The baritone was born in Siberia and shot to international fame in 1989, when he beat Bryn Terfel to the Cardiff Singer of the Year. What a year that was for the competition! Since then he’s become one of the leading Verdi baritones of his generation, excelling inevitably also in the Russian repertoire.
He’s currently appearing in Richard Eyre’s production of La traviata at Covent Garden, which has also seen his Count di Luna in Il trovatore and a string of other Verdi roles, as well as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in recent years. He returns to the house in the autumn as Rigoletto.
I talked to him after the run’s first night.
SIMON THOMAS: You’re currently playing Germont père at the Royal Opera House. How do you feel about the character?
DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY: It’s very modern. Anyone would react the same way today in that situation. His son is living with a whore! He’s caught in the situation and his response is a common one. He does it instantly, without thinking. Once he finds out a bit more about her, he virtually falls in love with her.
We are seeing more glamorous singers nowadays playing the part (yourself, Thomas Hampson, Gerald Finley etc). Does that indicate a change of attitude towards the character?
Is Gerry Finley playing the part? I didn’t know that.
Yes, he played it in this production three or four years ago.
It would be a very good voice for the role. He’s a wonderful singer. I’ve been playing him for 25 years now. I started very early so I’m used to it. There’s a tradition in Russia of it being sung by young lyric voices. It’s quite difficult to understand the personality when you’re young but I’ve been learning over the years.
What about Rigoletto, who you’ll be playing at Covent Garden again in October? Is that a character that deserves a make-over?
He’s a loving father. It’s the same story – father and daughter - that’s the main point of the opera and the revenge aspect is secondary. There’s so much lyricism. I’m still a lyric baritone so I use that to colour the role. Rigoletto is not easy at all. It’s the most difficult for a baritone. It’s the highest possible vocally. And there’s so much to act. It’s very challenging. Physically as well, especially in David McVicar’s production. I did it a few years ago and got severe back pain. Being slightly out of balance makes the singing hell. You have to be very fit and prepared for the role.
Verdi is the composer you’re most readily associated with and being a Verdian baritone often means playing the bad guy. How do you feel about that?
I enjoy it. The acting is more challenging and there’s more variety of acting possibilities. It makes for a fuller character. Tenor roles can be more one-dimensional. With the roles I play you can colour them and it’s much more interesting.
What are your favourite roles?
The Verdi roles we’ve talked about. And Onegin is one of my best roles. Simon Boccanegra – that’s Boris Godonuv for baritones – I really enjoy it. I’m doing it next season at the Met and hope to do it at Covent Garden one day (my favourite theatre). And then Boris Godonuv himself I’d like to do one day. Maybe. We’ll see. I’d love to do it on film. Then I love doing recitals and oratorio work. And Iago (Otello), which I’m doing soon.
What about your pop career? How’s that going?
Very well. I recorded a disc called Deja Vu with Igor Krutoj, which was released last year. It’s a full album of 24 songs in Italian, French and Russian. We toured a show in Russia and did it once in New York.
Are we likely to see that in London?
Why not? I want to carry on with it. It’s a continuation of my work. It brings new people into classical music, which is a good thing I think.
Who were your heroes or the people who inspired you when you were growing up in Siberia?
My parents, especially my father, who’s a wonderful amateur musician. I had the best possible musical education. I listened to lots of recordings, people like Callas, Gobbi, di Stefano, Bastianini and I inherited a lot of LPs. I learned so much from them. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain and information was kept from us. Music was an escape. I joined pop bands as an escape route.
Why do you choose to live in London?
I don’t remember. It’s too long ago. I’ve been here nearly 20 years and I’ve lived in lots of places in London. I now live in South London in a large, wonderful house. I love it.
What colleagues do you most like to work with?
Renee Fleming. I adore her. She’s been a wonderful colleague for many years. I love Jonas Kaufmann. He’s one of the best tenors now. Roberto Alagna too. And Sondra Rodvonovsky. We toured recently and did Il trovatore four times together last year.
How about conductors?
Valery Gergiev is truly one of the best, an absolute giant. Jimmy Levine, James Conlon. I’ve been blessed to work with the very best. Abbado, Muti, Haitink, Mehta. But I like Gergiev the best.
How do you see the future of opera?
TV, cinema, reality shows even. Definitely broadcast. It’s a new age for theatre. Opera is getting younger and more controversial. Productions are more cinematic: provocative and sexual. It’s being transported into something more modern.
Do you know the Royal Opera are about to film Carmen in 3D?
Yes, and why not? I’ve seen some films in 3D, like Avatar. It’s the way things are going. Why shouldn’t that be the same for opera?
La traviata plays at the Royal Opera House until 24 May and Rigoletto returns in October for 11 performances. Details at www.roh.org.uk