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Pavarotti: a tribute five years after the great tenor's death

Features - Classical Music | Opera

Pavarotti: a tribute five years after the great tenor's death

by Jon Tolansky on September 6, 2012 (September 6, 2012) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
The legendary bel canto tenor introduced classical music to the masses. We salute him five years to the day he succumbed to cancer.

Pavarotti has had his disparagers. There were occasions when he did not arrive for rehearsals and times when he cancelled performances, and for some years the managements of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Lyric Opera of Chicago would not engage him because of his cancellations. There have been criticisms of his stage acting, which some have found wooden, at least by the more sophisticated maxims of recent decades (I personally do not share this view, as I feel he acted feelingly if simply, but it has to be reported). And there are those who just do not care for his interpretations or his style of singing. 

I personally believe that posterity, as a whole, will remember Luciano Pavarotti as one of the very greatest and most very remarkable performers in the history of classical music – and, especially later in his career, an artist who could give you a powerful surprise. In saying 'Addio Luciano', I would like to pay my last respects by remembering the only time he performed the role of Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci on stage. As can be seen on DVD, in 1994 he took the part in a production by Franco Zeffirelli at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the audience, of which I was a member, was very deeply affected. 

For us, Pavarotti rose toweringly, and frighteningly, to the challenge of portraying the mental collapse of a desperate man. There was no shouting and screaming – instead there was searing passion, vehement drama and yet still, as the composer did want, immense beauty. He had waited decades before he felt able to sing this very heavy dramatic role on stage, and just as it had always been, he only sang when he believed 100% in what he was doing. It was as much that self-criticism, integrity and love of his art as his effortless virtuosity, perfection of control and open, sunny appeal that made Luciano Pavarotti maybe the most widely famous and successful singer in the history of opera performance.

This statement is a vital key to the history of Luciano Pavarotti’s development. He worked enormously hard for a long time to reach the level of perfection he set himself. And it was not a simple or easy ascent. First he joined his father to sing in the Modena City Chorus and then in 1954, when he was 19 years old, he began taking lessons from a highly admired teacher Arrigo Pola, who has related how his pupil came to him for intensive study almost every day for two-and-a-half years.

His progress was remarkable, and yet Luciano was not yet certain about his future. There was scant money in the family, and partly as a result of his mother’s wishes, at the same time he trained to be a teacher and began to teach at an elementary school. And he did also have another love – soccer – and for a time seriously considered a possible career as a player. What transpired, though, was that he taught at the school for two years and then earned what he could as an insurance salesman. However, during all that time he studied, and studied, and studied. When Pola had to leave Italy to take up a post in Japan, Pavarotti continued studying as intensively for another three years, this time with another important and demanding teacher, Ettore Campogalliani. 

By now, after such a prolonged period of study, Luciano Pavarotti had developed a very remarkable technique – and yet he very nearly gave up any ambition of becoming a professional singer. There were a few recitals in small towns, and then came an ominous turn of events. Of all possible disasters to befall a singer, a nodule grew on his vocal chords, and it played havoc during a concert that was theoretically an opportunity for some good exposure, as it was in the city of Ferrara.

What happened next tells us something crucial about Pavarotti. He decided he could not continue as a singer, and he accepted his fate without rancour. He later believed that had he not done so, had he tried to struggle against the odds and force himself to continue, then what was almost a miracle would not have happened: the nodule disappeared and suddenly he was ready to take the world by storm. As he said in his autobiography, "Everything I had learned came together with my natural voice to make the sound I had been struggling so hard to achieve."

It was as though nature had been guiding Pavarotti – and he had decided to heed its voice. Now in early 1961, when he was just a few months past his 25th birthday, he won a competition: the Concorso Internazionale for young singers in the Emila Romagna region. With the prize went a role in a production of Puccini’s La bohème at the Reggio Emilia opera house. So on April 28, 1961, Luciano Pavarotti made his operatic debut singing the role that was to become one of his most celebrated of all – Rodolfo. 

Word soon spread about the exceptional talent of Luciano Pavarotti and the following year he was selected to sing the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto with one of the most distinguished and demanding of all opera conductors, Tullio Serafin. The maestro was highly impressed with the new tenor, not only his vocal mastery but also his sensitive and outstanding musicality. A year after that came the Royal Opera House Covent Garden debut, where he had been engaged as a cover reserve for the famous Giuseppe di Stefano as Rodolfo again, with the promise of just one performance on the last night of the run. However, it turned out that Di Stefano only sang one performance, as he was unwell, and Pavarotti was the Rodolfo for all the others. It was maybe the most dramatic turning point in his life – with the ease, brilliance and golden tone of his voice and his immaculate expressive phrasing bringing him overnight world fame.

