THE BACK PAGES

Weighing Pavarotti

Unlike performers such as Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti is a real opera singer. His retirement—marked by a farewell tour that includes Canada-means the end of an era.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 10 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Weighing Pavarotti

Unlike performers such as Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti is a real opera singer. His retirement—marked by a farewell tour that includes Canada-means the end of an era.

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 10 2006

Weighing Pavarotti

THE BACK PAGES

Unlike performers such as Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti is a real opera singer. His retirement—marked by a farewell tour that includes Canada-means the end of an era.

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Opera singers don’t usually attract a large audience; given the size of many opera singers, you could say they take up more of the theatre than the audience does. There certainly aren’t many opera singers who could go on tour and make the kind of money and headlines that a pop singer does, or get gossipy headlines in supermarket tabloids. There is, really, only one: Luciano Pavarotti, whose farewell tour, “A Night to Remember,” has already resulted in sold-out audiences in several venues.

This June, the farewell tour will take Pavarotti to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Washington. And while many singers can go on up to a dozen farewell tours, this series of concerts really might be the end for Pavarotti’s career: he is now 70 years old, well past retirement age for most opera singers.

Younger concertgoers, raised on Pavarotti crooning his way through Puccini in his Three Tenors concerts with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, may think of Pavarotti as a media star who happens to sing operatic arias, like Russell Watson or Andrea Bocelli. But Pavarotti is a real opera singer, and his retirement marks the end of an era: he is the last classical performer to become a media superstar, the way Leonard Bernstein and Enrico Caruso did. Plácido Domingo, the second best-known opera singer of his generation, performs in more operas than Pavarotti but doesn’t have the same instant recognition outside the opera world. With Pavarotti gone, there are no more classical performers who can bridge the gap between the tuxedo crowd and the pop audience; there will be plenty of fine opera singers, but there may never be another true superstar.

Like Leonard Bernstein, Pavarotti became a media star through aggressive self-promotion. His manager, Herbert Breslin, made his client rich and famous by booking him on talk shows to sing a little and schmooze it up with Johnny Carson. Breslin even got Pavarotti a starring role in a really bad feature film, Yes, Giorgio, in which Pavarotti played

a singer who loses his voice and falls in love with the doctor who treats him. As critic Terry Teachout wrote: “Recognizing that his client’s rough charm made him a natural for mass marketing, Breslin promoted him as aggressively as ‘a bar of soap.’ ”

But Pavarotti wasn’t always a bar of soap; he was a singer, and a very fine one. When he started singing internationally in the late ’60s, he was instantly acclaimed as the best young Italian tenor in several years—one of the few Italian singers of his generation who could measure up to the greats of the past when it came to singing Verdi or Puccini. Record producer John Culshaw, who signed Pavarotti for Decca records (Pavarotti has recorded for Decca ever since), described his

reaction to hearing the then-unknown performer: “The voice may not then have been under perfect control and the singer’s approach may have been a bit raw; but it was a big voice that sailed up to a top C with apparently no effort at all.”

Pavarotti had a different sound and style from other leading Italian tenors. The most popular Italian tenor of the ’60s was Franco Corelli, a good-looking man with a huge, powerful voice that could fill any auditorium. After Corelli retired in the early ’70s, Pavarotti filled the void, and became a fan favourite and a fixture with companies like the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. But even in his prime, he had limitations as a performer. His

weight made him an immobile and unconvincing actor. And even his voice, beautiful as it was, wasn’t really resonant or loud enough for many of the roles he took on, so that he could sound strained in public. In his recordings, this could be disguised, but in live performance, his high notes didn’t have the sheer impact of Corelli’s or Mario Del Monaco’s.

But if Pavarotti didn’t have other singers’ vocal heft, he had a voice that was unique in its own way. Most tenor voices tend to be a little husky or dark-toned; Plácido Domingo started as a baritone and often still sounds like one. Pavarotti’s voice was light and gleaming, the embodiment of every quality opera fans associate with the high male voice. Tom Kaufman, a consulting and contributing editor for the Opera Quarterly, compared his sound to that of the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, except that Pavarotti had “a brighter voice [and a] more Italianate voice.” His enunciation of words was better and clearer than almost any other singer, which allowed him to produce every note and vowel sound as clearly and beautifully as possible. When he sang an aria that he was particularly good at, like the Ingemisco from Verdi’s Requiem, it sounded effortlessly beautiful in a way that even the great tenors of the past couldn’t quite match.

