Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017) lived to sing. The Russian opera baritone always knew what he wanted and always had the firm will to achieve it. In his young years he listened to the great Italian and Russian singers, although at that time in the Soviet Union it was adventurous to get records from the West. But he succeeded in doing that, of course, and Dima listened to the great operatic voices and knew that one day he would sing like the Italian baritone Mattia Battistini or the Russian bass Fyodor Ivanovich Shalyapin.
Hvorostovsky studied singing in Krasnoyarsk and was encouraged by the mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova, who was very well known in Russia.
His international breakthrough came after, as a 26-year-old, he won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which was and still is very prestigious in the classical music world. This competition went down in the annals as the Battle of the Baritones: his opponent, who is also very famous today, was the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

The Russian soul

Hvorostovsky, whom friends and fans affectionately call Dima, was always very attached to his Russian homeland. He was always looking for ways to bring the Russian soul closer to Western audiences, and two things that were very close to his heart was Russian composers and writers. One of his parade roles was Eugene Onegin, the tragic title character of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name. The opera is based on the verse novel by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, who is considered Russia’s national poet. In an interview, Dima was asked which famous person, already deceased, he would like to meet and his answer was: “Pushkin”. Dima spoke enthusiastically about the Russian writer and his subtle, multi-layered language. Listening to these words, one feels inspired to learn Russian in order to fully enjoy not only the opera, but also the novel in the original.

The Great Patriotic War

Another major theme in Dima’s work is World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, as the fight against Hitler’s Germany is called in Russia. Dima was brought up mainly by his grandmother, as both his parents worked. His grandmother loved Dima very much. She had experienced the cruelty of war first hand and she told Dima about it. She was also the one who to sang him the songs from that time, and so it happened that Dima, as a world-famous opera star, recorded several albums of Russian songs from that time. If one delves into with translations of these songs, one realizes that the Russian way of dealing with this difficult subject is a very special one. Here, the suffering of war is dealt with in a poetic way: There are images of mothers lying awake at night, waiting for a knock on the door and for their son killed in action to return from the war after all – the notice of death at the front must have been a mistake after all. The suffering of the people during the war comes to life in the pictures of nature, and Dima’s interpretation is completely at the service of the songs – one does not even need a translation of the Russian texts. It is enough to watch the concert recording of “Zhuravli”, in English “Cranes”: Dima conveys the message – even if the viewer does not speak Russian.

Freelancer and charity

Dima remained a “freelancer” throughout his life, he did not sign a fixed contract with any opera house: He remained free in his decisions and thus performed at many famous international opera houses. He gave recitals, went on tour and he also made excursions into pop. For example, he sang a duet with the Belgian-Canadian singer Lara Fabian.
He greatly regretted the fact that in the modern education system increasingly less value is put on the artistic subjects and thought about what effects this will have on our world. He was also committed to charitable aid projects, and in 2014 he launched the Dmitry Hvorostovsky and Friends for Children concert series to help children in need.

Illness and last months

In June 2015, he announced that he was suffering from a brain tumor. He had to undergo invigorating treatments as a result, but continued to perform nonetheless. He had to cancel more and more opera performances, until he ultimately announced that he would only perform at concerts. The illness affected his sense of balance, and his voice eventually changed as well, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to give thrilling performances for his audiences.

Looking at concert recordings of Dima over the past few years, one might think his smile became deeper and heartier as his illness became more serious. This is also confirmed in an interview shortly after his death in November 2017 by two of his close companions. There Constantine Orbelian, a conductor with whom Dima frequently collaborated and with whom he shared a close friendship, says that Dima’s creative work was exceedingly important to him and that nothing could stop him from performing one last time for his audience in his native Krasnoyarsk. Even a severe pneumonia with complications and a fall, the consequences of which caused him additional pain, did not stop him from this concert, which he knew very well would be his farewell forever. During his thank-you speech, he could not hold back the tears. Here one can witness the strength of his soul: he allowed the tears. 

Simon von Ludwig

Four-part series on Maria Callas

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