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A Bass With a Taste for Power

Exploring wine bar offerings with opera star Ildar Abdrazakov
Photo by: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role of San Francisco Opera's Mephistopheles

Posted: Oct 1, 2013 5:01pm ET

"You should talk to Ildar," a mutual friend said. "He's really into wine."

Ildar Abdrazakov is a Russia-born bass currently singing the title role in Boito's lavish Mephistopheles at San Francisco Opera. He makes a dashing devil, all muscle and menace on the surface, his singing sonorously suave. And, as an opera lover, I could not forgo an opportunity to add him to my singer friends, most of whom I have gotten to know because of our mutual interest in each other's fields of work.

Shortly before opening night, my wife and I met him and our mutual friend for drinks and snacks at St. Vincent, a terrific wine bar about midway between our home and the opera house. We settled in and left it up to the savvy staff to pick some interesting wines for us. Partly, I wanted get a handle on Ildar's palate, especially which kinds of wines he likes.

That didn't take long. The lighter wines mostly got a shrug from him. But when we got a full-bodied, ripe Zinfandel, his eyes lit up. "This I like," he said. "It has—" and here he made a fist and grunted. No words were necessary. He liked richness and power. Maybe because that's what his voice and presence are like on the opera stage.

We talked about how wine first attracted him. As a young singer from Russia he entered the 2000 Maria Callas television competition in Parma. "Every evening, all the singers would get together and drink gallons of Lambrusco," he recalled. "It's all we could afford, but in Russia we never had good wine, so I loved it."

"When I won the competition," he smiled, "they offered me more wine, and better quality." Conductor Riccardo Muti quickly made sure Abdrazakov was signed to sing at La Scala, Italy's prime opera house. Now he lives in Tuscany. On off days he and his Italian girlfriend love to drive the Tuscan countryside searching for wineries and wines to buy.

"I like Brunello," he said. "And super Tuscans."

A few weeks later we met to share a bottle of wine at another wine bar not far from the opera house. I got there first and scoped out the wine list. Realizing many of the wines were in the currently trendy crisp, cool-climate style, I homed in on a Mendoza Malbec as one he was likely to enjoy.

He introduced the woman with him as Barbara, visiting him for about 10 days while he was singing here and on to Chicago for a Verdi Requiem with Muti conducting. Pretty and lively, dressed casually in jeans and a flowing blouse, she spoke English with a bit of an Italian accent but with more confidence and a better vocabulary than Ildar's. She became a vital part of our conversation. She seemed highly knowledgeable about opera. She looked vaguely familiar, too. I asked, innocently, "Do you sing?" She said yes, and Ildar added, "She's Barbara Frittoli."

Barbara Frittoli is a celebrated Italian soprano. I've seen her in several operatic performances, but never up close. I was mortified. He said, "My fault, I just introduced her as Barbara." She could not have been nicer about my blockheaded ignorance. "Don't worry, I'm not a diva," she assured me. She could not have been more charming.

They even asked my advice about finding a spa resort in Northern California to go for a few days after his last performance here. Feeling guilty, I did a little research online about what was actually available before e-mailing him with several options. And another apology to Barbara.

When I suggested we drink the Malbec, he looked at the wine list and decided to ask about some of the Italian wines. The staff generously poured him samples, most of which he shrugged off as too light. When he told them he wanted something with more oomph, indicated by the by-now-signature punch and grunt, they poured him a taste of the Malbec. He liked it. We drank it.

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