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Luciano Pavarotti: A New Kind of Opera Star
Michael Clive asks: if a singer’s singer is quietly revered by both professionals and the public, what do we call tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose career and life belonged to millions of clamorous, adoring fans throughout the world? Superstar, for starters.
Luciano Pavarotti remains the most widely heard opera singer in the world. His recordings and videos of signature roles — Rodolfo, Edgardo, Nemorino, Cavaradossi, Tonio and many others — remain benchmarks. Then there are the crossover performances he almost patented, singing joyfully in stadiums and arenas alongside pop and rock artists and celebrities. He brought The Three Tenors into being, transforming public attitudes about opera and opening it to millions of new listeners. And though part of his appeal was the apparent simplicity and sincerity of his interpretations in all these forms, they were rooted in a deep musical intelligence that controlled both his vocal technique and his career decisions.
With Pavarotti, before all else, there is the voice — unmistakable in quality, pristine and golden, like the sun rising in a clear sky. He inherited much of that ringing tone from his father, a superb amateur tenor whose recordings of Caruso, Schipa, Di Stefano and others influenced the young Luciano. But one can only wonder if there was also something special in the water of his native Modena, Italy; he and the great soprano Mirella Freni were both born there within the space of a few months in 1935. Their lifelong friendship began before either could talk, let alone sing, in the daycare of the local tobacco factory where his mother worked. By 1965 they were together onstage at La Scala, singing Rodolfo and Mimi in La Boheme.
But Pavarotti’s friendship with another soprano, Joan Sutherland, had already jumpstarted his international career: after his early successes singing Verdi and Puccini in Vienna and London, he was recruited as Sutherland’s leading man for her intensive 1964 tour of her native Australia. The tall, husky Pavarotti, who had once aspired to a career as a soccer goalie, moved well onstage and was fully equipped to sing romantic roles opposite a big, tall diva with a big voice and big hair. Throughout his career, Pavarotti credited Sutherland for perfecting his ironclad breathing and vocal support.
The young Pavarotti’s stage success reached a new level in 1972, when he sang opposite Sutherland in La Fille du Regiment at the Met. His rendition of Tonio’s signature aria “Ah mes amis,” with its nine high Cs, entered the annals of opera lore and earned him the nickname King of the High Cs. Now a certified superstar, he cultivated television and the media as a means of expanding the international audience for all of opera, and even making the occasional movie. Most musical purists overcame their initial resistance to his populism; Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras eventually joined him to form The Three Tenors, opera’s answer to rock stardom.
Pavarotti’s voice never developed the darkness or heft required to sustain roles such as Verdi’s Otello and Radames in large opera houses. He had once viewed these roles as the culmination of his career; instead, he surpassed his early ambitions, becoming a global phenomenon and bringing opera to listeners who might otherwise never have heard it.
Luciano Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer in 2007 at age 71.
Six Things You May Not Know About Pavarotti:
The voice didn't pay the bills from Day 1: Pavarotti once held part-times jobs as an elementary school teacher and as an insurance salesman.
Pavarotti debuted in the same role, La Boheme's Rodolfo, at the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Scala and in the first Live From The Met telecast.
In addition to inspiring a wider range of music lovers, Pavarotti nurtured young talent with The Pavarotti International Voice Competition, which he set up in the '80s.
Luciano Pavarotti holds two Guinness World Records: the most curtain calls, 165, if you're counting, and best-selling classical album, for his part in In Concert by The Three Tenors.
For his charity concert series, "Pavarotti and Friends," the opera tenor performed with the likes of Bono, Queen, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Sting, Sheryl Crow and the Spice Girls.
Bolstering his rise to mainstream celebrity, the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy chose Pavarotti's rendition of Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma" as its theme song.
Luciano Pavarotti in The News
Britain's Got Talent star Faryl Smith has teamed up with late opera great Luciano Pavarotti for a duet. The Italian tenor's vocals have been added to a recording of "O Holy Night" by the 14-year-old schoolgirl.
The Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith salutes the popular Italian tenor.