Everything all at once: Boris Pinkhasovich
The date is burned into Boris Pinkhasovich’s memory: March 16th, 2023. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “Some angel made my wish come true.”
The Russian baritone was at Teatro alla Scala, rehearsing for his house debut as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor – and secretly wishing for a lighter start on the legendary stage. “I wanted very much a situation that would give me an opportunity to say hello to this stage and audience before my planned debut as Enrico,” he says.
It came suddenly, in the form of an offer to fill in as Marcello in that night’s production of La Bohème. There wasn’t even time to be nervous, though Pinkhasovich certainly felt the weight of the moment. “The responsibility to sing on that stage, where all the great singers of the past and of our time have performed, is huge,” he says.
Fortunately, Marcello is a role that Pinkhasovich has sung many times, and with the help of supportive colleagues (Irina Lungu as Mimì and Freddie De Tommaso as Rodolfo), he pulled off a small miracle. “Right from the beginning of the performance, I felt pure joy and euphoria,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until afterward, when the audience response was so enthusiastic, that I realized what had just happened to me.”
Last-minute substitutions are not uncommon in opera, but this one crystallized a hard-earned career poised on the brink of stardom. A product of rigorous training in his homeland, Pinkhasovich went straight from the St. Petersburg Conservatory to the prestigious Mikhailovsky Theater, where he sang lead roles like Yeletsky (Pique Dame), Count Almaviva (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Onegin (Eugen Onegin) – in short, many of the same roles that propelled another Russian baritone, the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to global acclaim. Pinkhasovich is his own man following his own muse, but there is no denying his ambition and accomplishments.
“I’ve never thought about my career in terms of frantically pursuing goals or comparing myself with more successful colleagues,” he says. “I try to be true to myself, devoted to my profession and responsible to the works I’m performing. As a faithful person, I trust that everything in life and art will be as it should be, at the right moment.”
Pinkhasovich, 36, got started in music early. Both of his parents were choir conductors, and he likes to say that he was “familiar with music even before I was born, in my mother’s womb.” He started piano lessons at the age of five, and two years later followed in his father’s and older brother’s footsteps at the Glinka Choral School, where he spent 11 years learning a lot more than how to sing. He entered the conservatory planning to be a symphonic conductor (his parents are both choral conductors). Singing was something he did in his spare time at Smolny Cathedral to earn money to pay for his studies.
And then his voice changed, maturing from a boy soprano to a mellifluous baritone. To maintain proper technique, he joined the vocal department at the conservatory, where he was fortunate to study with the renowned Russian mezzo Irina Bogacheva. He had a lot of catching up to do, telescoping five years of vocal studies into three. But he was able to maintain a double track, graduating with distinction in 2010 as a choral conductor and in 2011 from the vocal faculty.
As if that weren’t enough, Pinkhasovich also worked as the conductor of an amateur orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of the Gorky House of Scientists. “Honestly, I don’t know how I managed all this,” he says. Along with preparing and performing demanding pieces like Beethoven and Prokofiev symphonies, he took up the cello, just to have a better idea of what he was putting his players through – which was even more demanding.
“Following the example of my idol Evgeny Mravinsky, I tried to bring perfection to every work,” he says. “I set the highest standards with merciless consequences, challenging people twice my age. But many of the players have good memories from our time together, and we are hoping to work together again.”
When it came time to choose between a career as a conductor or a singer, the decision was a practical one. “I had to feed a family,” Pinkhasovich says. “I got married and had a child, so I had to earn a living.”
An audition at the Mikhailovsky Theater quickly propelled him into high-profile roles. Yeletsky, Onegin, Belcore, Figaro, Germont, Marcello – as his repertoire grew, his agent, Alex Grigorev, was able to open doors in Europe, and land further successful auditions. By 2016 Pinkhasovich was appearing in houses like the Bayerische Staatsoper and Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Opéra de Bastille and Salzburger Festspiele and is now a familiar face at the Wiener Staatsoper and Royal Opera House as well. After his debut at La Scala he went to Vienna to sing Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, a role he will reprise at the Bayerische Staatsoper in the autumn, when he is also scheduled to sing Belcore at the Royal Opera House.
Marcello was the first role that Pinkhasovich sang at the Mikhailovsky Theater, and remains a touchstone in his career. Other personal milestones include Yeletsky with Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic at Baden-Baden, and Kovalyov (The Nose) with Vladimir Jurowski conducting and Kirill Serebrennikov directing at Bayerische Staatsoper.
“To be invited to a theater for the first time is not easy to achieve,” Pinkhasovich notes. “But in my eyes, the real success is if your first appearance is followed by more invitations. I am very happy that this has been the case for me.”
Though he’s not on the podium, conducting remains the foundation and framework for Pinkhasovich’s performances. “When I start studying a new role, I do it all by myself at the piano, with a score which I have completely in my head,” he says. “I know all the parts, and if necessary could jump in as conductor. This means I can do whatever the conductor asks for in terms of tempo, dynamics, rhythm and so on. In other words, they can fully rely on me.”
Whether Pinkhasovich can always rely on conductors is another matter. Though he rarely says them out loud, he has strong opinions about how well the standards of the profession are upheld.
“For me, conducting is a very serious and important occupation, almost a science,” he says. “It hurts to see that for an audience with little understanding of its complexity, making nice-looking movements in front of an orchestra is sometimes misunderstood as mastery.”
And please, do not call Pinkhasovich a vocalist. “For me, that term is associated with the word ‘unprofessional,’” he says. “I can imagine that this opinion will arouse a storm of negative reaction. But as a perfectionist and conductor who loves to be exact, I find it unthinkable that a singer, often with the excuse ‘I don’t understand,’ allows himself to miss entrances, be rhythmically imprecise or sing out of pitch. Please don’t misunderstand me, that only applies to a small number of singers. Most are highly professional, with great artistry and musicianship.”
Like most baritones, Pinkhasovich is often cast in villainous roles, which he actually prefers, as they give him an opportunity to delve into motivation and character.
“I am not very interested in singing about love and happiness,” he says. “It’s much more interesting to sing about real passion and drama. And bad guys are not always bad because they are evil. Often, it is a strong, unfulfilled love that is the source of the destruction. Already in my repertoire is Tonio, who, being physically deformed and tragically enamored, is the real culprit in Pagliacci. Germont is not a nice person in my interpretation, either. And Enrico is Lucia’s ‘crudel fratello.’”
Pinkhasovich has been offered future engagements as Scarpia (Tosca) and Iago (Otello), which he describes as “dream roles.” Also on his wish list: Conte di Luna (Il trovatore) and Jack Rance (La fanciulla del West). “And it would be an absolute dream to sing Ruprecht in Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel,” he says. “I really hope some casting director or conductor will offer this to me.”
When he finally took the stage as Enrico at La Scala, it was a notable success, with eight sold-out performances played to enthusiastic audiences. Not surprisingly, what Pinkhasovich found most memorable about that run was his collaboration with the conductor.
“I was fortunate to work with Maestro Riccardo Chailly, an authority and expert in the bel canto repertoire who represents the great Italian tradition of conducting,” he says. “I was very impressed by his energy and enthusiasm for each performance. There was no question of relaxing or routine, the seventh and eighth performances were just as intense as the premiere. I had to put all my energy into every performance. All-around, an exciting and interesting journey, and an unforgettable experience.”