Thursday, September 06, 2007


Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

Luciano Pavarotti was one of the greatest tenors of all time. Indeed, his career, which spanned more than 40 years, dominated the world opera scene for decades. Possessed of a brilliant, spinning, clear voice, and an ebullient personality, he brought opera (mostly in the form of "hit" arias) to a mass public in a way that no singer had since Enrico Caruso.

Born Oct. 12, 1935, just outside of Modena in northern Italy to a poor but music-loving family, Pavarotti first sang in his church's choir with his father, a fine amateur tenor. Although not initially interested in singing (he wanted to be a professional soccer player, his mother wanted him to be a teacher) he began studying voice at the age of 19. After several ineffectual years, including a near disastrous bout with vocal nodules and one complete hiatus from singing, the voice came together in a dramatic fashion, and the still very young tenor made his operatic debut in 1961 in the nearby theater in Reggio Emilia in what was to become one of his signature roles, Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme.

Following relatively quickly were debuts in 1963 in Amsterdam (Lucia di Lammermoor)and a few months later at Covent Garden, again with La Boheme, where he jumped in for an indisposed Di Steffano, and in Miami in 1965. Again replacing an ailing tenor, Pavarotti was suggested for the role by one of his great early collaborators, soprano Joan Sutherland. Debuts followed at La Scala and Rome and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His true breakout performance though, had to wait until 1972 when he electrified New York audiences with 9 brilliant high Cs in the aria "A Mes Amis" from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, giving 17 curtain calls, a Met record. His international concert debut came the next year in Liberty, Mo.

The start of his concert career was, ironically, what set Pavarotti apart from other talented operatic tenors. Always physically large, Pavarotti was never a particularly good actor, and his voice, though in concerts and on records sounds quite powerful, was in fact rather on the small side for the great verismo roles he preferred. However, in concerts with orchestra, Pavarotti shone. His voice was not only one of great beauty, but he also possessed, when "on," a nearly flawless technique; one which was also unobtrusive enough to never call attention to itself. That, in combination with the sheer joy he exuded while performing one of his favorite pieces, made audiences fall in love with the man, as much as with the voice.

That slightly too-small voice got him into some trouble in the 1980s, as he attempted to push into heavier repertoire. He began to have problems in his previously spotless upper register, and became known, as the decade progressed, as the King of Cancellations. This led in 1989 to his permanent ban from the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, after having cancelled more than half of his 41 contracted performances at the house over the previous eight years. He also made the rather ill-advised film Yes, Giorgio, showcasing his less-than-overwhelming acting abilities in 1982.

Still the career of the Big P, as Joan Sutherland called him, was not only resuscitated the following year in Rome, but was placed in a Pantheon which very few classical performers have ever achieved ... indeed few performers in any medium. His concert, along with tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras at the Roman Baths of Caracalla in 1990 on the eve of the World Cup Finale, was watched by millions worldwide and the recording became the best-selling classical record of all time. His performance of the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot became a runaway hit, and as inextricably linked to the Pavarotti persona as the Neapolitan song "O Sole Mio" (the dueling trills of Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo — though as trills went were rather mediocre — as great showmanship and good humor probably did more for serious music, in one short, unserious moment, than all the rest of the concert put together).

Singing increasingly fewer operatic performances, as Pavarotti reached his 60s, he instead concentrated on the relatively less-taxing concerts, often showcasing younger singers whose careers he had helped, especially through the vocal competition which bears his name. I was lucky enough to see Pavarotti live, in one of these concerts in 1997 in Spoleto, Italy. On a very cold July evening (47 degrees Fahrenheit, I believe it was), Pavarotti, then a few months short of his 62nd birthday, gave a wonderful concert of songs and arias. What most impressed me was that his singing (although paid for by the $1,000+ seats in the front) was clearly aimed at the masses of teenagers, straining against the barricades at the back of the Cathedral square. They had spent as much as they could afford to travel to Spoleto for the concert; and paying for one of those seats several hundred meters closer to the stage was a palpable impossibility.

The legendary showmanship was as much in evidence that night as the legendary voice. Grinning, shuffling, shivering and blowing on his hands in the cold night air (big laughs and cheers from kids, less so from rich Romans in the good seats), Pavarotti gave splendid rendition after rendition of favorite songs. His "Grenada" was almost his Waterloo, though, as he clowned around a bit too much, pirouetting between the conductor and the concert master, nearly slipping and completely losing his place in the music. With a big grin and a shrug, he jumped back into the right place, earning good-natured chortles from the entire first violin section.

Pavarotti is survived by four daughters, three with his first wife Adua, and one with his second wife Nicoletta. He also leaves one granddaughter, and millions of fans for whom he will remain the greatest singer of their lifetime.

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We shall dearly miss a man who was so much more than just a singer. He was a family man, surrounding himself with family after a concert. A true legend who has left an enormous legacy and enormous void to fill. Strange how truly famous people don't show up in the gossip magazines or take money for access to their wedding. He just went out to sing, as he says, as well as he could every single time he took the stage or got behind a studio microphone.
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