There was, though, just one more obstacle to overcome. It seems incredible now to think that on the cusp of his international stardom there was initial resistance to him in the senior management of the recording company that in due course benefited from him so spectacularly. As the recording producer John Culshaw has related, his peers at Decca would at that time only permit an initial experiment: a recording of just five short Verdi and Puccini arias for what was then called an Extended Play (EP) disc spinning at 45 revolutions a minute. This despite the strongest recommendation for a proper contractual signing from the conductor Richard Bonynge. That modest recording debut is now a piece of unique history, of course, and the producer of the session, John Mordler, who later became the Director of the Opera de Monte-Carlo, has never forgotten its impact.

“We were blown away," he said. "It was obvious that he was destined for much greater things than just a one-off EP. It was one of the greatest voices of these past 50 years – beautifully produced, he had the most wonderful technique, and extremely musical, innately musical.” 

Of course, the Decca executives soon realised the huge demand that was growing for Pavarotti, and an early complete opera recording, two years later, was of a work in which he scored one of his biggest ever coup de theatres when he sang it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1972 – his performance of Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du Regiment brought the house down. The audience went wild for him after his ecstatic nine top Cs in his aria Ah mes amis, quel jour de fete.

This then was the background on which his subsequent wide-scale popularity was built. Before he became an icon to millions who rarely (if ever) heard opera, he was enormously admired not only by classical music lovers but also by many of the greatest opera performers, including the most demanding conductors, such as Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Carlo Maria Giulini and Claudio Abbado. The former Head of Opera at Decca Records, Christopher Raeburn, who produced many Pavarotti recordings, recalls how highly Karajan thought of him: “Karajan admired him hugely as a talent and as an extremely important singer of his generation.”

Now we are particularly moving into that more popular area in which Pavarotti seduced millions. There is a simple reason why he had such a very dynamic marketing machine behind him – the machine satisfied the demand. Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne shed more light on what it was about Pavarotti that created that demand: “He had the golden voice. He thrilled all of us singers and millions of people around the world. He had an extraordinary recognition among the people who are not necessarily opera fans or opera freaks. That kind of recognition, that kind of bigger than life personality is very rare in our profession. But above all, he really sang fabulously.”

Fabulously for everyone, other than those who just did not like him – there are bound to be some of them with every artist. In particular, some have berated him for the kinds of musical arrangements he sang in his popular concerts, those glittering events that were specifically designed to entertain in a fundamentally light hue. With them he brought in millions and millions of dollars for wounded and starving people, especially children in places such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Guatemala, and for Afghan and Iraqi refugees. And why were there complaints? In fact, Pavarotti feared there would be some at the outset.

“It was a bit risky because I realized that to make a really proper collection for charity you have to use the pop singer, and at first I was reluctant to accept singing with pop musicians. Everyone was saying ‘It’s second-class music and you will lose your reputation’. Still, I answered ‘Listen, I will be doing this to give big help to babies who are wounded from the war’, and so I did decide ‘yes’, even though reluctantly at first. But then I began to enjoy it, because the people of today that we invite to Modena write incredible songs – different to the arias in opera, but then the great songs of the operas were written in a different age. If you write an opera now in a style of another century, they say you are passé and that it sounds old. But a song of today that has nothing to do with opera can be similar in some ways to what the song was before. Today the words of the songs are more sensational in style than they were in the arias of my youth, but the subject is the same: love – and just love, most of them. It is not hate, it is not death – Love, hate and death are opera.”

Pavarotti has had his disparagers. There were occasions when he did not arrive for rehearsals and times when he cancelled performances, and for some years the managements of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Lyric Opera of Chicago would not engage him because of his cancellations. There have been criticisms of his stage acting, which some have found wooden, at least by the more sophisticated maxims of recent decades (I personally do not share this view, as I feel he acted feelingly if simply, but it has to be reported). And there are those who just do not care for his interpretations or his style of singing. 

I personally believe that posterity, as a whole, will remember Luciano Pavarotti as one of the very greatest and most very remarkable performers in the history of classical music – and, especially later in his career, an artist who could give you a powerful surprise. In saying 'Addio Luciano', I would like to pay my last respects by remembering the only time he performed the role of Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci on stage. As can be seen on DVD, in 1994 he took the part in a production by Franco Zeffirelli at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the audience, of which I was a member, was very deeply affected. 

For us, Pavarotti rose toweringly, and frighteningly, to the challenge of portraying the mental collapse of a desperate man. There was no shouting and screaming – instead there was searing passion, vehement drama and yet still, as the composer did want, immense beauty. He had waited decades before he felt able to sing this very heavy dramatic role on stage, and just as it had always been, he only sang when he believed 100% in what he was doing. It was as much that self-criticism, integrity and love of his art as his effortless virtuosity, perfection of control and open, sunny appeal that made Luciano Pavarotti maybe the most widely famous and successful singer in the history of opera performance.