HOW THE WORLD’S GREATEST TENOR
BECAME ITS BEST-LOVED CULTURAL ICON
Luciano Pavarotti. Say it with me: “Lu-cia-no Pa-va-rotti.” Even his name flows trippingly off the tongue. Ah, to be blessed with his wonderful talent! I could go on for hours about the art of one of the world’s greatest tenors. I’ve decided instead to let the subject speak for himself — or, in Pavarotti’s case, sing — although there will be a fair amount of discoursing along the way.
You see, I have a personal stake in this overview of the life and career of the late Italian tenor, in that my own passion for opera evolved just as Pavarotti was coming to prominence in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Although I never saw him on stage, I have heard and seen many of his performances on the radio and through recordings and television. But make no mistake: Luciano Pavarotti was a fabulously talented pop star and much admired — and imitated — opera singer of the first rank.
But how could that be? How could a balding, six-foot-tall, 300-pound-plus, middle-aged male with a scraggly beard, emoting in a strange, impenetrable tongue, reach the absolute pinnacle of international super-stardom? Surely Pavarotti wasn’t the first classically-trained artist to have crossed over into the pop realm, nor would he be the last. He was just the most famous. But how did he do it? I hope to be able to answer that question.
Elixir of Love
Let’s begin by discussing Donizetti’s 1832 comic opera, L’Elisir d’Amore or “The Elixir of Love” — specifically the second act aria, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), sung by the lead character Nemorino. This was the perfect part for Pavarotti. In fact, it was one of his best stage roles: that of a naïve young farmer, a country bumpkin-type — not too bright but not too dumb, either — from the sticks of la bella Italia, much like the great man himself.
To convey Nemorino’s shyness, Luciano used his enormous bulk to his advantage in generating sympathy for this fellow. With superb comic timing, he played the character straight, as a big, warmhearted teddy bear of a guy hopelessly in love with Adina, the most popular girl in town. (He would pick the most popular girl as the object of his affection!)
Near the middle of the act, the eligible lasses of the village all crowd around a stunned and clueless Nemorino. Unbeknown to our hero, his rich uncle has just died and left him a small fortune — which explains the female throng’s sudden interest in him. Nemorino thinks his attraction has something to do with the magic elixir he recently purchased from a traveling quack doctor (in reality, it’s a cheap bottle of Bordeaux wine). But as the girls shamelessly flirt about him, Nemorino catches sight of Adina gazing sadly over her shoulder. Out of the corner of her eye, he sees a tear well up and run down her face.
With this, the poor man is left alone to muse over what he’s just witnessed. Finally he cries out, “Ah, she loves me, yes, she loves me. I see it now. Oh, heaven, if I could die right now I would not ask for more.”
Pavarotti wrings every ounce of pathos from this piece. His easygoing demeanor, crystal-clear diction, and unforced delivery are perfect examples of what is termed bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” at its best, a style once popular in nineteenth-century opera that became the essence of this tenor’s art.
Needless to say, Nemorino wins the day (and the girl), and all ends happily for them. Indeed, Pavarotti earned repeated praise for this part every time he performed it — and with good reason.
Rise to Fame
The story of Luciano Pavarotti’s rise to international renown is very much the story of Italian opera and song, and of American mass culture and crossover entertainment, as we’ve come to accept it, from the 1970s onward.
During his long professional career Pavarotti sang most everything an Italian tenor could conceivably sing, and a whole lot more besides: from the intricate bel canto masterworks, to his rare forays into Mozart territory; from the major roles of the master Verdi, to the best of the Puccini repertoire. With one notable exception (Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment), he sang almost exclusively in his native Italian.
On the debit side, Luciano tackled lead parts he probably had no business attempting in the first place — for example, Verdi’s Otello, in an ill-fated outing with the Chicago Symphony; the same composer’s Don Carlo, for which he was roundly booed at Milan’s La Scala Opera; Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, works that were much too heavy for his naturally lyric tone, while studiously avoiding more rewarding roles he undoubtedly would have excelled in, in particular Gounod’s Faust and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.
He appeared on numerous late-night talk shows, in dozens of magazine ads and TV commercials — most famously for American Express. “Do you know me?” was the catchphrase at the time; after that well-placed marketing ploy aired in prime time, who didn’t know who Luciano was?
He sang on the radio and in live television broadcasts, recorded a variety of operas and song recitals, in addition to giving numerous charity benefits, wherein he shared the limelight with such iconic pop figures as Sting, Bono, Elton John, Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, Zucchero, and many, many others.
