Opera stage is new hot spot – LA Times 22nd Nov 2007

by David Ng (Los Angeles Times)

«”It’s hot in here,” says bass-baritone Erwin Schrott during a recent rehearsal of “Don Giovanni” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. With a casual flourish, the Uruguayan singer doffs his white Dolce & Gabbana shirt and for a moment, all eyes in the room migrate to his muscular torso, which he covers with a green T-shirt. Then the music quickly starts up again. Mozart waits for no one, not even the brawny leading man.

Opera is often called the highest of all art forms. These days, it might also be called the sexiest. Gorgeous young singers are drawing attention around the world, helping to rejuvenate the genre. Starting this week, Los Angeles Opera plays host to some of that smoldering talent. Schrott reprises his signature role as the unrepentant lothario in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (opening Saturday). And soprano Maija Kovalevska — a rising star — makes her local debut as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Bohème” (opening Sunday).

The abundance of pulchritude is enough to melt the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s chandeliers. In person, however, the singers are refreshingly unpretentious. They talk about everything from their favorite movie stars to their exercise routines. No prima donnas here — these performers make opera feel modern and accessible.

“I think the days when tenors and sopranos would stand in the middle of the stage and scream all night are over,” says Schrott, 34, during a lunch break. “Those days when they were . . . am I allowed to say ‘fat’ in a newspaper? Those days are gone.”

To put it another way, opera houses are gradually learning what Hollywood has known all along: good-looking stars can equal big box office. The first time Schrott performed “Don Giovanni” at L.A. Opera in 2003, the house reached 95% capacity for most shows. When superstar hotties Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón came to town to perform “Manon” and “Romeo and Juliet,” demand was so high that stand-by lines wrapped around the pavilion.

For Schrott, making opera enjoyable for contemporary audiences is a personal mission. “You have to be an actor,” he says. “Singing is just part of it. In fact, I don’t even think singing is the most important part. You have to be believable. If I have to dance, I study dance. If I have to do sword fighting, I study that. We have to be in the best shape we can be in every way possible.”

To stay fit, Schrott hits the gym. “I love running. I climb at the gym. And I swim a lot,” he says. During lunch, he gravitates toward sashimi, garden salads and fresh fruit. The results of his discipline have not gone unnoticed by fans. Opera blogs refer to him as a “barihunk” — an honorific that he shares with other lower-register studs Nathan Gunn and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Asked about his sex symbol status, Schrott replies, “No, I know nothing about that.” (A disingenuous response, perhaps, as his wardrobe consists primarily of form-fitting designer shirts and tight jeans. His hair — recently cut short — is gelled out in metrosexual spikes.)

The singer seems more comfortable talking about his young daughter, who lives in Montevideo, Uruguay. (“I am missing her very much.”) He also discusses his favorite movie actors — Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp. He’s also a fan of Klaus Kinski, the maniacal actor in such films as “Fitzcarraldo” and “Woyzeck.”

“Kinski was totally crazy,” Schrott explains. “All of his power, like this big whoosh, comes from the inside of him to the outside.” He leans forward and whispers, “I’m using Kinski in ‘Don Giovanni.’ You will see. I am stealing some things from him.”

It’s not unusual these days for an opera singer to go from obscurity to fame in a matter of weeks, and there’s no better example than Maija Kovalevska. In October 2006, the Latvian soprano won the top prize at Operalia, the international competition sponsored by Plácido Domingo. A month later, she received an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to star in “La Bohème.”

“It came together so fast,” she recalls. “I remember when I first walked onto the stage at the Met. I couldn’t see the end of the auditorium it was so big!” Domingo, who was conducting, encouraged her to test the acoustics. “He told me not to be scared and to just sing. And so I did and it was very nice. It wasn’t difficult at all.”

Domingo likes to serve as a lifelong mentor to his Operalia laureates. “I never let them go completely,” he says on the phone from New York. “I’ll always advise them, as much as they’ll listen to me.” He adds that Kovalevska “impressed me immediately when I first heard her perform. And her looks also! Of course, the voice is the most important thing, but how lucky for her and the others to look like movie stars.”

Kovalevska, 28, will perform “La Bohème” in the LA Opera production conceived by the late film director Herbert Ross (“The Turning Point,” “Steel Magnolias”). “I like this production because it’s so simple,” Kovalevska says. “There’s not too much movement so I can concentrate on the emotions.” (She shares the role of Mimi with Virginia Tola — see below.)

Tall, slender and fair-skinned, Kovalevska cuts a model-like figure. “I like to stay fit. I jog whenever I can,” she says. “But it’s not only to look good. It’s for singing.” She says strong abdominal muscles are the key to a great voice. “We keep all of our breath down there, deep down inside. It’s a bit like yoga.”

Kovalevska segued into opera at age 17 after studying piano, partially out of a love for languages. She speaks four fluently (Latvian, Russian, Italian, English) and can perform in a couple more (German, French). When preparing for the cover photo shoot, she and Schrott — who had met for the first time a few minutes before — discuss the best angles for lighting in animated Italian. (He used to live in Italy; she studies near Bologna with the legendary soprano Mirella Freni.)

Like Schrott, Kovalevska sees opera as a populist art form. She mentions a New Yorker magazine article from earlier this year that put the per-screen, per-day grosses of the Met’s multiplex HD broadcasts of its Saturday matinees above that of Hollywood’s own. “Opera is so powerful, you can’t be indifferent to it,” Kovalevska says. “You either hate it or love it.” As for the future of an art form perpetually described as near death, she remains optimistic: “If it has survived until now, there is a reason. I think opera will live forever.”»

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