October 12, 1935- Luciano Pavarotti:
“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
He possessed one of the most unmistakable and beautiful voices there has ever been. Even I loved him, and opera was never my thing. In his 50s, thanks to records and the refinement microphones in the enormous open-air venues where he performed, he became probably the richest opera singer in the history of music.
His extremely popular career happened at the same time as a decline of interest in opera. The Pavarotti phenomenon was a triumph of marketing. His name was given to a men’s cologne. He did print ads and commercials.
In 1961, Pavarotti made his debut at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, singing the part of Rodolfo in La Bohème. He became a superstar 11 years later when he sang Tonio in Gaetano Donizetti‘s La Fille du Régiment at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Pavarotti:
“I had to sing nine high Cs in a row before I won the public’s attention.”
After this triumph, he was turned into a television celebrity. His ease and potential on television was shown in 1963 when an audience of 15 million watched him on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium. A huge white handkerchief became his trusty prop. Pavarotti and his warm, knowing grin became familiar even to me, someone who is not big on opera. He was on the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines, and there were Pavarotti masterclasses aired on PBS.
In the late 20th century, the phenomenon of the three tenors, Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras, helped opera gain some popular attention. Seldom in the history of opera had three huge star tenors been seen together on stage. Each of the three earned so much money for a third less trouble that the temptation had to be irresistible. If serious money can still be made singing 100-year-old arias, maybe opera could not be written off. On stage he took no role composed later than 1926, the year Puccini died. The popular Italian songs that he used as encores such as Volare, were the only postwar pieces in his repertoire. Pavarotti stuck to the tradition of earlier stars such as Enrico Caruso, give the people what they want.
He had trouble reading music, and he admitted he was not much of a musician. Pavarotti:
“I don’t go in too deep. The musical score is one thing and the singing part is another. If you have the music in your head, and you sing it with your body, you’ll be all right.”
He learned songs by becoming familiar with the words, which he would print in a notebook alongside signs showing the melody rising or falling. So much for the debate about whether words or music come first. His wonderful quality of acting out the meaning through the words was fundamental to his appeal. The natural beauty of the sound he commanded was, in the end, more significant than the fact that he could sing those top notes.
Pavarotti grew up in the 1940s listening to the previous generation of opera stars on the radio and from his father’s record collection. Born in Modena, in northern Italy, his father was a baker who sang in a local chorus. His mother worked in a tobacco factory. Both his parents lived into the 21st century.
He took singing lessons in Modena before moving on to a more experienced coach in Mantua, but the truth was, he was a natural. His impeccable technique could not be learned through lessons. The beautiful and natural sound that Pavarotti started out with simply needed to be polished and strengthened.
In 1961, at just 25-years-old, Pavarotti won the Achille Peri competition. The reward was the chance to make his debut in Reggio Emilia. For the next three years, he sang at opera houses in Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Ireland. He received good, if not ecstatic reviews.
In 1965, he made his American debut in Miami, opposite Joan Sutherland, with whom he would make many important recordings. In 1966, there was his legendary appearance with Sutherland at Covent Garden in La Fille du Régiment, where he sang the high Cs in full voice, even though Donizetti had expected them to be sung in head voice. Full voice means without any adjustment towards falsetto. Decca Records, Pavarotti’s recording company, used the title King Of The High Cs for an album he made.
Sales of his records were enormous, and he was recognized wherever he traveled. Recitals reduced his availability for work in the important opera houses. The range of roles he sang regularly or frequently on stage was much more limited than his recording legacy. Epic amplified performances became a major part of his career.
Pavarotti was not thin, but he was handsome. By the early 1970s, he was significantly overweight. When asked his weight by reporters, he would reply: “Less than before“. When challenged what exactly that was, he would say: “More than now“. He published a memoir, My Own Story (1981), and starred in a film, Yes, Giorgio (1982).
After 1983, he signed with the promotion team for Frank Sinatra and Neil Diamond. He sang to 7,500 people in a heated tent in Atlantic City. In 1984, he sang for 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden. His fee for concerts was $100,000 and a percentage of ticket sales.
During the 1980s, he sang only half as many opera performances each year as Domingo. But, Pavarotti made enormous amounts of money. He became a professional painter, which had been his hobby. Prints of his paintings sold for $2,500.
His first marriage came to an end when, in his 60s, he fell for his former personal assistant Nicoletta Mantovani, a woman 35 years younger. Their wedding, in 2003, was celebrated with 600 guests, including Sting, Bono and Donatella Versace.
He began to cancel performances that seemed as if they should have been final appearances and announced that he would retire on his 70th birthday in 2005. His 40 concert performances in 2003 is said to have earned him $35 million. He did a total of 34 Three Tenors concerts around the world between 1990 and 2003. Around 1.3 billion viewers worldwide watched a broadcast of their 1994 performance. The Three Tenors released five studio albums. But, he was in bad health, and after starting his farewell world tour in 2005, Pavarotti discovered he had pancreatic cancer.
After surgery, he announced he would return to the stage. His last performance of a staged opera was at the Met in March 2004. In February 2006, he opened the Winter Olympics in Turin, singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot transposed to an easier key for a tenor of his years. It was his final performance, except that the performance had been pre-recorded weeks earlier. He lip-synched, the orchestra pretended to play as the conductor acted like he was conducting. In all fairness, it would not have been easy for an old, sick man to sing outdoors in the winter in the Alps.
He received an enormous number of awards in his lifetime, including a Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. He also holds two Guinness World Records: one for the most curtain calls (165) for a single event and another for the bestselling classical album for Carreras Domingo Pavarotti in Concert.
For years, Pavarotti hosted Pavarotti & Friends charity concerts in Modena, joined by musicians as diverse as: B.B. King, Andrea Bocelli, Barry White, Jon Bon Jovi, Bono, James Brown, Mariah Carey, Céline Dion, Elton John, Queen, George Michael, Tracy Chapman, The Spice Girls, and Sting to raise money for War Child, a charity for victims of war and civil unrest. After the war in Bosnia, he financed and established the Pavarotti Music Centre in the city of Mostar to offer Bosnia’s artists the opportunity to develop their skills. The city of Sarajevo named him an honorary citizen in 2006.
He was a close friend of Diana, Princess of Wales. Together they raised money for the elimination of land mines worldwide. He was invited to sing at her funeral service, but declined, saying he felt he could not sing well “with his grief in his throat”, but he was there at the service.
He was appointed the United Nations Messenger of Peace, using his fame to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, Human Rights, refugees and world poverty.
In 1999, Pavarotti performed a charity benefit concert in Beirut, to mark Lebanon’s reemergence on the world stage after a brutal 15-year civil war. It was the largest concert held in Beirut, attended by 20,000 people.
He died at his home in Modena in September 2007. Pavarotti’s funeral was held at Modena Cathedral. The Italian Air Force flew overhead, leaving green-white-red smoke trails. The funeral, in its entirety, was broadcast live on CNN.
Pavarotti’s astounding international celebrity made it difficult for him to stop working. He was the most popular artist in the history of the classical recording industry, even more famous than Caruso. Pavarotti possessed a voice of pure gold that matured in strength and depth without losing its ravishing beauty, precision and expressiveness.