In the summer of 1990 the world was gripped by football fever. The World Cup was taking place, and at the heart of this maelstrom of heightened emotion, High Art fused with Popular Culture as never before. In the UK, the BBC selected the aria “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, as the theme music for its coverage. The version chosen was sung by Luciano Pavarotti and in the course of a few charged weeks a star became a superstar. Yet Pavarotti’s transformation from hero of the operatic world to household name wasn’t just confined to the UK.
As the tournament — coincidentally played out in Italy, the country that gave the world opera — reached its climax, another event took place in Rome that was to alter the general perception of classical music for ever: The Three Tenors in Concert. Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, besides being the three most celebrated tenors of their generation, were also ardent football fans. So the opportunity not only to crown a summer of top-league football with a unique concert but also to raise money for the leukaemia charity supported by Carreras (who had suffered from the disease) could not be passed up easily.
That evening in Rome’s Baths of Caracalla — a truly historic setting for a truly historic occasion — was bathed in a mood of good-spirited and amazingly uncompetitive camaraderie. It was the eve of the final match between Germany and Argentina in Rome’s Olympic Stadium and the mood of expectation was high. But as the audience took their seats in this ancient setting, no one could have anticipated what this concert would mean. Carreras sang with the intense passion that was his trade mark, his sweet, lighter tenor immediately recognisable. Domingo was, as ever, the consummate professional, comfortable in many styles and singing with his dark, baritonal tenor. But it was Pavarotti — relaxed and smiling throughout the evening — who captured the audience’s hearts. His larger-than-life personality and physique lit up the evening — and when, at the climax of the concert, the three tenors sang “Nessun dorma” together there was some vocal sparring that the Italian won hands down. Pavarotti had joined his fellow countryman of nearly a century earlier, Enrico Caruso, in becoming an opera singer who was also a household name.
Pavarotti’s story was in many ways a traditional one for an opera singer, combining God-given talent, hard work and a reasonable amount of pure luck. In theory it could have happened at any time, but it was thanks to the huge explosion of the media in the last decades of the twentieth century that he reached international renown so quickly and so comprehensively.
My father was a very beautiful tenor. He never
sang professionally as a soloist on the stage, but he was in the
chorus of our town and he gave me confidence because sometimes I
went to sit by him on the stage and this was such an incredible
experience that I said to myself “Perhaps one day I will be
able to come here and sing like the tenor is doing now”.
Luciano Pavarotti to Jon Tolansky Gramophone
Luciano Pavarotti was born on 12 October 1935 in Modena where he lived throughout his life. (The same year and the same city also saw the birth of one of Pavarotti’s closest collaborators, the soprano Mirella Freni. Their mothers even worked in the same cigarette factory and both singers claimed to have shared the same wet-nurse: a fact that led Freni to joke that “You can see who got all the milk!”.) His family was steeped in music. His father, Fernando, sang in the city’s chorus, the Chorale Rossini, and soon the teenage Pavarotti was singing alongside him. Indeed, one of Pavarotti’s first foreign trips was with the chorus when it travelled to Llangollen in Wales for the 1955 Eisteddfod when he was nineteen. The Chorale Rossini took first prize in the male chorus category and the young singer had his first taste of acclaim, albeit as part of a group. (Forty years later he would return for a sell-out concert at the 1995 Eisteddfod.)
From the start I never doubted Luciano would
one day be a very great tenor. It wasn’t only the voice, it
was his approach to his work — he was dedicated, mature,
alert. He wasn’t dabbling, he was totally serious about
perfecting his voice.
Arrigo Pola, Pavarotti’s teacher Pavarotti: My Own Story
Fernando Pavarotti, who was a baker, had an interesting and appealing voice, but he suffered from terrible stage-fright. But he could clearly see his son’s potential and encouraged him to have lessons. Arrigo Pola was a tenor who had not enjoyed a huge singing career but who was evidently an excellent teacher. He adhered to the old-style craft of not teaching his pupils to sing particular repertoires, but rather of teaching them the art of good singing. He would focus on scales, articulation, how to sing trills stylishly and how to spin a long line where all the notes are produced evenly (what’s known as legato). In short, he was laying down the foundations of a technique that would sustain Pavarotti throughout his life.
During these years of study, the young Luciano had day jobs: first as a teacher and then as an insurance agent. In 1957, Arrigo Pola took a job in Japan to teach singing to one of the first generations of Japanese who wanted to study Western music. Pavarotti then started to study with Ettore Campogalliani in nearby Mantua. They worked together for three years, during which time the young tenor left his insurance job in order to devote himself exclusively to his singing studies (some days he would travel on the train with his fellow pupil Mirella Freni). It was clearly a good decision because in 1961 he won the Peri Prize at a competition in Piacenza. This triumph led immediately to his operatic stage debut, as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Teatro Municipale in Reggia Emilia. The conductor was Francesco Molinari-Pradelli who would later preside over Pavarotti’s debuts at La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and in the Arena at Verona.
