of Music. In October, his tour led him to Ekaterinburg, in the Ural mountains. For December, he is scheduled to sing in Saratov, Samara, Nishni Novgorod and Ufa, Republic of Bashkortostan.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's entire concert program and the range of CDs available are to be found on his website in English and Russian:


Prepared for publication by:

Lisa Karpova


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey