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Baritonissimo

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It-s been some time since opera singers like Callas and Caruso lived theatrical lives that enthralled not just music fans, but the world at large. But for a few days, almost exactly two years ago, opera became part of the popular culture and provided a public spectacle.

Luciano Pavarotti, perhaps the most famous opera singer in the world, cancelled the first of his two farewell performances at the Met. The story hit the national wires and the speculation over the final concert became a media event. On the day before he was set to perform, the front page headline on the New York Post read &quotFat; Man Won-t Sing."

He didn-t sing and the audience-some of whom had paid over $2,000 for tickets-was furious. In front of a booing crowd, the house manager told the audience that Pavarotti-s Met career was over, but that a young singer from Italy had just flown in on the Concord and would be performing instead. The name of that singer was Salvatore Licitra.

Interestingly, just last month both Licitra and Pavarotti were both in the country, and in the news, again. On March 13, Pavarotti did show up for a rescheduled farewell to the Met, and it served as his final bow to staged opera. True, he was never much of an actor-but theaters around the world will miss his stage presence, as Pavarotti was one of those rare performers who could truly connect with audiences.

Two weeks later, Licitra was also back in the U.S., this time to sing a concert performance of Un Ballo in Maschera at Carnegie Hall. After stepping in for Pavarotti at the last minute, Salvatore Licitra became a sought-after name in the opera world; but since then he has not performed at an opera house here in America-and so his name here has been mostly forgotten outside musical circles. This is no small thing, for in opera, as in Hollywood-fame is sometimes more important than talent. With two of three tenors now retired from opera, and Placido Domingo slowly whittling down the number of his staged performances-there are a lot of people waiting to crown someone as the next superstar tenor.

Not surprisingly then at last month-s Carnegie Hall concert, all eyes-and ears-were on Licitra. His hair was a touch greyer, but the voice still sounded great. Licitra has a robust and ringing sound-and he hits the big high notes that people pack theaters to hear.

So it was interesting then, given the paucity of young tenors these days that Licitra did not get the biggest ovation that night. The Carnegie crowd gave the loudest hand to a Russian singer named Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Hvorostovsky does indeed have a lovely voice, but perhaps more importantly: he looked great as well.

Unlike so many opera stars who are either balding or overweight or both, Hvorostovsky is a strapping, handsome guy with long flowing hair. As a result he-s already a big draw in the opera world, and would probably be the only male singer these days who could beat out Licitra in terms of three-tenor style fame -except for one thing, Hvorostovky-s not a tenor, he-s a baritone.

Historically, the only opera singers who-ve become true celebrities were sopranos and tenors. But perhaps times have changed. Maybe the days of mega-star tenors are over? Maybe baritones are the next big thing?

Southern Californians will get a chance to judge for themselves this weekend, as Dmitri Hvorostovsky makes his long awaited Los Angeles Opera debut. The dashing Siberian singer won-t be performing a full opera, he-s simply giving a recital of Russian songs-but like Pavarotti, Hvorostovsky-s appeal is less about acting and more about presence. He just can-t help being theatrical. With his signature hair and dramatic posture, Hvorostovsky is probably one of the few opera stars who could make that rare leap from stage to screen. If there was ever a vocal recital that might attract a Hollywood crowd, this would be it.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky performs this Sunday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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