The Titanic Tenor: Luciano Pavarotti

By the time he gave his final performance, at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Luciano Pavarotti had done far more than bring opera to the masses: he had given classical music a human face.

The Titanic Tenor: Luciano Pavarotti

Orchestra-pit-shaking vibratos, deity-kissed vocal cords, hearts touched via the vagus nerve: the tributes upon his death for a colossus of a man who’d flung open the doors to the arcane realm of classical music weren’t exactly devoid of poetic flounce and furbelow. The soprano Katia Ricciarelli referred to his “voice of platinum”; erstwhile rival Plácido Domingo spoke of “his divine voice, with its unmistakable timbre and complete vocal range”; the late American conductor and pianist James Levine described a knack for “delivery so natural and direct that his singing spoke right to the hearts of listeners whether they knew anything about opera or not”. 

Tellingly, though, the eulogies illuminated the man as much as they did the mighty talent that had made him the most famous classical singer in history. The European Commission president José Manuel Barroso referred to “his geniality and social commitment”; Bono, one of a plethora of popular music collaborators, alongside Elton John, Celine Dion and Bryan Adams, called him “a great volcano of a man who sang fire but spilt over with a love of life in all its complexity”; José Carreras waxed forgivably flippant: “He was a wonderful man, a charismatic person. And a good poker player.” It was these personal tributes that, in the casual observer, induced frisson comparable to those brought about by the subject’s unrelenting delivery of a Verdi fortissimo. 

The warmth and benevolence beneath Luciano Pavarotti’s imposing exterior might be partly explained by the modesty of his childhood. The son of an army baker by trade who was a tenor at heart and a cigar-factory-worker mother, Luciano and his family lived in a crowded two-room rural apartment having been forced out of his birthplace, Modena, by the second world war. Looked after predominantly by his grandmother, the young Luciano spent a fortnight in a coma at the age of 12, having contracted tetanus. Upon waking from his brush with death — he was twice given the last rites — he made a pact: should God spare him, he declared to himself, “I will enjoy life. I will enjoy the sun, the sky, the trees, everything.” 

Pavarotti at his villa in Pesaro in 1991.
At his villa in 1989.
He made a pact: should God spare him, he declared to himself, 'I will enjoy life, I will enjoy everything.'
With Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at the Royal Opera House in London at a performance of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
Arriving in Sydney in 1983 to perform La Bohème.
On holiday at his villa in 1990.
Kissing the hand of Princess Diana at a rather wet Pavarotti in the Park concert in Hyde Park in 1991.
Eating grapes at the Brown Palace hotel in Denver.

La lirica — the opera — was a big deal for post-war working-class Italians. For the youthful Luciano, it competed with football and farming the land surrounding the family home when it came to fulfilling the oath he had made during convalescence. His idol was the Hollywood star tenor Mario Lanza — “In my teens, I used to go to his movies and then come home and imitate him in the mirror,” he once said — but his mentor was much closer to home: his father, Fernando, who would one day perform encores with him at the Met, and with whom he enjoyed an early taste of success at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales, a competition established to promote peace and cultural exchange after the war. 

By now a promising goalkeeper for Modena, and harbouring a devotion to Juventus that he would carry for life, he was convinced by his mother to train as a teacher and work in an elementary school for two years (he also sold insurance for a stint), before a professional local tenor, Arrigo Pola, spotted his gifts and offered to tutor him for free. The serious study began (though his music-reading skills remained patchy, at best, for the rest of his life, according to most accounts). 

Here, a health setback morphed into a catalyst for the second time in the youthful Luciano’s life: now, a nodule on his vocal cords was serious enough to make a Ferrara concert “disastrous” (as he puts it in Pavarotti: My Own Story) and prompt him to give up on a singing career that he felt was stalling. 

Freed from the burden of expectation, he flourished psychologically, and his inhibitions, along with that benign growth of abnormal tissue, left him. Let’s return to his autobiography for how it felt the next time he broke into song: “Everything I had learned came together with my natural voice to make the sound I had been struggling so hard to achieve.” 

The career that followed was bookended by his 1968 debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York — in Puccini’s La Bohème, which prompted The New York Times’ critic Peter G. Davis to marvel at “the natural beauty of his voice: a bright, open instrument with a nice metallic ping up top that warms into an even, burnished lustre in mid-range” — and his final appearance, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. (It was not a performance, strictly speaking: his aria was pre-recorded due to the effects the sub-zero conditions would have had on the voice of a 70-year-old in poor health.) 

The milestones in between are too numerous to mention. In-the-know classical music lovers would surely cite the moment, while performing Donizetti’s opéra comique La Fille du Régiment at the Met in 1973, when he hit — no, owned — nine high Cs in the space of about one minute. He received a record 17 curtain calls for the imperious manner with which he had nailed a section of an aria commonly referred to as the Mount Everest for tenors. 