Pavarotti also had something most tenors didn’t: instant likeability. Whereas Corelli, Del Monaco and Domingo were all serious and dour-looking on stage, Pavarotti smiled and waved and gave the impression that he really enjoyed performing. This was not something that came naturally to him, though. If you look at an early Pavarotti performance—like a 1967 film of the Verdi Requiem with Herbert von Karajan conducting, available on DVD— he looks nervous and a little stiff. He worked on changing that, and by the time he became a big star, he had his image: the happy fat man who loves singing and loves his public.

Conrad L. Osborne, the great opera critic for High Fidelity magazine, called Pavarotti “a genuinely likeable and amusing man with a sharp sense of his own appeal.” As time went

Pavarotti emphasized his likeability—even if it meant ignoring the characters he was supposed to be playing

on, Pavarotti did more and more things to emphasize his likeability and his ability to bond with an audience—even if that meant compromising or outright ignoring the characters he was supposed to be playing onstage. Osborne wrote about seeing Pavarotti in a performance of Rigoletto where he seemed more interested in mugging for the crowd than participating in the story: “In the last act, he makes a point of feeling up Maddalena while leering cutely at the audience. Luciano has learned to keep on being Luciano while the opera is trying to take place. The audience would rather see Luciano than an opera, so it’s total success.”

As time went on, and Pavarotti started working harder on marketing himself to a mass audience, these mannerisms got more pronounced: Pavarotti had a public image that his stardom depended on, and preserving

that image meant “being Luciano” at all times, no matter what the situation. He also began to pick roles that were not really suited to his voice. Tom Kaufman says that Pavarotti started to decline “when he started to sing roles that were too heavy for him.” The aria Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, which became Pavarotti’s signature piece, is really written for a louder, heavier voice than Pavarotti’s; when he sang it, it sounded good, but it put an obvious strain on his voice, and

the more often he sang it, the more strained he sounded. But Turandot was a big box-office draw, and Pavarotti would sing what the audience wanted to hear, even if it weakened his voice.

In a 1979 article, Osborne complained that Pavarotti’s bid for superstardom had caused him to decline as a singer—and that audiences didn’t seem to care. Describing Pavarotti’s disappointing performance in a production of La Bohème, Osborne wrote: “To put it bluntly, it’s a bust, but the audience reaction is wild—this is a personal appearance event. I begin to form a rather unappetizing image of a huge, mincing galoot with a pretty, medium-sized voice that can’t make climaxes, kneading his handkerchief and appealing to the audience for sympathy for all his hard work and sweet personality.” By the time the Three Tenors concerts started in the early ’90s, Pavarotti was almost entirely a personality: he didn’t appear on stage very much, he didn’t take on new roles the way Domingo did, and he didn’t change his interpretations very much. He was known less for his singing and more for the breakup of his first marriage after tabloids published photos of him with his secretary (whom he later married). He had gone from classical music artist to pop star.

In the last decade or so, Pavarotti hasn’t performed in public or recorded as much as he once did, and he has become what semi-retired music stars usually become: someone who gets written and talked about more than he performs. After he left as his manager, Herbert Breslin wrote a tell-all book in which he alleged that Pavarotti can’t read music and has to learn his parts by ear. Tabloids wrote about Pavarotti’s weight gains and losses and his marriage and divorce settlements.

Tabloid stories, tell-alls, multiple marriages and angry ex-representatives: it’s the life of a pop idol. When Pavarotti comes to Canada, he will come not as a journeyman musician, but as a superstar whose image has lasted longer than his high notes. That may not put Pavarotti in the class of the very great opera singers, whose singing had more range and depth than his. But most of those singers couldn’t get a stadium full of people to hear them. M