Vittorio Grigolo opens the door to his dressing room wearing a towel and a black T-shirt that adheres to his muscular frame, his leading-man hair still damp from the shower. In a thin, boyish voice that belies the thunderous tenor he deployed onstage just minutes ago—in the New York Metropolitan Opera production of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette—he complains of having thrown out his back a few days before. “It still sounded good, though, no?” he asks, seeking not so much reassurance as confirmation of what he surely knows was a magisterial performance. (As if the adulatory curtain calls and numerous bravi weren’t indication enough.) Nor did his bad back stop him from climbing the wall to Juliette’s balcony with the grace of a thief, something you wouldn’t have caught Pavarotti doing even if he was being chased by dogs. In opera, the slightest display of agility is hailed as an Olympic feat.
Grigolo yanks the Playbill out of a well-wisher’s hand and asks for a pen before the concertgoer has a chance to request an autograph. He then drapes his arm around the visitor’s shoulder and insists I take two photographs of them: one with the man’s film camera, the other with his iPhone, the better to share it on social media.
The 40-year-old Tuscan tenor the most of his moment. In the past few years, he has become the closest thing to an opera superstar since Pavarotti, Domingo, and, as Seinfeld put it, “the other guy” crossed over into pop culture. The New York Times recently called Grigolo “the most galvanically convincing singer in the world today.” As opera houses struggle to attract a broader, younger audience, expectations for performers have never been higher; singing flawlessly is the bare minimum. On top of that, Grigolo adds a physique that suits practically every romantic lead in the canon; a willingness—nay, eagerness—to promote himself; and an indefinable frisson that even opera neophytes can appreciate.
“One can’t help being entranced by him. The fact that he has a voice to match is pretty rare,” says Christopher Koelsch, president and CEO of LA Opera, which cast Grigolo in its production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann this spring alongside his frequent collaborator Diana Damrau, a German soprano who is the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. (Or, as Grigolo puts it, the Hutch to his Starsky.)
“Audiences always respond to a slight sense of danger onstage,” Koelsch adds. “Although he is completely under control, there is something about him that always feels like a bit of a live wire.” Grigolo courts danger offstage as well: He used to race Formula 1 cars, but he is now content to modify vintage cars and motorcycles at a garage in Milan, an hour’s drive from his home in Lugano, Switzerland. These days, though, he rarely gets a chance to drive them.
Grigolo was discovered as a child while singing “Ave Maria” at the optometrist’s office. He joined the Sistine Chapel choir at 9 and was performing opposite Pavarotti at 13. He appeared in an early iteration of the crossover pop-opera group Il Divo in the early 2000s but quit out of fear of being pegged as an unserious artist. When he auditioned at the Met a few years ago, he made an impression before singing a note. “What stood out were two things,” remembers general manager Peter Gelb. “First, he was extraordinarily talented. And second, unlike most people auditioning, wearing suits or somewhat formal attire, he was wearing pajamas, as I recall. He was clearly a distinctive personality from the get-go.” Gelb has booked Grigolo in three roles for the 2017–18 season: He’ll reprise parts in Hoffmann and Lucia di Lammermoor, and will sing the role of Cavaradossi in a new production of Puccini’s Tosca.
Grigolo makes no effort to hide his formidable ego; in fact, he treats it as part of the job. He often refers to himself by first name, and when I asked if it was okay for me to tape our interview, he picked up my iPhone from the couch and spoke directly into it, as if recording a private voice memo. “I think it’s beautiful when they say that my voice, it’s like...when you open a window in an Italian landscape in the sun of the south.”
It’s hard to blame someone trained to project passion to the rafters for being a little over-the-top. It’s more charming than anything. What’s more, he’s right: He brings an unmistakably Italian bel canto ardor to every role, even to Goethe’s cerebral Werther. That sensibility makes him a natural fit for the Milanese menswear line Caruso. Grigolo recently starred in a whimsical short film for the label, The Good Italian III, opposite the movie star Giancarlo Giannini.
The experience got Grigolo thinking about his next career move. As opera companies increasingly depend on live theatrical broadcasts for revenue, getting familiar with working in close-up has become a requirement. “I like the movie business,” he says. “I like the camera.”