He even tried breaking into mainstream Hollywood with the 1982 feature Yes, Giorgio, a bold move engineered by his then-manager and brain-trust, Herbert Breslin, a part allegedly “tailor-made” for the tenor’s talents.
What was so unusual about that? Why, from the early silent and sound periods to the postwar boom era, and beyond, many of opera’s stellar attractions have tried to make a go at a motion picture career: remember Geraldine Farrar, Lawrence Tibbett, and Grace Moore? How about Lily Pons, Lauritz Melchior, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, Risë Stevens, and Ezio Pinza?
The most memorable of them all was Mario Lanza, whose volcanic personality, temperamental “prima donna” antics, and huge box-office drawing power Pavarotti soon began to emulate — for better and (usually) for worse.
Upon seeing the finished product, most critics and reviewers shook their heads in disbelief at the banality of Yes, Giorgio: “No, Luciano,” was the negative cry, as they scolded him in unison for his efforts. The film was supposed to have mirrored the happy-go-lucky, jet-set lifestyle of a famous opera star (talk about typecasting!), who falls in love with a throat specialist (actress Kathryn Harrold) after almost losing his voice.
About the only thing this bomb lost was the studio’s money. As a result, it turned out to be the biggest flop of Pavarotti’s 40+-year career. Still, whatever Luciano did for his art, and wherever he went, the fans were sure to follow. Like an Italian Pied Piper, Pavarotti set the standard for performing in the most exotic of locales, becoming the very model of a modern, major opera star of his day: from the concert hall to the sporting arena, he always gave them their money’s worth, whether it was at New York’s Great Lawn and Madison Square Garden, or London’s Hyde Park; the Baths at Caracalla, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, or Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Speaking of Beijing, it was said that while en route to that distant, faraway land Pavarotti took along entire sets of cooking utensils, pots, pans, fresh fruits and vegetables, all sorts of meat and an untold number of homemade dishes, all on the unsubstantiated rumor of how miserable the eating and living conditions were there. After a while, most of the food had to be thrown away. A pity!
Notwithstanding the constant travel, the temper tantrums, the petty jealousies and feuds among rivals, and the pressures of a classical-music career — oh, and don’t forget the occasional fling with the ladies — Luciano’s voice held up remarkably well under the circumstances, and usually rang out with its customary brilliance and warmth, especially in its highest reaches. Not for nothing was he crowned, “King of the High C’s,” by journalists.
Three Tenors Franchise
While not a particularly large instrument per se, it possessed the requisite carrying power and “ping” needed to be heard in the farthest reaches of the auditorium. He had no trouble at all being heard at Caracalla, what with all the microphones and camera equipment lying about, when, in July of 1990, on the eve of the World Cup Soccer Finals in Rome, The Three Tenors franchise was formally launched.
This was a financially lucrative endeavor that paired the “King” with his two main rivals: the Spanish-born Plácido Domingo and younger colleague José Carreras. It was Carreras who, after recovering from a five-year battle with cancer, hit upon the innovative idea of doing a benefit concert for his leukemia foundation.
With a billion and a half viewers worldwide, it was the most-watched classical-music program in history. In addition, the subsequent compact disc made of the much-hyped media event became the best-selling classical album of all time. Bravo, Luciano!
This desire to branch out into uncharted vocal waters (and be all-things to all-people) was characteristic of Pavarotti’s eagerness to please his public, as well as to satisfy his own conscious need to be adored — this, despite the tenor’s repeated assurances that he was only trying to bring the operatic art form to the vast, untapped masses longing to hear the master sing.
It’s safe to say that no artist since the great Enrico Caruso had done more to popularize Italian opera and song than Luciano had, with Lanza running a close second.
Many suspected that, at this point in his career, he was only in it for the money. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, put the matter into perspective with the following assertion: “When [Pavarotti] extended his trademark white handkerchief to the legions of enraptured fans who packed his concerts, it seemed as if he were embracing the world, assuring every listener he was singing just for them. He drank in their fervent applause as if it were mother’s milk.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For all his fame and notoriety, near or away from the concert platform, the charismatic primo tenore did not start out in life with the notion of conquering the world of grand opera. Oh, no. In fact, it’s almost a cliché to say that he came from real life, humble origins.
He was born in the Northern Italian city of Modena, on October 12, 1935 — Columbus Day, to be exact, a national holiday. He would later serve as Grand Marshall for New York’s Columbus Day Parade, leading the procession on horseback and draped in his country’s national flag.
