Operetta Research Center
15 July, 2017
In 2007, a music manager in the US started a blog called Barihunks, dedicated to hunky baritones. Over the years, this blog has gathered quite a following. And has presented many highly attractive young and rising singers to a wider audience. While the founder of Barikunks wishes to remain anonymous, we managed to catch up with him in Berlin recently and talk with him about the changes in the opera world in terms of singer’s fitness and attractiveness. While Mr. Barihunks reflects about opera only, many of his observations could – and should – apply to operetta as well, since that genre originally ‘sold’ its good via attractive singers, female and male. Or at least via singers with a lot of sex appeal, such as Hortense Schneider, Marie Geistinger or Julia Baron. Not to mention Henry E. Dixey as Adonis (1883) or Louis Treumann as Danilo (1905).
You started the blog Barihunks 10 years ago. It’s dedicated to hunky baritones representing a sexy, sportive and youthful vision and version of opera. What inspired you to create your blog, where did the initial spark come from?
The inspiration for Barihunks started as a conversation between a friend in New York and me in San Francisco. By coincidence, we had both just seen Dmitry Hvorostovsky and Mariusz Kwiecien in different performances. Director Francesca Zambello had recently coined the term “barihunk” in reference to Nathan Gunn performing shirtless in The Pearl Fishers. We joked around that it would be fun to create a tribute blog, believing that perhaps a handful of people would look at it. Within a few weeks we noticed a huge surge in traffic and realized that we had tapped into something with the opera crowd.
Was there anything like Barihunks around before?
I don’t know of anything like Barihunks before it appeared on the scene.
I was personally put off by a number of bitchy opera blogs and felt like opera needed a more positive and fun portrayal of the art form. In fact we’ve posted the following under our Mission Statement: “Keep opera positive! No bitchiness allowed! This industry is tough enough.”
There have been a number of copycat sites, like “Sexy Sopranos,” but none have really taken off. There is something so unique about a gorgeous man with a low voice singing the most beautiful music ever written that just can’t be copied.
Many people don’t realize that we also use the site to raise money to support young artists and new compositions for baritones and basses through our sale of the Barihunks calendar and our t-shirts. Our goal is to truly be a positive force in opera.
There’s a famous saying, “It’s not over till the fat lady sings.” Most people do not associate opera and opera performances with well-build singers. Yet you present a never-ending army of them: where do they all come from suddenly? Did something in opera change around 2007? Has sex appeal become important in a business so exclusively focused on “voice” alone for so many years? Is there a historic precedent from sexy singers – back in the 17th or 18th century? Are you rediscovering something that was an original appeal of the art form opera?
This is a complicated question and I will answer it in the affirmative and the negative.
Yes, something did change, which is the omnipresence of TV and movies that made appearance more important. I had a singer say to me once, “Being on your site has given me the edge. If ten of us are going in for an audition for Don Giovanni and we all sing pretty much at the same level, but I may look better shirtless or in a closeup that is being broadcast on TV or on a movie screen, then I’ll probably get the role.” We talk about singers taking care of both their voices and their bodies, as directors are demanding more physicality on stage and broadcasts are making appearance more important, whether one likes it, or not.
No, sexy singers are not new and that goes back to the earliest days of opera. The castrati singing in the 18th century European courts were often gorgeous and made up as beautifully as any woman. More recently, there have been barihunks around who we can still watch on old TV broadcast and videos on YouTube. We’ve featured many of them as “Historical Hunks,” including Gérard Souzay, Justino Diaz, Theodor Upmann, Paul Robeson (who famously posed nude!), Ettore Bastianini, Mario Sereni and the German Roland Hermann. I still think for both voice and looks, Ettore Bastianini is one of the sexiest singers to ever grace the stage.
Why baritones and not tenors or basses? What is it about baritones that makes them physically hunkier than others? Do they have to make up for the sex appeal tenors have in climactic high notes with pumped up torsos? Is the baritone sound in itself hunkier than other sounds….. are there any historic baritones you would describe as hunks, vocally or physically? And what about the basses, not sexy at all?
If you look at our Mission Statement on the site, it reads “To promote the baritone to bass voice range, especially emerging talent.” We love basses and feature them all the time. As for tenors, or hunkentenors as they’ve been dubbed, I’ll leave that to someone else. We do sneak a few onto our site and even into our calendar. Tenor Glenn Seven Allen is one of our sexiest photos in this year’s calendar. There was a Hunkentenor site that briefly appeared and went dark pretty quickly.
