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Opera in the Valley of the Sun: A telenovela gone wild?

One of the finest voices of the past 100 years — and arguably the greatest living baritone — is set to take the stage in Phoenix next week.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky — winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people, no less — will be singing at the Orpheum Theatre on Jan. 10, courtesy of the Phoenix Opera.

Phoenix is known less as a hub for the arts than as a haven for sunshine and golf.  But Hvorostovsky’s visit may recalibrate our reputation. It is not hyperbole to say that Hvorostovsky’s one-day performance in the Valley of the Sun will increase the sum total of Phoenix’s cultural capital.

But what is opera, anyway? And why should we care?

Fusty, antiquarian, elitist — such are the charges leveled at opera.

But opera, at its very best, is a telenovela gone wild — love and death, and madness and transfiguration, are its principal themes. It abounds in praise of the earthly joys of gluttony and intoxication. Opera customarily features characters at the end of their tethers — or slipping from them.

Opera was launched in 17th-century Europe as a pagan attempt to restore on stage the chorus of ancient Greek tragedies. It was steeped in the mysteries of rite, ritual and high drama — the stuff of Greek myth. When music and language and theater converged, opera was born.

“Music,” said German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, “is the most sublime language, and if we were higher beings, we would only need to listen, and then we would see.” By fusing words with music and drama, opera lets us see through our listening, and listen through our seeing. Orfeo, in Monteverdi’s eponymous opera, declares Euridice’s eyes his sunrise in the underworld — and underlines the age-old kinship between love and mortality, opera’s two greatest themes.

Opera is animated by the primal — even quasi-religious — desire to conjure a world through the human voice. Walther, the hero of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” gets the girl through the beauty of his song — and sings of retrieving Eden itself.

He rightfully calls it his “prize song,” and his song of praise becomes a sort of prayer. Through this prayer he attains the world and his heart’s desire — which are one and the same.

Small wonder many Romantics equated singing with speaking in tongues. Composer Gustav Holst declared music “identical with heaven.” The greatest opera puts beauty to the service of truth, enabling poetry and power to become one.

Human beings become, on the opera stage, forces of nature. Their vocal pyrotechnics — their razor’s-edge virtuosity — elicit listeners’ awe. It is a high-wire act, where performers teeter on the thin line separating failure from success, and where sheer luck and the frailty and unpredictability of the human voice each play a role.

As such, singing resembles the exhilarating high stakes of many sports: A singer ascending to a series of high-Cs may be analogous to a baseball player hitting a home run.

Opera today is no anachronism. Like the best movies and literature, it can educate the heart’s passions, tapping a gleaming quarry within one’s deepest self. For its devotees, it provides an enlargement of life. The fluidity of music, its mercurial ebb and flow, renders it the stuff of metamorphosis — it erases boundaries, melding intellect with heart. Opera is nothing less than a fulfillment of the old Jewish blessing:  “More life into a time without boundaries.”

George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is set in the “Golden Age,” as its librettist, DuBose Heyward, put it, “when men, not yet old, were boys in an ancient, beautiful city that time had forgotten.”

Opera grants us passage into a golden age, if only fleetingly, in which time is suspended and hearts unfold. Opera is a vehicle for rapture. Of how many other things might this be said?

Hvorostovsky’s performance will make vivid our potential for a more spirited cultural life in the Valley, one congruent with our collective aspirations: to render Phoenix a cultural golden city, its ranks swelling with citizens whose personal “prize songs” reverberate.

Join the Phoenix Opera on Jan. 10, and see — and listen — for yourself.

— Bob Stump is an Arizona corporation commissioner, former state representative and a member of the Phoenix Opera Board of Directors.

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