By Raphael Sugarman
Congratulate Dimitri Pittas for the critical praise he has received for his portrayal of Macduff in the Metropolitan Opera's current production of Giuseppe Verdi's “Macbeth” and he is likely to deflect the compliment. The loud bravos and curtain calls he receives at the end of every performance of “Macbeth,” Pittas insists, are more a tribute to Macduff's courage and resolve than to the lushness of his own operatic timbre. “I just think that the audience really responds to a character who opposes tyranny and fights for the underdog,” said the modest Woodside resident. “There is not a lot of hope for a really long period of time in this opera, so when the audience finally hears the tenor voice and realizes that Macduff is going to confront Macbeth, it is a real release for them.”Critics and opera fans alike, however, are giving Pittas a great deal more of the credit. A New York Times opera critic said that he sings the role of Macduff “with melting sound and dramatic urgency.” Pittas has received similar glowing reviews from a variety of publications for his Macduff as well as other roles. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution said that “his urgent, gutsy tenor rang out with full force,” noting that he was the only performer to receive “an on-demand curtain call.” Opera News called Pittas “a huge talent, with a ringing, easy tenor voice; as Alfredo, [from La Traviata] he sounded and even looked like a young Placido Domingo.”But unlike Domingo, whose parents ran a musical troupe in Mexico, and who seemed predestined for a life in opera, Pittas discovered his operatic muse almost by chance. Unique pathArias and librettos were the last thing on young Dimitri Pittas' mind as a boy growing up on 68th Street in Woodside. Neither of his parents had a career in music, nor much of an interest in opera. His mom Phyllis loved Sinatra and Tony Bennett, while his dad Steven gravitated to such non-operatic groups as Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly. Dimitri knew at a very young age that he had a lovely voice, but he used it for little more than singing the Greek national anthem in front of his church on Greek Independence Day or playing a small role in his sixth-grade production of “The Music Man.” Even late in his high school years, Pittas was not yet struck by the possibilities his talent offered.”When I was in the 11th grade, I decided I was going to be a math teacher,” he recalled. “It was not until my chorus teacher suggested I teach music that I even considered making a living with music.”It was another teacher, Robert Loewen, a respected professor at SUNY-Potsdam, where Pittas attended college, who first told the young singer he heard opera in his voice. “I was 18 at the time and about the only things I knew about opera were the Three Tenors and that movie 'Moonstruck,' which had 'La Boheme' littered all through it,” he said. Loewen gave his student a CD featuring opera greats Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjšrling singing a duet from Bizet's “The Pearl Fisher.” But Pittas was blase at first, and even recalls falling asleep during his first listen.The second spin, a couple of days later, however, inspired a much different reaction.”I fell in love. I was hooked,” said Pittas. “Just the brilliance of the voices and the power was something I was attracted to.” It was the same duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” that Pittas sang in his Met debut, as a tenor in the opera company's Lindemann Young Artists Development Program.”In your career you have these little culminating moments when everything you have worked for so hard comes to a peak,” he said, recalling his mother's tears of joy and his father's face teeming with pride on the day of the performance. “That day was one of those culminating moments for me.” There have been many others since. He won first prize in the Elardo International Opera Competition and the Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation Competition and has been awarded career grants from the Richard Tucker, George London and Sullivan Foundations.In addition to his work with the Met, he will this season return to the Grand Theatre, Bordeaux, for his first performances of the title role in Gounod's “Faust” and appear at L'Opera de Lille as the duke in “Rigoletto.” He is also scheduled to appear at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in a recital for the Marilyn Horne Foundation.Keeping perspectiveIn conversation, Pittas strikes a rather remarkable balance between serious, thoughtful artist and regular guy.When asked about his future aspirations as an opera singer, Pittas didn't speak about coveted roles or stages. “I know that I will have made it in this business when I am able to clear the stands and the chairs in the orchestra pit and set up a couple of movable nets and play basketball in pit of the Metropolitan Opera,” he chuckled. “It doesn't have to do with power, it just has to do with comfort and being myself.”Pittas also spoke at length with a reporter about the relationship between Verdi's “Macbeth” and the composer's own tragic life. He also shared how his personal history – his proud Greek heritage, and his own family member's brave battle against cancer – has helped inform and deepen him as a performer. “Most men who are in theater are able to connect to their own emotions, because if we don't, we are not doing the audience justice,” he said. “You can't help but use the things that have happened to you in your life.” In facing Macduff in the final fateful scenes of the opera, the disgraced Macbeth finally faces up to the horrors of his own behavior. In Pittas' words, “He is king, but he realizes that he doesn't rule over anything or anybody,” he said. “That is the main lesson that this opera teaches. It is not who you are that is most important. It is how you get there.”Worth the TripTheater:”August: Osage County”: It's more than three hours, with two intermissions, but this funny and poignant play about an Oklahoma poet and his family will leave you riveted. Imperial Theatre, 245 W. 45th St.”The Farnsworth Invention”: Instead of spending too much time in front of the television, see this wonderful play about Philo Farnsworth, who invented the TV. Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. “Is He Dead?”: A recently unearthed comedy by Mark Twain, written in 1897, about a painter who stages his own death to boost the value of his masterpieces. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. “The Seafarer”: A haunting and wonderfully acted production about a man who returns home on Christmas to take care of his petulant and aging brother. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Music: Crescent City Kings: The good times will roll as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will feature the music of native sons Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet. Friday, Jan. 11, and Saturday, Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. in the Rose Theater. Tickets at the JALC box office, Broadway at 60th Street, or call CenterCharge, 212-721-6500.Coronation of a King: Bob DeAngelis and His Champagne Symphony will celebrate the 70th anniversary of Benny Goodman's 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall with a performance in the Stern Auditorium on Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. Seventh Ave. and 57th Street. The Fab Four: Called The Tribute, this foursome is considered the best Beatles tribute band in the world. They will perform a concert of pre-Sgt. Pepper's songs at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets for both Carnegie Hall shows at 212-247-7800.Opera:Gingerbread Treat: The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Engelbert Humperdinck's “Hansel and Gretel” will be staged several times this month, on Jan. 4, 8, 11, 23 and 31. Tickets, 212-362-6000 or www.metopera.org.