The legendary bel canto tenor introduced classical music to the masses. We salute him five years to the day he succumbed to cancer.
The death of Luciano Pavarotti ended what may well have been the most internationally successful career in the history of opera. It is perhaps true to say that Pavarotti enjoyed a wider scale of fame than any other figure in opera. Connoisseur music lovers marveled at his flawless technique, his impeccable intonation, and his supremely elegant phrasing. Millions of people who would normally rarely, if ever, listen to classical music were bowled over by the sheer sound and impact of his voice and its expressive beauty.
With his popularity, though, went some controversy – as often is the case with those who become superstars. Some people felt that, especially as the years went by, he indulged in beauty of sound and brilliance of open voice projection at the expense of variety of color and subtlety of interpretation. And there were purists who castigated him for his forays into popular music and his gala events where rock, pop and jazz stars joined him on stage. They gibed that he compromised his art with special arrangements of "hit" numbers from the great operas. And then there were complaints about cancellations and criticisms of his acting abilities.
Of course, it is easy to find a way to prove that a famous star is not a god, but a human being with flaws. When we come to assess the really salient facts about Pavarotti, we see an artist whose astonishingly broad appeal has included admirers whom some of his very critics have been in awe of, as has been shown by the tributes that flowed in when his death was announced on September 6, 2007. Singers Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Roberto Alagna, Teresa Berganza, Raina Kabaiwanska and Katia Ricciarelli, as well as conductors James Levine, Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti were some of those who described what for them were the truly great qualities of Pavarotti’s singing. They know and appreciate that he very consciously separated out his popular work, which raised millions of dollars for wounded and starving refugees and young people, from his profoundly serious aspirations as an opera singer.
Those aspirations began during his boyhood in Modena in the Emilia Romagna area of Northern Italy, where he was born on 12 October 1935, and where he grew up. Both his parents loved classical music. His father (Fernando) was a baker and his mother (Adele) worked in a cigar factory, but music was an important part of their lives. His father sang in the local church choir and was crazy for the great operatic tenors. He brought home the records of Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, Tito Schipa and Beniamino Gigli. Luciano was thrilled by these sounds and they inspired him to make his first attempt at La donna mobile from Rigoletto when he was five years old. Fernando Pavarotti had a very important influence on his son, as Luciano told me when I visited him in 2005 for a 70th birthday program I made for the WFMT Radio Network.
“My father was a very beautiful tenor. He never sung 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’. After this, my father made me aware that our profession is a very, very difficult one. I always took very good note of what my father taught me.”
Indeed he did – to the extent that, despite showing exceptional early vocal talent, it took some time, extremely rigorous hard work, and a considerable determination to overcome some obstacles before Luciano Pavarotti finally felt able to become an opera singer. In the meantime, though, a special experience affected him profoundly when the legendary Beniamino Gigli came to Modena to sing in a production of Lucia di Lammermoor and the teenaged Luciano was able to meet him after he had finished a session of vocal practising.
“I heard him vocalising for 40 minutes – every kind of sound: forte, piano, mezzo-voce, crescendo, calando, diminuendo – everything you can imagine he did that morning. I said ‘My God, that is something very exceptional that a man of this age is doing that’. Then he came down and I was introduced to him. I told him I wanted to be a tenor and I asked him how much had he studied. He told me ‘I just finished five minutes ago’. Well, I understood the message, so I said to myself, ‘If you want to sing and begin this profession, you have to know that you are an eternal student’. I liked being a student, so I jumped into the profession with success – and I am still a student.”
This article appeared in the November, 2007 issue of Limelight Magazine.
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