I do believe that the baritone has a special appeal. The great composer Ricky Ian Gordon said that the baritone is the voice of the “All-American man.” Both he and Jake Heggie compose many, if not all, of their lead roles for baritones. The tenor as the lead may be an artifact of the past. Baritones and basses are no longer always the villain and are becoming more sympathetic characters.
As for basses, I would argue that some of the sexiest singers on our site are basses, including the German Malte Roesner, who is the seventh most viewed singer on our site of all time and a regular in our calendars.
How do you select the barihunks you feature? How do you get the photos?
I receive photos and “barihunk tips” on a daily basis, for which I am grateful. When I first started the site, I had to hustle for content, but now it shows up in the in-box. Content comes from a variety of sources. Some are not surprising, like from singers, colleagues, boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, opera marketing departments and agents.
However, my favorites come from mothers!
Not a month has gone by without a submission from a mother and it usually comes with a note that says something like, “I know I’m biased, but I think my son is beautiful and definitely a barihunk.” I have one mother who gives me monthly updates on her son’s career. I simply adore her for it. What’s more beautiful than a mother’s love and pride for her son?
As for regions, I’d say 80 percent of my content comes from the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Sadly, for someone who loves Latino men, the most underrepresented area is Central and South America.
You are a gay man living together with another man. How much has your sexuality influenced your fascination for hunky baritones? Do you think a heterosexual male opera lover would have ever thought of creating such a blog?
This is a fascinating question, because intuitively I would say that my sexuality totally influenced me to create the site. However, I’ve learned so much from the straight barihunks on the site about self-esteem and fitness. A number of singers, including Keith Miller and Kasey Yeargain, have created fitness sites and businesses which are an outshoot of what we’ve created. Therefore, I would say that a straight man could have created the site, but I would argue that Barihunks probably had to happen first.
I find mezzos to be the female equivalent of barihunks. There are a ton of sexy mezzos out there on the world’s opera stages. We’ve had Joyce DiDonato on our site in an “Honorary Barihunk” tee shirt. There is a young mezzo named Laura Krumm who is both sexy and has the most seductive voice I’ve heard in years.
Is it an act of gay liberation to be able to openly admit and discuss ones fascination for attractive singers today, without feeling ashamed about it?
I wouldn’t call it an act of gay liberation. Directors have made the fascination with attractive and even naked singers a pretty ordinary occurrence (especially in Germany!). Most singers love being admired. After all, anyone who walks out onto a stage is seeking approval and admiration.
I was surprised by a conversation with a barihunk on my recent visit to Germany, who said to me, “I don’t mind being admired for being shirtless on stage, but I am uncomfortable with posing for a calendar.“ He said being admired as beefcake made him feel like a woman who is sexualized simply for being attractive and not for her other traits.
Traditionally, “opera queens” as described by Wayne Koestenbaum or the way Terrence McNally portrays them in The Lisbon Traviata worship sopranos. Are you the next step in the opera queen evolution?
I started as the quintessential “diva worshipper,” which comes out of that old stereotype of gay men idolizing strong, passionate, over-the-top female femme fatales. I find it a bit passé today. What I love about the barihunk phenomenon is that it appeals equally to men and women, as well as straight or gay.
Considering the homoeroticism of many barihunk photos: are the visitors of your blog only gay men?
From what we can tell from analytics and sales of our merchandise, we’re almost 50-50 male to female. As I mentioned earlier, many of our male readers are straight men obsessed with fitness and exercise. We’ve done some Bari-Chunk to Bari-Hunk features which have generated ten times our usual traffic. Most of the email about those posts comes from straight guys thanking us for inspiring them to get in shape and to improve their self-esteem.
As for homophobia, we’ve experienced virtually none in ten years of posts.
We did have one singer ask us to remove a post because it violated his religious beliefs.
We’ve had a series of “Barihunk Lunches” where we gather a group of low voices and discuss a variety of topic over a meal. I’m so impressed with how easily straight and gay men in this business get along, tease each other and even toss around sexual innuendos. I believe there has been a true generational shift around sexual orientation. Fortunately, the opera world is miles ahead of everyone else.
What do you think attracts heterosexual women to barihunks? And is the opera industry fully responding to the needs these women have? Any suggestions for improving the image of opera, in general?
I love that Barihunks has allowed women to not only talk about, but brag about, their attraction to men. Some of the most provocative comments and emails that I receive are from women – and they know what they like! It is interesting to me that gay men and straight women tend to be attracted to completely different men. For instance, Nathan Gunn and Thomas Hampson seem to be total magnets for women, but don’t’ generate the same level of intensity from men.