His father, Fernando, was a baker by profession, who sang in the town’s amateur choral group. He was blessed with a high, resonant voice, which many in the city came to believe found its way to his son, Luciano’s, golden throat. Pavarotti at first trained as an elementary school teacher before settling upon a full-time singing career. Like any red-blooded, Italian native son, he loved soccer and harbored an unfulfilled ambition of one day becoming a professional athlete.
When that failed to materialize — no doubt due to his inability to turn away generous helpings of the local cuisine — he turned instead to selling insurance to make ends meet, before taking up his musical studies with former tenor Arrigo Pola in his hometown, then moving on to vocal coach Ettore Campogalliani, who also taught his childhood friend, the soprano Mirella Freni.
Pavarotti’s professional stage debut occurred on April 29, 1961, as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, at the Teatro Reggio Emilia. This was a good choice for the tenor, in that he continued to rely on this role as his frequent calling card and “good luck” piece throughout the early portion of his career.
The opera itself is a paean to young love. It follows the time-tested, tried-and-true formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl — girl dies. As cartoon character Bugs Bunny once astutely observed, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” One of Puccini’s own librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa, characterized the melodious four-act work as, “All poetry and no plot, while Tosca,” the opera that immediately followed Bohème, “is all plot and no poetry.” There’s a great deal of truth to that statement.
Nevertheless, it was good enough to serve as the premiere showcase for the first of the Live From the Met series of telecasts, broadcast on Public Television, in March 1977, which Pavarotti played a historic part in. A trivia note: more people watched La Bohème on TV that one night than had seen the opera on stage in the entirety of its 80-year existence — so much for the power of the medium.
This little tidbit of information was not lost on Luciano, who made a conscious effort thereafter to use television and the infant CD and home video market to advance his newfound celebrity status — a wise move on his part.
Before that groundbreaking event took shape, he had taken the lovesick poet Rodolfo all over the operatic world. Most of his initial appearances in Europe, South America, and the U.S. were in this one role, including his official Metropolitan Opera debut, on November 23, 1968 — coincidentally, within a few short weeks of a certain Señor Plácido Domingo’s first appearances there. These two supremely gifted individuals would go on to form a friendly rivalry of sorts — well, not always so friendly.
Boy Gets High on C
Getting back to Bohème, where most tenors ran aground in this challenging work, due to its high-lying vocal range, Pavarotti wallowed in it: his voice opens up gloriously the higher up it goes. A good illustration of this is the aria, “Che gelida manina” (“Your little hand so cold”). At its climax, Luciano takes a full-voiced high C easily and quite comfortably, holding on to the note for dear life but with enough breath left over to complete the phrase.
Listen to how Rodolfo, the “boy” in this case, manages to convey his romantic sentiments to Mimì, the “girl,” in such a heartfelt, straightforward, and unassuming manner. The technique employed is known as parlando, or “speaking” the lines of the piece, and is as much a part of the tenor’s own natural way with words as it was the composer’s exceptional ear for expressing everyday conversation in song.
But as good as it was, Pavarotti made an even bigger splash over at London’s Covent Garden, and especially at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the 1972 production of The Daughter of the Regiment, the one with the nine high C’s. Try doing that on a regular basis!
In his tell-all book, The King and I, manager Herbert Breslin noted that, as physically big as Luciano was back then — and he only got bigger over time — he was still able to cavort about the stage with complete abandon. Dressed up to resemble an enormous toy soldier, he was as engaging “in character” as he was out of it.
He had to do something to stand out from the crowd. He was, after all, competing against a veritable who’s-who of opera’s biggest and brightest talents. Two of the very best, Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, his co-star in Daughter of the Regiment, and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, along with mezzo Marilyn Horne and soprano Beverly Sills, formed the major contingent of the bel canto revival at the Met and elsewhere.
It was around 1965, during a fourteen-week “down under” tour of Australia, that Pavarotti started to make a name for himself by his close association with the couple. Legend has it they were enticed not only by his beautiful sound, but by his imposing height: being close to six-feet herself (in her high-heel shoes, of course) Dame Joan was tired of tenors a foot shorter than she was. She wanted a partner who could stare down into her eyes instead of up into her neck. She took one look at Luciano, and he was hired on the spot.
It’s a shame he didn’t stick with bel canto, though, for he was such a natural fit for that long dormant form. Instead, he opted to branch out into more accessible projects in order to accommodate the vast majority of patrons still clamoring to see him.
That’s not to say he did not meet with continued success in his chosen field. Quite the contrary, he became a winning interpreter of the Verdi canon — most notably, as the womanizing Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto; the kindhearted Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera; the heroic Manrico in Il Trovatore, which, if memory serves me, has a few forceful high C’s of its own; and the title character in Ernani.
