Ask Kazakhstan-born tenor (and occasional vaudevillian) Timur Bekbosunov about Achim Freyer's controversial staging of Wagner's Ring Cycle last year, and he will tell you it was completely misconstrued by Los Angeles. "He was an artist accused of shoving his ego at the opera," he says. "It was very organic with the music of Wagner, a surreal fantasy that transcends reality itself. In the end, he felt misunderstood and compromised his vision."
You could never call Bekbosunov an artist of compromised vision. Though classically trained, he practices "reform opera," rejecting the elitism and orthodoxy of high art. "Opera is an art form, not a history museum," he says.
Bekbosunov moved to L.A. five years ago, and his cultural exoticism and eclectic talents make him a natural transplant. His Kazakh-Russian father pushed the idea of an American future into him from childhood, offering him a ruble for every English word he learned. After graduating high school, Bekbosunov set off to study English abroad in Wichita, Kan., where he lived with a progressive woman in her 60s who became a great friend and one of the biggest supporters of "this Kazakh boy with an impenetrable laugh who dressed strangely."
The description hasn't changed. You may have seen Bekbosunov onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with a cast of Russian opera singers in 2007 under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen in Boris Godunov, or at Disney Hall in 2010 in a tribute to Peter Eötvös as part of the L.A. Phil's Green Umbrella series. Or perhaps you caught him a few months ago in the performance space behind Paper or Plastik, a coffee shop on Pico, performing Kristian Hoffman compositions and a cover of David Bowie's "Life on Mars" with his vaudevillian band Timur and the Dime Museum for a handful of admirers.
His Dime Museum, a quirky eight-piece ensemble of CalArts grads, which Bekbosunov boasts appeals to a demographic of 14- to 90-year-olds, plays around town when the musicians aren't busy with other projects, and when Bekbosunov isn't touring internationally as an opera star. He admits he misses the Champagne and private dressing rooms when he's crammed backstage with his band, but he appreciates the contrast.
Bekbosunov doesn't hold back in the Dime Museum's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." He shrieks, jerks his hips, sighs, screams and whispers. You shouldn't be surprised to see the tall, handsome vocalist in tails or a long black cape, sparkles or leather.
"Opera as a genre is very static," he says. "It is equally as important to know opera's history as it is to create opera's future, and you can't do that if you constantly mislead audiences with 19th century–style productions and compositions."
He recently auditioned for a part with a German opera company, secured a residency with the Dime Museum at the Satellite and traveled home to Kazakhstan for the world premiere of The Silent Steppe Cantata, a collaboration with composer Anne LeBaron written for indigenous Kazakh instruments.
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"If opera vanishes, it is part of evolution," he says. "Listen, I go to the opera and I hear people snoring all the time. It takes commitment and time to go into a dark theater and stay there for hours."