Performing live with Elton John during the Pavarotti & Friends for War Child benefit concert at Parco Novi Sad in Modena, Italy, in June 1996.
The first performance of the Three Tenors, which took place at the Baths of Caracalla to mark the Italia ’90 World Cup.
He owned nine high Cs in a minute... and nailed a section of an aria referred to as the Mount Everest for tenors.

The millions of classical-music dilettantes his work reached — the ‘masses’, as they’re rather snootily referred to — would instead point towards later career highlights. Those such as his work with the Three Tenors (Spaniards Domingo and Carreras making up the trio); the Pavarotti & Friends concerts, which brought more gargantuan names from popular music — Sting, Bob Geldof, Brian May, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi, the Spice Girls, George Michael — into his orbit, leaving some purists cold but raising considerable funds for War Child and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the rainy summer’s day in 1991 when up to 150,000 fans gathered in London’s Hyde Park to hear him perform, among them Princess Diana, who famously spurned her staff ’s entreaties to use an umbrella as she didn’t want to compromise the view for those behind her. And then, of course — and British readers knew it was coming — there’s Nessun Dorma, the aria from the final act of Puccini’s Turandot, and its use by the BBC in its coverage of the Italia ’90 World Cup, and therefore forever reminiscent of another close-but-no-cigar tournament for the English national football team (a sentence this writer can only pray will become redundant during this issue’s time on the newsstands). 

Pavarotti’s ascent from Welsh singing contests to regional opera houses to 100m-album-selling, five-time-Grammy-award-winning megastar and friend to the most illustrious names on the planet is a narrative made all the more folkloric for how stubbornly he left his ego on terra firma, and with it the starchy tenets of what might prudishly be called professionalism. The British baritone Thomas Allen once recalled: “When we did La Bohème at Covent Garden, he couldn’t be persuaded to come to rehearsals, but somehow made it to the theatre just before the dress. He was fairly mammoth by then. He wore his own costume, roaming all over the stage, making sandwiches in the middle of the act. Then he sang a high C the like of which I’d never heard, so of course we forgave him everything.” 

His erstwhile New York manager Herbert Breslin added, in one rather acrimonious memoir: “When it comes to things like sight- reading, or counting time so he knows when to come in, or any of the other technical things that make up the craft of musicianship, Luciano is a little bit challenged.” Yet this professionally nonchalant Pavarotti that Allen and Breslin describe, surely, is the Pavarotti with the 1,000-kilowatt smile framed by flamboyant silk scarves and giant fedoras, and who told anecdotes to packed auditoriums about being caught out by an early curtain call while still in his underpants, or how an on- stage chair had to be reinforced with iron bars (peaking at around 150kg, Pavarotti reportedly toured in the company of large amounts of tortellini, Parmesan cheese and salami). 

This capricious Pavarotti is the one who earnestly exclaimed to camera, in a television ad for American Express (between footage of his leading New York’s Columbus Day parade on horseback draped in a giant stars and stripes smock), “When I am at home, I know exactly who I am. Nothing — exactly zero.” It is the one who played a sexually incontinent Italian lead in the rom-com flop Yes, Giorgio; who joked with reporters about the benefits of Viagra (“Sex is always good for you if your little friend asks for it — it doesn’t matter if it is before or after the show”); and who would ask, when regularly calling Bono’s home to harangue him to write him a song to benefit the children affected by the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, “Is God at home?” (Miss Sarajevo, co-written with Brian Eno, was the result.) 

Pavarotti’s insouciantly folksy streak, surely, was only a few synaptic passageways from traits some would deem less admirable, both on the professional front (he was banned for life from Chicago’s Lyric Opera after his 26th no- show) and personal (in Ron Howard’s documentary Pavarotti, the subject’s wife from 1961 to 2000, Adua Veroni, reflects on his philandering and the effect on his offspring when he left their mother for Nicoletta Mantovani, who was 34 years his junior). That movie also sees the man himself, terminally ill with the pancreatic cancer that would take his life in 2007, expressing regret at what might be called his domestic failings. 

A complex man, then. Words, as those verbose eulogies proved, fail to bring his character’s finer brushstrokes into focus. His many nicknames — the Maestro, Il Divo, the Pavlova, King of the High Cs — do no better. In fact, in trying to capture the essence of contemporary opera’s only household name, the best we can do is a single word — his adopted catchphrase: Vincero! I will conquer! 

Sex is always good for you if your little friend asks for it - it doesn't matter if it is before or after the show.
Visiting New York in 1980.
Having lunch with a journalist from Paris Match at his villa in Pesaro.
As the protagonist Mario Cavaradossi in a dress rehearsal for a production of Puccini’s Tosca in New York, 2002.
In Naples, 1996.
Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007.
Singing in the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin — it would be Pavarotti’s final performance.

Photo Credits: Getty Images