The life and loss of Dmitri Hvorostovsky
When Gounod brought his “Faust” to London five years after its world premiere in 1859, there was one devil lurking in the details: venerated baritone Charles Santley was singing Valentin—the soldier brother of Marguerite who is killed by his sister’s lover (and the work’s title character)—but despite his fame he had no aria to sing. Gounod pulled a melody from the work’s prelude, and spun it into “Even Bravest Heart.” This aria was later translated into the opera’s original French as “Avant de Quitter ces Lieux” (“Before Leaving this Place”). It’s an aria my grandfather and I loved so much that I wound up getting the eponymous phrase tattooed on my right shoulder as a tribute to him shortly before his death.
141 years later, in 2005, one particular baritone’s performance of this aria stopped me cold. There was a sense of religious solemnity when Dmitri Hvorostovsky took to the stage in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production. His characteristic shock of Siberian white hair, offset by the deep navy blue of his uniform, augmented the rich, black copal tinge of his voice—striking Valentin’s balance between the shadow of death and the light of the divine. When the aria ended, there was a palpable moment of silence. Then came the bravos. And finally, applause.
Eight years after this love letter to Valentin, I joined the digital and creative media team of 21C Media Group, a public relations, digital, and consulting firm specializing in the performing arts. One of the projects on which I cut my teeth was the redevelopment of Dmitri’s website, which in non-industry terms was akin to getting my learner’s permit bundled with the keys to a Porsche Carrera. If the old adage goes, “Don’t meet your heroes,” then I was fortunate. As a non-singer, non-musician, I wouldn’t have called Dmitri a hero (though I certainly admired him). This made our working relationship fairly easy, even unremarkable. He would frequently reply to detailed logistical emails with a genial three-word response: “Great! Fantastic! Happy!” When I first met him backstage at the Met following his house debut as Rigoletto, he saw my Faustian ink and laughed, “I love tattoos!” Everything was an exclamation, and whatever you said, you hoped it would generate his megawatt smile in response.
His humor was a part of his artistry, a warmth that verged into the territory of spiritual trickster. And as his social media followers can attest, the best medium for Dmitri’s brand of love-mischief was photography and video (he was an artist made for Instagram as much as he was made for Verdi).
Hero or not, it was still hard not to go to pieces when I learned about Dmitri’s diagnosis of a brain tumor in 2015. There are plenty of layers to cut through when you as an audience member respond to an artist (whether you work for them or not): The charge of the music itself, the ephemeral emotion of the performance, the public personalities cultivated by the artists, the inner selves that lie at the heart of their work, and all that we bring to the table as listeners. Not knowing where to begin with this particular set of nesting dolls, it was easy to simply break down instead.
Remarkably, Dmitri was the one who remained even-footed. “Me before the treatment,” read the subject line of an email he’d sent to me when he began chemotherapy that summer. Inside was one of his signature selfies, with the rejoinder, “Let’s see how I change after. Hahaha.”
For the audience, it’s almost impossible to not construct and project an entire persona onto Dmitri in the 8 minutes and 50 seconds it takes to watch his 1989 Cardiff-winning performance of Rodrigo’s arias from “Don Carlo.” Do enough emotional excavation, however, and eventually you realize the old adage is true: we don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are.
When my father took his life in 1992, he disclosed that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and lacked both the mental stamina and financial means to consider treatment. Numbed from years of complicated grief, it was easy to be angry rather than walk the line of empathy, to feel cheated out of a fighting shot instead of seeking understanding. Cut to 2015, where I had a sideline view of another man—a father offstage as well as someone who frequently sang father figures onstage—fight with ferocity and humor. It became one of the most profound experiences of my adult life.
Perhaps this is why, when a celebrity dies, we are so quick to grieve. Indeed, it’s almost easier to mourn the loss of a Prince or Bowie or a Carrie Fisher or a Leonard Cohen, because with those figures we have the right balance of intimacy—be it watching “Star Wars” 87 times the summer we were 13 or crying over a breakup to “So Long, Marianne”—and distance. We’re not the ones expected to deal with the logistics of loss, and this in and of itself makes us active participants in our own miniature operas, experiencing and expressing our emotions without fretting over logistics.
“Our feelings of connection to celebrities are not based on personal relationships but instead on our own identities,” writes Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a grief counselor who founded the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado. “In the case of celebrity artists such as musicians and actors, we typically feel connected to their creative works...they help us understand and lay claim to our deepest desires.”
Dr. Wolfelt also notes that many of our strongest feelings of connection towards artists whom we may never meet occur in times of transition, in times that find us figuring out who we are. As someone whose teenage years were underscored by the heartbreak of “La Traviata” and “La Bohème” (Leonard Cohen didn’t kick in until my 20s), I find myself nodding in recognition at this theory.
“In this manner, our self-identities often become intertwined with the favorite celebrities who helped shape them,” concludes Dr. Wolfelt. “When they die, it feels like a part of us has died, too.”
In September of 2015, I found myself backstage at the dress rehearsal for “Il Trovatore” at the Met (which opened on my 30th birthday—a synchronicity I deemed auspicious coincidence). I watched the back of Dima’s head, signature hair still intact, as he did pull-ups using the closet rod of his dressing room. One of his pre-performance rituals, it signaled normalcy, routine.
A final dress rehearsal at the Met—especially one held in the evening after a full workday—is usually a quiet affair backstage, as everyone from singers to artistic administration to the makeup, hair, and wardrobe crew moves in a precisely-choreographed routine to keep the show moving seamlessly. The Met that night was still a well-oiled machine, but it was one that also ran on a generous amount of love. Audiences in the house saw that love as Dima was pelted with white roses at each curtain call by members of the Met’s orchestra.
