Dmitri Hvorostovsky is to opera what David Beckham is to soccer. What Brad Pitt is to Hollywood. He's the Lady Gaga of the aria set. And he's coming to town.
And, unfortunately, most people won't know or care that the Russian baritone superstar, who joins the Phoenix Opera at the Orpheum for a gala performance of opera excerpts and overtures on the January 10, was even here.
But opera fans, Gail Dubinbaum insists, will care. A lot. "People are coming from all over the world to see Hvorostovsky sing here," she says. "Phoenix is growing in its cultural sophistication, and our mission is to bring together people who are passionate about opera."
"We" is Phoenix Opera, launched four years ago by Dubinbaum and her husband, conductor John Massaro. "Our approach is very classical," says Dubinbaum, who peppers her speech with scenes from operas ("It's like when Pinkerton puts his hands on Cio Cio San's shoulders — you know?"). "We're dedicated to doing a certain repertoire — the top 30 traditional, classical operas. We're not trying to be all things to all people, doing early music or contemporary opera. We cherish opera and love seeing it done well."
In a city where many arts organizations are struggling, founding a second opera company seems foolhardy. Did Dubinbaum and her husband found the company because local opera aficionados were unhappy with Arizona's resident opera? Dubinbaum demurs, saying only that her company was formed "because people came to us and said they wanted something from opera that they're not getting."
Like a gala performance from Dmitri Hvorostovsky — a coup for any cultural concern, let alone a new-ish one that most people don't know exists. "We got Hvoro-stovsky because we had the idea to," Dubinbaum says. "And because we had the guts to ask."
No kidding. Already a legend in Europe, Hvorostovsky made his American operatic debut in the early '90s with Lyric Opera of Chicago in La Traviata and has sung at virtually every major opera house since then. He's such a big deal that he's being flown in by the president of the Metropolitan Opera on her private jet. During a phone chat last week, the legendary baritone — who's looking forward to seeing Arizona but is worried about the climate's effect on his voice — wasn't entirely sure what he'd be performing from the Orpheum stage. "Some arias, I guess," he told me, laughing. "Some arias that will let me show off. I'm working on something else right now, and my mind is on that at the moment."
Hvorostovsky, who's often photographed in snug T-shirts, his silver hair tousled, is surprisingly affable for a superstar. Although he refers once to "the common people who have no idea about opera," he's humble enough to admit that he didn't come to opera after hearing Renato Bruson singing Verdi or seeing Tito Gobbi as Scarpia in Tosca. "It was Mario Lanza," he says of the American tenor and Hollywood movie star of the '40s and '50s. "He had a thrilling voice, and the first time I heard him, I thought, I want to sing like that."
And, thanks to Gail Dubinbaum, he will sing like that for Phoenix audiences this month. Dubinbaum is thrilled but thinks of bringing an opera megastar to town as merely the next step in making Phoenix a better place. "We have to keep delivering the goods," she explains, "or people won't keep coming back. They'll walk away. And then we'll remain the kind of town where no one cares that a huge opera star is singing here."