Opera has always had its gentlemen matinee idols and glamour-puss divas (Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, and, most spectacularly, Maria Callas after her slimming makeover) who have set hearts aflutter. But now there’s even a blog called Barihunks that features buff young singers able and willing to take off their shirts—or more.
Stay tuned, Dallas. Paulo Szot, one of the steamiest barihunks working, is coming to you at the Winspear Opera House, straight from his Tony award-winning performance as Emile de Becque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at Lincoln Center. The Polish-Brazilian toast of Broadway and the opera house will give us six performances, beginning October 22, reprising Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a role he has sung to great acclaim since 1999.
Szot appeared to good notices at New York City Opera in Bizet’s Carmen (as the sexy toreador Escamillo) and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in 2003 and 2006. He made his Metropolitan debut this spring to even greater applause in Shostakovich’s The Nose. His real public fame started in 2008, when he crossed over to musical theater, like his great predecessor, Ezio Pinza, the original Emile in South Pacific in 1949. With one difference: the Italian basso was 57 years old, and his opera career had ended before his Broadway career began, whereas Szot is a lithe, attractive 41-year-old, a tall, dark, and handsome man capable of winning both Ensign Nellie Forbush (the nurse who can’t wash that man right out of her hair) and many of the ladies and gents in the audience.
And I haven’t even mentioned what he does with his voice. In grand opera, the suave baritone seldom gets the girl; that’s what the tenor is for. But with his resonant low notes, rich middle range, and delicate upper one, Szot is musically as well as dramatically a persuasive lover, whether Mozart’s swashbuckling Don (who, for all his efforts, never actually succeeds as a seducer in the tragic-comic opera) or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tender and heroic widower. Dallas audiences are in for a treat.
I visited Szot in July, after he had returned, following a hiatus, to South Pacific for a month. He greeted me in his penthouse, near Lincoln Center, with spectacular views of the George Washington Bridge up the Hudson and Central Park to the north and east. He looked rested even after two performances the day before. Casually dressed in white cargo shorts, canvas sneakers, and an open-collared blue-and-white Hawaiian shirt, he seemed to have stepped right out of central casting. I told him he could expect a warm welcome in Dallas (he has never visited) during his six weeks of rehearsals and performances; he told me he’d heard such wonderful things about the Winspear that he was eager to try it out.
We talked about one of my pet peeves: amplification, still largely verboten in opera, where the natural voice ought to carry to the highest balcony’s last row. In a great instrument like the Winspear, whispers onstage can be caught in “the gods.” Szot said that he doesn’t mind body-miking, especially in a Broadway show that requires seven or eight performances a week instead of the three or four for an opera. He was getting ready for an autumn cabaret series at the Cafe Carlyle, and to my surprise told me that he would use a mike in this most intimate of venues. How come? “For bossa nova and other Brazilian songs, you want to sound like you’re whispering into your lover’s ear in bed.” He smiled.
In addition to his charm and good looks, Szot has solid professional chops. The youngest of five children, all of whom are musical, he learned piano at an early age. At 18, he took a cargo ship from Brazil to Poland, his parents’ native land, where he’d won a scholarship to study dance in Krakow. An injury closed that path, and from then it was singing, all the way. His career has blossomed, so much so that he has had to turn down other offers for Broadway work (for example, to play Georges in an upcoming revival of La Cage aux Folles), because opera companies must mount their schedules years in advance.
I asked Szot about working with others. He likes it. If you are the youngest sibling, this makes sense. You try to be accommodating. What he hates most is when a director has no ideas, but tells the singer “to show him what I have.” He likes being directed; he likes working with a team, especially onstage where the drama can change slightly in every performance, keeping everything and everyone fresh and new. He also said he keeps whatever prima donna tendencies he may have (I didn’t see any) in check and tries to maintain a normal routine.
After last season’s Moby-Dick, Dallas Opera is on a roll. In Don Giovanni, Szot will be joined by two other barihunks: Mirco Palazzi, as the Don’s sidekick and valet Leporello, and Ben Wager as Masetto, the poor schlemiel whose fiancee, Zerlina, Don Giovanni tries to seduce. The marketing gurus at Dallas Opera have dubbed this season Dangerous Desires. If the opening production is any good, those desires will be unleashed both onstage and off.
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