His debut was a major milestone. The opera house was small so he did not have to force the voice. As a result his sweet, flexible tenor was heard to great effect and the role of Rodolfo would become embedded in his voice and soul as few others. It is one of Pavarotti’s most appealing characterisations: he beautifully blended the world of the innocent, carefree young poet with the heart-breaking discovery as the opera nears its close that his first true love will die in his arms. It is a role that embraces two extremes which both lie comfortably within Pavarotti’s vocal and dramatic armoury.
The next few years were formative. On the advice of his first agent, he studied four key roles: two by Verdi (the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La traviata), Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. These four roles would give him an early taste of the life expected of the late-twentieth-century musician: operatic calling cards would be left in Bari, Bologna, Rovigo, Piacenza and Forlì in Italy, then Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam. He would sing Rodolfo at the Vienna State Opera and — replacing a singer at the last moment — at Covent Garden. Then it was off to Ankara, Budapest and Barcelona. The peripatetic life had begun.
It was in 1964 that he made his first recording for Decca, the company he was to remain with throughout his career. It was an EP (extended play) disc that contained Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” (La Bohème) and “E lucevan le stelle” (Tosca) alongside three arias from Verdi’s Rigoletto: “Questa o quella”, “La donna è mobile” and “Parmi veder”. The Pavarotti of the years to come is immediately recognisable: that free, easily produced Italian sound, a beautifully handled legato and a feeling for words that comes naturally to someone who shares the language with librettist and composer. Here is the young student who had absorbed the many hours he spent listening to the great singers of the past, but who was determined to stamp his own authority and personality on the music.
Mozart — not a composer immediately associated with Pavarotti — entered his professional life in the summer of 1964 when he sang the role of Idamante in Idomeneo opposite Richard Lewis and Gundula Janowitz at Glyndebourne. It was brought to London for a Prom performance, but more importantly it introduced Pavarotti to the British public and critics (it also introduced him to John Pritchard who would conduct the Decca recording nearly twenty years later). 1964 was also the year that saw Pavarotti sing alongside Joan Sutherland for the first time — his relationship with Sutherland and her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, was to be a long and enduring one. Together they played a major role in re-discovering the art of bel canto — an essential technique for those Italian works from the turn of the nineteenth century, orbiting around Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. It demands a certain kind of vocalism that emphasises technique over volume and which calls for a perfectly even sound production. Sutherland, along with Callas, was one of the pioneers in the reevaluation of this repertoire and in the young Pavarotti she found the ideal voice — light, pliant and flexible, and founded on a fine technique — to complement hers. She first sang alongside him in Bellini’s La sonnambula and the following year she ensured his US debut by bringing him in to replace an indisposed singer for performaces in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Their musical partnership was to last until Sutherland’s retirement — indeed Pavarotti, along with another member of this small unofficial “company”, Marilyn Horne, was to join Sutherland on stage at Covent Garden at her farewell appearance in the party scene in Die Fledermaus. Both Sutherland and Pavarotti were to record for Decca throughout their careers and together they recorded many of their greatest collaborations — among those included here are La Fille du régiment, L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, I puritani, Il trovatore and La traviata.
He [Herbert von Karajan] had an incredible
knowledge and memory. Even now when I am teaching, a lot of help is
coming from him.
Luciano Pavarotti to Jon Tolansky Gramophone
The mid-1960s also saw Pavarotti working with the great Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. Karajan’s musical empire at the time embraced not only La Scala in Milan but also the Vienna State Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic. A master of the great symphonic repertoire, Karajan’s earliest years were spent laying down a foundation in the opera house. Like many of opera’s finest conductors he began his career as a repetiteur, teaching singers their roles. By the 1960s his reputation was firmly established. As he was ever on the look-out for striking new talent, it was inevitable that his and Pavarotti’s paths would cross. The Decca producer Christopher Raeburn has commented that Karajan “admired [Pavarotti] hugely as a talent and as an extremely important singer of his generation. And Luciano had huge respect for him. I would say more respect for Karajan than any other conductor with whom he worked.”
One of their first recorded collaborations was actually a film — Verdi’s Requiem performed by the forces of La Scala, Milan with a line-up of soloists of one’s dreams: Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Pavarotti and Nicolai Ghiaurov. It was a concert to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Italy’s greatest conductor, Arturo Toscanini. The young Pavarotti, still without his now trademark beard, sings the “Ingemisco” with exquisite detail and wonderfully expressed emotional weight. (Later that year Pavarotti would record the piece for LP under the other great conductor of the day, and another regular musical partner, Sir Georg Solti.)