If you look at an average opera audience, the majority is made up of gay men and women. We both clearly love beautiful men with gorgeous, resonant low voices. More of that would go a long way! I’m proud that a positive image of healthy, virile men has become the new stereotype for opera, rather than the antiquated idea of an oversized Wagnerian soprano with horns and a spear.
You mentioned that one of your most successful posts was on a red headed singer. Why are red heads such an item?
I follow my analytics closely, as they dictate who I post (or don’t post). Certain types seem to have particularly passionate followers and red-heads fall into that category, as do hairy men, hairless men, Asian singers and men in tuxedos.
Talking of red heads: how much desire for diversity do you see among your followers? Are there any Asian, Arab, black or any other people of color barihunks?
We are very cognizant about diversity and truly try to put as much of it on display as possible. We’ve featured numerous black and Asian singers on the site, but there aren’t many Arab baritones in the world today. If your readers know of some, send them our way at Barihunks@gmail.com.
Do your followers ever discuss vocal aspects, or do they focus only on exterior body elements?
You can’t have an opera blog and not discuss the voice. It’s still first and foremost about the voice.
After 10 years of barihunks: what has changed in the opera world, for you? Has barihunks influenced these changes? What do you wish should happen in the future, what happens in the US that Germany could learn from or vice versa?
The biggest change in opera has been its accessibility. I’m sitting in California as I respond to your questions watching Semiramide on my laptop from France. The barihunks phenomenon cannot be separated from the fact that opera is showing up on people’s TV screens, laptops and in movie theatres. It has become as much a remote visual media artform as a live vocal artform.
Your focus on sexy singers is very pop culture orientated, it corresponds to what most teen magazines do with pop stars. Why are traditional opera magazines like Opernwelt completely ignoring the trend you sent and why are most opera magazines so unsexy and stuffy? (While opera companies lament the lack of interest from young audiences.)
I think part of the success of Barihunks is that we’re not stuffy, don’t take ourselves too seriously, yet still respect the art form and remain informative.
I’m fascinated by the marketing of opera in Europe, which often features an 80-year-old conductor, while in the U.S and Canada the focus in on the singers.
Even US opera magazines like Opera News are doing Hollywood-style photo shoots with singers and featuring young, often attractive, rising stars of opera. I open some European music magazine and I feel like I should be blowing dust off of the pages.
What’s the most inappropriate mail you ever received from a barihunk?
Oh Lord! I had a British baritone (of some note) who delighted himself by sending me the most inappropriate dick pics. I never knew if he was serious, or not, but he claimed he did it because he was obsessed with getting on the site. We don’t ever post random nudity and only post it if it’s related to a performance.
I also receive “revenge photos,” which really upset me and which I do not tolerate. I had a soprano send me a series of nude photos of her barihunk ex-boyfriend, begging me to post them. I finally threatened legal action against her with the help of an attorney, as this is both illegal and inappropriate.
Would it bother you if a barihunk did porn? Does porn stop you from having a serious opera career, as it did years ago in Hollywood? Has the opera business become more tolerant about sex videos, too?
Well, there has been Gordon Beeferman’s The Enchanted Organ: A Porn Opera featuring a character named Avery Dick that was done in New York and Pornographi, which was donein the Netherlands. I suspect that if there is an audience, it will get performed.
I know of a singer who seriously considered doing porn to supplement his income, but wisely decided against it. I suspect that it would adversely affect one’s career. I knew of an amateur video of a barihunk that made the rounds and it created some serious problems for his agent and almost cost him a major debut.
Will you ever publish a book about your time as “Mr. Barihunks”? And did you ever think you ever think your blog would become such an era defining thing?
I’m not sure that a book would be of much interest, but I have seriously explored shutting down the site and turning it into a foundation to support young artists and new compositions.
What’s your favorite baritone aria?
I love two low voices together, so two duets stand out for me: the Attila-Ezio duet “”Tardo per gli anni” by Verdi and the King Philip and Grand Inquisitor duet from Verdi’s Don Carlo.
As for a solo aria, there are far too many to chose from, but I’m a sucker for Don Giovanni’s “Deh, vieni alla finestra” sung by Mariusz Kwiecien or Dmitry Hvorostovksy, Wotan’s Farewell “Leb’ wohl” and Hamlet’s drinking song “O vin, dissipe le tristesse” sung by Stépane Degout or Simon Keenlyside.
My personal contemporary favorite is Marco Vassalli singing Clint Borzoni’s song “Stufen,” with text by Hermann Hesse, which is viewable on YouTube.
For more information on Barihunks, follow “Jack Michaels” on Facebook or click here for the blog.