His most frequent assignment after Rodolfo and Nemorino was that of the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “shabby little shocker,” Tosca. He not only repeated it a total of 60 times at the Met alone, he made all his farewell appearances in it, the last of which took place on March 13, 2004.
That date was the unfortunate culmination of the final phase of his once illustrious career, the so-called era of self-indulgence: that of the cork-died hair and painted-on eyebrows; the inability, or just plain laziness, to learn new roles; the last-minute cancellations; the struggles with his weight; the heavy use of cue cards to bolster his faulty memory; the highly publicized battles with ex-wife Adua; the marriage to his former secretary Nicoletta, a woman 35 years his junior; the assorted physical ailments, that took their inevitable toll on his health and well-being, ending in knee and hip replacement surgery; and so on, and so forth.
As Rodolfo once marked the beginning of his good fortune, Cavaradossi now marked the end of it, most presciently at Lyric Opera of Chicago: in 1989, after canceling over half of his scheduled appearances there, the tenor was dropped from the cast, as well as being declared persona non grata at the house, a bad omen indeed. Pavarotti took it all in stride, commenting afterwards, “I was as unlucky for Chicago as Chicago was for me.”
End of the Rainbow
He tried doing it again, at the Metropolitan of all places, in a series of benefit performances penciled in for May 2002. The role? You guessed it: Cavaradossi. His excuse? The common cold, only this time the Met’s management had an ace up its sleeve: they had secretly flown in their latest tenor discovery, the 33-year-old Sicilian sensation, Salvatore Licitra (who passed away himself, on September 5, 2011, from a tragic motorcycle accident), in case Luciano decided to cancel the engagement.
True to form, Pavarotti pulled out, and the local press had a field day with news of the non-event: “Fat Man Won’t Sing,” went the headlines! Diving for cover went the Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe. Two years later, both Volpe and the Fat Man agreed to make peace with each other, as Luciano finally sang his last in the role that got him into all the trouble in the first place: Cavaradossi!
Only now, because of the physical limitations imposed on his movements, his late-career re-assumptions of the role were fairly static ones. Whatever the director, producer, or prompter, had in mind for the singer to do, photographs from that period show an all-but immovable Pavarotti practically glued to the furniture.
He was helped, to and fro, by numerous “unseen” hands throughout; in Act II of the opera, where Cavaradossi is arrested, brought in, questioned, then tortured in an adjoining room, it seemed easy for the tenor to get away with being carried about the stage by an army of able-bodied assistants — it was all part of the show, wasn’t it?
In the last act, however, Cavaradossi is awaiting his execution by firing squad. He reminisces about seeing Tosca for the last time and bids farewell to his love in the melancholy air, “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were brightly shining”).
The most telling aspect of his reverie is the last line: “And never have I loved life so much!” We could say the same about Pavarotti: in spite of all that he had been through those last years, never had he loved his life as much as he did then.
On September 6, 2007, a golden voice was silenced forever, as the sad news was transmitted over the world’s airwaves: tenor Luciano Pavarotti, at age 71, had passed away from complications brought on by pancreatic cancer. We mourned his death, but celebrated his life. He won our hearts and moved us with his talent and charm; his joie de vivre and embrace of all humanity; his virtues and his faults; his triumphs and his failures.
In the 1982 film Yes, Giorgio, surely a failure of titanic proportions if ever there was one, Pavarotti ended the flick with what was later to become his signature tune, the aria “Nessun dorma” (“No one shall sleep”) from the opera Turandot, Puccini’s last, unfinished masterpiece.
The story goes that, at the opera’s gala premiere at La Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini, a personal friend of the composer — and no slouch himself when it came to promoting classical music in this country — upon reaching the point in the drama that Puccini stopped writing, turned to the audience and said, in a voice choked with emotion: “It was here that the Maestro laid down his pen.”
It seems appropriate now that we finish this account of the life and career of Luciano Pavarotti with Prince Calàf’s heroic song of triumph, the final phrases of which ring out, in rising tones: “Vincerò! Vincerò!” – “I shall win! I shall succeed!” And you know what? I believe he did.
So who put the “pop” in Pavarotti? He did, of course, by just being himself. And how did the world’s greatest tenor become its best-loved cultural icon? By doing the thing he loved best: by singing everything and everywhere. He truly was all-things to all-people. And the best thing to happen to the art of Italian song since pizza. ♫
Copyright (c) 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes