Monday, February 27, 2012

Me and Dmitri and Vladimir and Luciano

By Jim Heffernan
I frequently think in terms of degrees of separation between people. The reigning theory is that everyone is about six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth -- the famous “six degrees of separation.” Within the United States only about four people stand between you and, say, George Clooney.

Clooney is a good example in the Duluth-Superior area. He visited Duluth a couple of years ago promoting a movie, so quite a few people in our midst met him. The chances are you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who met Clooney. That’s four degrees of separation. It might be less for some.

But enough introduction. Now for the meat. Dmitri Nabokov died recently in Switzerland at age 77. He was the son of the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov, author of “Lolita,” on every list of the greatest novels of the 20th century. When you read it you know why.

How many degrees of separation lie between you and Dmitri Nabokov? And why should you care? If you have met me, only one person – yours truly -- lies between you and Dmitri. I, having met Dmitri, have only him to count between me and Vladmir.

That was very much on my mind 35 years ago or so – it was in the mid ‘70s – when Dmitri Nabokov showed up in my office at the Duluth News Tribune where, at the time, I was in charge of arts and entertainment coverage.

Aside from being the son of Vladimir Nabokov, Dmitri was a classical singer, appearing in operas and oratorios in Europe and America. He was in Duluth to perform with the Duluth-Superior Symphony in one of its big choral presentations; I can’t recall which one. Symphony management wanted to drum up ticket sales, so they sent their not-so-famous bass soloist to the newspaper for an interview.

I recall almost nothing about what we talked about, but I do remember sitting across from him and thinking how amazing it was to be chatting with the son of Vladmir Nabokov, one of the greatest writers in English after an earlier career as a writer in Russia, where he was born.

Dmitri was quite tall and thin, in contrast to the images of his portly father in photographs. I recall, too, that he sang reasonably well, but nothing special. He was a well-trained singer who could hold his own on any classical stage without setting the world on fire.

So, I met him, and if you’ve met me, then… Well, you know the degrees of separation.

In its obituary for Dmitri last week, the New York Times (byline: Daniel S. Slotnikread here) opened another degrees-of-separation door to me. It said as a young singer, Dmitri made his operatic debut in “La Boheme” in Italy with Luciano Pavarotti early in Pavarotti’s career.

Well now, let’s count those degrees of separation: You, me, Dmitri Nabakov, Luciano Pavarotti. Three for you, two for me.

With just two degrees of separation between me and both Vladmir Nabakov and Luciano Pavarotti, I can say I’ve gotten pretty close to one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century and one of the greatest tenors.

How can I miss?

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