As one of those people who helped artists cultivate public personalities, working on Dima’s digital messaging was an object lesson in how best to show up for a person during cancer treatment. It wasn’t about competing to show the highest degree of sadness—there are no Olympic medals for grief. It also wasn’t about what David Rakoff memorably described in the post-”Sex and the City” world as “a sense of humor and the strength to wear sky-high Jimmy Choos to chemo.” Analogous to planning an artist’s digital strategy, the best thing to do was stick to the plan until it changes (and accept that there’s a good chance it will in some way change).
Dima hadn’t been someone I would have called a hero when I first started working for him; by the end of my time at 21C, however, that’s exactly what he came to be. I left the company this past April to make a career pivot, working for a social-impact organization that helped nonprofits. It was the right decision for me after over a decade of eating, sleeping, and breathing classical music—to say nothing of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The hardest part was the nagging (and admittedly projected) feeling that I was abandoning Dima.
Two weeks into my new job, however, and I was back at the Met for its gala celebrating 50 years at Lincoln Center. Sean, my former boss at 21C, had offered me a standing room ticket a few day before, telling me in strict confidence that Dima was planning on making an unannounced appearance. It was such a well-kept secret that some of my former coworkers were taken by surprise when Peter Gelb took to the stage to welcome “one of the greatest and bravest artists who has defied all the odds and all the gods to be here tonight.”
Dmitri’s farewell aria at the Met came from “Rigoletto,” the fiery and devastating “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.” Rigoletto’s daughter, the one true bright spot in the hunchbacked jester’s wretched life, is abducted in the previous act by several of the Duke’s courtiers. He arrives in search of her, and when the courtiers won’t let him through into the room where she is being held, he unleashes a Lear-like fury before crumpling into a lamentable plea. “Give this old man back his daughter...it doesn’t cost you anything, but to me such a daughter is worth the world.”
In Internal Family Systems, an integrative approach to psychotherapy developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1990s, an individual’s mental system is broken down into sub-personalities, literally an internal family consisting of hurt inner children (emphasis on the plural) and habits and emotions that we’ve developed to prevent those past traumas from resurfacing. The work of IFS is focused helping the patient to find their wholeness; essentially, we learn to be our own mothers and fathers to the hurt inner children that represent past traumas.
And inside a packed theater already teeming with emotion, I could feel my knees buckle as Rigoletto’s pleas cut straight to my gut. For a brief moment, I wasn’t seeing Dmitri onstage, but rather my father making the same plea. For a brief moment, I even felt like my own father as I repatriated my hurt and anger over his death, allowing them to fold into the whole of my psyche. It was a moment of wholeness. Of integration. Of benediction.
Six months later, Dima was gone.
In the last two years, which have seen a seemingly disproportionate amount of celebrity obituaries, there are been some critics who worry that the public grieves too much for people they never actually knew.
“The worry is that we’re self-identifying, and making a stranger’s death all about us. Projecting our own little concerns on to the blankness of a screen. The worry is that it reveals our own emptiness, our desperation for a feeling or thrown scrap of one. Or that we are so porous and sad that a stranger’s experiences is enough to topple us,” wrote Eva Wiseman in The Guardian last year. “Either way, it’s embarrassing. It’s undignified. And yet it keeps on happening.”
Yes, the internet is a playground for self-indulgence. (Case in point: I have used the word “I” twice as many times in this essay as Dima’s name.) That being said, it is also a unifier. It’s a means of exploring our porousness with awareness and compassion, of allowing the torrent of life to flow through us versus repressing our emotions to disastrous effect.
“The mourner is in more need of social support and assistance than at any time since infancy and early childhood,” writes sociologist Geoffrey Gorer. “If mourning is denied outlet, the result will be suffering.”
Grief at any level thus becomes a way of helping us to connect with others so that we may learn in turn to connect more fully with ourselves. If, as Dr. Wolfelt’s theory goes, we grieve celebrities not because we knew them, but because they helped us to know ourselves, then we grieve in public (particularly online) as a means of empathetically connecting with others who shared the same experience.
And so, 25 years on with nary an outlet in that time, I find myself mourning Dima. Concentrically, I continue to mourn my father. In the last week, I’ve listened to countless recordings of Dmitri, searching for traces of him in the works, like Tatiana seeking to find Onegin in his books.
Yet in tandem with this, I find myself overcome with love. As the Buddhist teacher and head of the Shambhala lineage Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, famously once wrote, “Be famous for your love.” The real traces of Dmitri are in the social media posts made by his fans; elegiac to be sure, but they also serve as declarations of love. Dima was, beyond perhaps anything else, famous for his love. He continues to be famous for his love: his love of life, his love of his family, his love of the music he championed. Greater than any single performance or recording, this is the legacy he leaves behind.
Seeing Dima after the Met gala on his way to the subsequent dinner marked the last time I saw him. “Are you in the happiest of places now?” he asked me of my new job. “Yes, but I miss working with you, of course,” I said. “Oh yes,” he responded with that smile, gesturing to the opera house behind us. “I’ll miss all of this.”
As we hugged goodbye, we wound up holding onto each other’s forearms for an extra moment. I had his left, with his famous tattoo of the Chinese character for “tiger.” He had my right, which bears a laurel crown and the Czech word for “lightness” (an ode to Milan Kundera). He gave me a squeeze. I squeezed back. It was the silent goodbye I’d never had with my father.
It was a moment of “before leaving this place.” ¶