Karajan and Pavarotti worked together on two Puccini recordings that have since become classics, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. This is Puccini on a grand scale. The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic is plush, luxurious but always remarkably responsive to the fluctuating emotional temperature of these glorious works. Pavarotti and Freni, friends since childhood, act and react wonderfully and over everything Karajan presides, demonstrating his love for the music. Pavarotti rarely enjoyed the kind of sympathetic support that Karajan gave him: so mindful of his voice that he could sing with barely a thread of sound and still be heard perfectly. These are performances of enormous subtlety and as such were perhaps only achievable in the recording studio. Whatever the case, they have earned themselves a huge following over the past three and a half decades. Just listen to Pavarotti in “Che gelida manina” and you will realise that he is first and foremost a stylist.
The leaps to high Cs are tireless, and are not
there as a great show-off but as part of the fun and fête,
expressions of joy and energy like a youngster doing cartwheels or
standing on his head, and none the less artistic for that.
John Steane The Grand Tradition
The 1970s saw Pavarotti rise effortlessly to the top of his profession. Apart from his musical talents, people responded to him as a man: he was unique for his size, his openness and his generosity. Not since Enrico Caruso had an operatic tenor captured people’s imagination in that way. His calling card for the United States — something that resoundingly established his reputation there — was Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment. This light-hearted charmer suited Pavarotti perfectly because not only could he demonstrate his technique, but he could take a lightly ironic approach to the role of Tonio, ever so gently sending himself up. The aria “Ah! mes amis” contains nine high Cs which, at his Metropolitan Opera performance on 12 February 1972, he spun off into the theatre effortlessly. He was granted seventeen curtain calls and his reputation took on a new scale and scope. Tonio was a role he sang to acclaim throughout the US: in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans and Minneapolis. It was a part he had recorded back in 1968 opposite Joan Sutherland and it remains one of their most cherishable collaborations — neither singer being immediately associated with comedy but both clearly comics of great wit. Pavarotti bowed to no one in his admiration for Sutherland, describing her to the critic Jürgen Kesting as the “most perfect singer as far as technique is concerned that this century has known”.
So what of Pavarotti’s voice itself? In its early years it was a lean, light lyric tenor with all the flexibility that one associates with such a voice type: what it lacked in volume it made up for in ease of production and sweetness. It was the sort of voice that didn’t need to be forced into roles that were too big for it and as a result Pavarotti rarely resorted to the vibrato that some tenors employ to project the voice. And much of its fine vocal shape during the 1960s and early 1970s was thanks to his good sense in staying within a repertoire perfectly matched to his abilities. And in the studio during that period he was kept busy: in six years he recorded eleven operas and the Verdi Requiem. And as his discography grew so did his reputation. In Verdi the allure of later roles can lead tenors into dangerous waters. Pavarotti’s first couple of decades went no further than the composer’s so-called middle-period roles, the tenor parts in Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, La traviata and Un ballo in maschera. But Verdi went on to write those hugely appealing parts that few can resist. So from the mid-1970s onwards, Pavarotti reached out into heavier roles. Along with Manrico (Il trovatore) and Radamès (Aida) came a darker, smokier quality, though always overlaying his essentially lyric production. His most striking departure from the traditional lyric repertoire came in 1991 when he took on the role of Otello — one of the most challenging tenor parts in the entire repertoire — for four performances in Chicago and New York to mark Sir Georg Solti’s farewell to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It became one of his most talked-about undertakings and rumours flew around, but, as the recording made from those live concerts demonstrates, there is much of the role that can be embraced by a lyric tenor. (The work’s creator, Francesco Tamagno, was not an iron-lunged baritonal tenor but was much closer to the traditional lyric voice. It was only because such voices so feared the role that, from the early years of the twentieth century on, it was sung by dramatic tenors, from Ramón Vinay to Plácido Domingo.) Pavarotti’s Otello may lack the heroism that comes with stage experience and the dramatic ability to dominate the stage, but it was a brave and fascinating attempt to reclaim a role for the voice type for which it was written.
By the end of the 1980s, Pavarotti’s fame was universal. His extensive discography ensured that his voice was heard in every corner of the world and his televised appearances at major houses like the Met received record viewing figures. When he sang Rodolfo in the first Live from the Met telecast, he achieved the largest audience ever for an opera in the US. Increasingly Pavarotti and his management looked for opportunities to reach out to new and ever-larger audiences. Stadium events became part of his musical life: a selection of popular arias, a handful of lighter numbers and a couple of overtures and the Pavarotti magic could be spread to tens of thousands, not merely a couple of thousand.
