Classical pretty boys appeal to more than just the sublime in art
Paul Horsley, The Kansas City Star, 21 April 2002
The women, we've been seeing for years: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in her
split-leg dresses, over-the-top Ahn Trio decked out in glam designer
gowns and petulant Laura St. John, who posed for her first album cover
wearing nothing but her violin.
Now it's the men's turn.
From pretty boys like violinist Joshua Bell to macho studs like bass
Rene Pape, today's male classical artists are being marketed with the
same eye to titillation as the women.
This week two of the studlier artists appear at the Folly Theater, one
today (the American recital debut of new tenor Juan Diego Florez) and
one Saturday (baritone Jubilant Sykes), both presented by the Harriman
And at least one said he didn't want to be admired for his appearance if
the admiration is not accompanied by a love for the music.
"Looks are not so important to me," Florez said recently from New York.
"They try to market a little bit this Latin lover image."
Florez said it was his record label, Decca (Pavarotti's label), that
tried to play up his looks on his album cover and in full-color
advertisements in Opera News and elsewhere.
Although the 29-year-old Peruvian is a picture of modesty, a buzz has
been following him around Europe for several years: a singer with good
looks and incredible vocal virtuosity, all in one package.
He "drives audiences into a frenzy wherever he goes," wrote the stately
Guardian in London. Since January Florez has been the center of operatic
attention, especially for his performance in the Metropolitan Opera's
production of "The Barber of Seville."
But Florez is the most recent in a series of artists being pushed for
qualities other than their vibratos or high C's. Another, bronze-domed
baritone Jubilant Sykes -- a sort of classical equivalent of Babyface --
has that easy look of "ultimate cool" that both women and men can relate
to. (Sykes sings with guitarist Christopher Parkening at 8 p.m. Saturday
, also at the Folly.)
As the number of women in classical audiences continues to grow, the
world has begun to see the birth of something new: classical beefcake.
Still, classical-loving women, like the men who drove sales until
recently, are still a pretty sophisticated lot.
"It's disappointing when people are passed off only for their looks,"
said Marcia Cooper, a local writer and classical music lover. "But it's
delightful when people do have the looks to support a role."
Cooper, who also serves as part-time assistant house manager for the
Kansas City Symphony, travels widely to hear international artists,
"We're a very visual society now," she said, recalling a recent
performance of Tristan und Isolde in which the leads were, well, on the
heavy side. "When the lovers came together," she said, "it was almost
As it happens, the two artists appearing locally this week do have the
goods to back up their glamorous image: theirs are among the greatest
male voices of their generation.
"I certainly don't book an artist because of his or her looks," said
Richard Harriman, whose series has not been devoid of beefcake.
Harriman said that many of the most charismatic artists of all time were
anything but matinee idols.
"I had Luciano (Pavarotti) here five times at the height of his career,"
he said, "and no one ever stayed at home because he wasn't slim or
As for the marketing of male artists as sex symbols in the last decade
or so, advertisers say that's partly a function of who is making the
decisions about spending.
"There are more women who have discretionary income that is their own,"
said Ellen Faath, a consumer researcher for the locally based
Bernstein-Rein Advertising. She said marketing has increasingly been
called upon to appeal to women.
"There was a time when there was one breadwinner in the house, and he
made the decisions about how the money was spent," said Faath, a
longtime classical-music lover. Now, she said, women who work buy their
own concert tickets, and their tastes matter more than ever.
Faath also thinks the marketing of handsome men in classical music can
work partly because it goes against the expectations of staid, dour
classical concert life.
Cooper said that as house manager for the Kansas City Symphony she often
observes favorable responses to nice-looking soloists such as Corey
"They loved him," she said of reactions to the cherubic cellist. "You're
talking about somebody who should have his cheeks pinched by his aunts.
And you have an audience full of his aunts."
There were always handsome guys in classical music, and one always
wondered whether their looks helped secure their first "breaks." In
their early years violinists such as Yehudi Menuhin or Jascha Heifetz --
or conductors such as Leopold Stokowski -- had a willowy beauty that
looked awfully good on noir publicity posters.
Then in the 1980s the pianist Tzimon Barto, who seemed to spend as much
time in the gym as in the practice room, did something that no major
classical artist had ever done: He took off his shirt.
Well, not on stage. But he did pose bare-chested for publicity photos,
showing pecs and abs to match his pianissimos and arpeggios. It set off
a firestorm of publicity, which was of course exactly the intent: The
pianist's career took off.
Subsequently we got a range of male sex symbols, fromthe striking
conductor Christian Thielemann to the glowering Russian Maxim Vengerov
and to studly Americans such as baritone Thomas Hampson and conductor
Metropolitan opera star Richard Bernstein was posed in Opera News
wearing only a Speedo. And recently Rodney Gilfrey sent the opera crowd
atwitter when he posed as Stanley Kowalski in a sleeveless undershirt
for publicity photos of Andre Previn's opera of "A Streetcar Named
The Met is his oyster
For the moment, though, the world of tenors -- or at least Rossinian
tenors -- belongs to Juan Diego Florez. "Has Peru produced the next
Pavarotti?" asked The Guardian after a London recital in January 2001,
at the end of which "something akin to pandemonium broke out, as
everyone rose to their feet clamoring for more."
Of his Met debut in January, even The New York Times wrote that his
singing "deservedly brought down the house."
Thrust into the limelight and photographed in fashion-model poses, the
tenor is already the subject of two major fan Web sites. His dressing
room is increasingly populated by attractive young women. Online opera
discussion groups are filled with talk of him.
The tough part is to stay focused on music when journalists are making
comparisons to Hollywood stars, Florez said recently from his Manhattan
"I mean, Tom Cruise -- what?" He said that he needed to stay trim and
fit for the roles he plays: "I portray young men always, so that's fine
The charisma of which everyone is talking, especially in comic operas
like "Barber," is simply his love of life coming through.
"I like to have fun onstage," he said. "...I like when I can make people
laugh and when I can hear them laughing out loud."
As for the young women who seek him out for autographs backstage, he
said he tries to be kind without encouraging them. He said his Italian
girlfriend of two years, Laura, had helped put things in perspective.
"If you are gentle, they kind of remain as fans. Before I met this
girlfriend, I was more available, and there would be some girls around
sometimes," he said.
But Florez said the most important source of remaining rooted was
"knowing where you come from -- knowing what you are and what you want
to do, why you are singing."
Born in Lima, Florez began his life as a singer with traditional
Peruvian songs, which were sung to the accompaniment of guitar of his
father, a professional musician.
"I come from the lower middle class," he said, describing his beginnings
as a composer of songs for a rock band he formed. Later he attended the
Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his vocal facility
began to be noticed.
But it was the Peruvian vocal pedagogue Ernesto Palacio -- who is now
his manager -- who helped Florez find the clear, bright, buoyant sound
for which he has so quickly become famous.
"It's a fantastic feeling," he told the London Daily Telegraph, "like
driving a fast car."
Florez is living a good life. He resides mostly in Bergamo, Italy, loves
fine food and wines, and likes to dress well.
For now, he is riding the wave of early fame and keeping very busy --
Milan, Paris, New York, Tokyo, London.
"Mr. Florez has both the artistry and the personal charisma to conquer
millions beyond the niche audience for classical music," wrote the Wall
That seems to be pretty much what Florez set out to do.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2002