A gifted Russian tenor on the brink of U.S. stardom talks about what makes him tick.
By Steve Houk
Of all the singer categories in the world, one category seems to rise above the other, standing head and shoulders as the grandest of them all: The “tenor.”
Names like Caruso, Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras and other legendary tenors have always exuded a certain special kind of, well, mojo. They seem to possess an innate gift, a rare ability to transcend even the more revered mainstream rockstar vibe with their stirring and emotionally charged operatic arias, and in modern times even via popular music melodies, with sweeping notes that are sustained for what seems like hours, even days. If you’ve ever been in the room when a tenor’s on a roll, it’s pretty damn spectacular.
These days, one very talented tenor is taking his craft by storm, especially in his homeland of Russia, but it definitely isn’t stopping there. His name? Nikolai Baskov, the so-called “Golden Voice of Russia”, and next year he will be bringing his stunning vox and sexy demeanor to America as he embarks on his first US tour ever. His 2011 PBS special (and accompanying DVD/CD package) “Nikolai Baskov: Romantic Journey” is Russia’s most expensive and elaborate performance ever recorded for international television. The special has been a sure road-paver, as 24 (yes, two dozen) HD cameras capture the spectacle and majesty of a glorious Baskov performance. The exciting and daunting prospect of an American tour isn’t spooking this Russian treasure one bit; in fact, he’s chomping at that bit.
“I’ve never toured in the U.S. before, so I’m very excited to be in front of a new audience,” Baskov, 34, said this week. “Outside of the Russian community, many people will be seeing me live for the first time. Americans are mostly familiar with me through my special on PBS, so it will be great to actually share the music in a live setting. I’m also just excited to spend time in the U.S. and with the people here. New York especially is one of my favorite cities in the world – I love the dining, the parks, and most of all…the shopping!”
It seems like Baskov has had this moment on his radar since his childhood. He’s one of those gifted and accomplished singers who, for as long as he can remember, wanted to be exactly where he is right now, doing what he’s seemed destined for. And there’s nothing like a supportive “mat” (“mother” in Russian) to help foster your dreams.
“I started singing as a child. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to sing. Even as a little boy when I would visit other people’s homes with my parents, I was always the entertainment. My mother was the first one to support my interest in music. She said from an early age that I was destined to be an artist. I went to the Children’s Musical School and started studying music when I was five, and then started studying vocals when I was sixteen.”
As a result of his obvious and fast-developing talents, Baskov’s accolades were many on his ascent to his current status as one of the world’s top tenors. He studied at the Gnessin Music Academy in Moscow and the Moscow State Petr Chaykovsky Conservatory. In 1998, he won first prize in the All-Russian Young Singers Competition and took second prize in the Grande Voce competition in 1999 in Spain. The same year, Baskov was invited to join the esteemed Bolshoi theatre troupe and it was there that his talent seemed to truly take flight, performing major arias in such operas as Yevgeni Onegin, Prince Igor, Boris Godunov, Traviata and others. In 2000, he recorded his debut solo album “Posveshenie” (Dedication), and a video called “In Memory of Caruso” was aired on Russian TV, increasing his popularity. In 2001, Baskov left the Bolshoi to set out on his own burgeoning solo career. It was clear that the young singer was on the road to superstardom, and everything that happened since has fallen along that path.
So who does a tremendous talent like Nikolai Baskov regard as his influences? They are many and varied, from past operatic and popular music legends to, yes, even a current pop diva.
“I love all types of music, both opera and pop music, and some of my influences include [Italian singer/songwriter] Lucio Dalla, Barbra Streisand, Pavarotti, and more contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga,” said Baskov. “My favorite singer is Mario Lanza. His performances are beautiful and passionate. He can express all the emotions that I try to express onstage – his voice can make you cry and it can make you laugh. On a personal level, the incredible soprano Montserrat Caballe took me under her wing and became my vocal teacher about seven years ago. She has taught me so much, from performing tips to ways to take care of my voice day to day. She is my vocal mama!”
Baskov’s next big step is what all musicians dream about: a tour in the United States. And all the hard work and accolades have come down to this. As far as what he will deliver at the pivotal point in his career, this is a man who has roots in the classics, but loves the mainstream side as well.
“I like to sing both. My tour will be both classical works and more contemporary work, including a few pieces from Broadway. To me, performing an aria isn’t just to perform a piece of music. It is to communicate my emotions and connect with the audience. I have a very warm heart and like to make people happy, and I try to communicate that with my performances.”
Steve Houk lives and breathes music, and has ever since his days as a baby bouncing around his family’s music-filled converted barn in Wilton, Connecticut. Even though he lives by day as a TV executive in Washington, he comes out at night in his cape and cowl as an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. Steve is also lead singer for Northern VA classic rock cover band Second Wind, and invites all to come out and rock with him and his band of brothers-from-other-mothers. Check out Second Wind’s website.