The Three Tenors Concert in Rome in 1990 was the start of a series of such events that virtually became a brand in their own right. The relaxed, laid-back Roman concert was succeeded by multi-million dollar media events that, while undoubtedly popular, smacked of unashamed commercialism. Among the many other cities which hosted the tenors were Los Angeles in 1994, Paris in 1998 and Yokohama in 2002. Pavarotti — on his own — entertained an audience of 150,000 in London’s Hyde Park in 1991, the first time a classical concert had been given in the Park. Attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the concert — which was given in pouring rain — was televised and became a best-seller in its video format. Pavarotti was on charming form and Diana certainly went away happy — if soaked to the skin! In 1993, the scale grew even larger when Pavarotti appeared before an audience of 500,000 on the Great Lawn of New York’s Central Park.
I had often thought about holding a voice
competition. I have never forgotten how important it was for me to
win the competition in Reggio Emilia in 1961. It changed my life
Pavarotti My World
Two new preoccupations engaged Pavarotti’s attention from the 1980s onwards. The first was looking after the next generation of opera singers. He established the Pavarotti International Voice Competition, each occasion culminating in staged scenes from operas that were part of his repertoire. These reached a climax in staged performances by entrants in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in China — an occasion that also saw Pavarotti himself sing to a crowd of 10,000, a ground-breaking moment in Chinese musical history.
Pavarotti also engaged on a long-term project to raise money for charity. On the eve of his annual show-jumping event, the Pavarotti International–CSIO San Marino, the tenor would invite singers from every walk of musical life to join him in a concert to raise money for various charitable organisations. One of these was War Child, founded in 1993 in response to the conflict raging in the former Yugoslavia to benefit the children left homeless and without families. The culmination of Pavarotti’s work for War Child was the opening of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, Bosnia, where music becomes a way of bringing children together in a safe and welcoming environment.
The first Pavarotti and Friends saw Sting, Zucchero and Lucio Dalla join the tenor in a concert that was expressly designed to break down barriers. With each successive concert the collaborations became more adventurous and artistically more rewarding. The guest-list of visiting artists included such names as Andrea Bocelli, Bryan Adams, George Michael, Elton John, The Spice Girls, Jon Bon Jovi, Stevie Wonder, Liza Minnelli, Ricky Martin, BB King, the Eurythmics and Bono whose duet with Pavarotti, Miss Sarajevo, engaged not only Pavarotti fans but also admirers of U2’s charismatic lead singer. It was also one of the very few attempts by a classical singer to cross over into rock music and pull it off. (It reached No.6 in the UK singles charts.)
The last fifteen years of Pavarotti’s career saw less work in the great opera houses of the world. He was constantly troubled by health problems, particularly with his legs, but he never turned his back on the great venues of his early triumphs. In 1992 he returned to the Met in a role he had first sung back in 1969, Oronte in Verdi’s I lombardi. He struggled to make it much more than a stand-and-deliver performance, but vocally it was a part well within his abilities and the subsequent recording shows him off well. The following year he took on another Verdi role: that of Don Carlo, that emotionally complex character at the centre of one of the composer’s darkest and most intriguing works. Pavarotti’s characterisation again showed an artist well inside the role and still willing to take on new challenges at a time when other singers might have eased back. It was at a performance of Don Carlo at La Scala that Pavarotti cracked on a high note. The incident made headlines the world over, but the tenor was sanguine about it. As he pointed out in his book, Pavarotti: My World, “When you are said to be one of the best in your profession, the critics act as though they never heard of a professional singer hitting a bad note, and when it happens to you, they announce the end of your career”.
To meet he was jovial with a sharp sense of
humour. Free of false modesty, he knew his worth. He certainly
fulfilled his ambition to bring opera to new audiences and they
rewarded him for it.
Alan Blyth The Daily Telegraph
The last few years of Pavarotti’s career were illuminated by his second marriage, in 2003, to his long-time assistant Nicoletta Mantovani with whom he had a daughter. But with a new life just started, it was time to say goodbye to an old one. Pavarotti’s farewell tour, originally planned to embrace forty concerts, started in 2005. One of the first destinations was Australia where, forty years earlier at the beginning of his career, he had travelled with Joan Sutherland as part of the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Company. He serenaded Melbourne, Sydney and Perth to delirious acclaim. The Far East followed with concerts in Hong Kong and Shanghai. But in South Africa, in the summer of 2006, he was forced to call off the tour when he was diagnosed with a malignant pancreatic mass. Surgery followed but the singing stopped forever. The most celebrated tenor of our time, who valued good health above everything else, was silenced. But this is the twenty-first century and no one disappears, particularly if they leave a legacy as rich and as varied as Pavarotti’s. He may no longer be among us but his art will continue as a source of pleasure and instruction as long as fine singing has a following.