In the midst of the deservedly warm tributes to Luciano Pavarotti, who died today, 6th September 2007, there was the carping rent a quote on the BBC news from smart ass critic Norman Lebrecht who said that Pavarotti had divorced himself from the real world of opera and music to market himself as a celebrity brand. Such patronising tosh, but of course Norman has some form in attention seeking behaviour being a big Mahler fan (e.g. other end of spectrum from Italian Opera) and his central thesis (“The Life & Death of Classical Music”) being that the modern classical music industry was created by Nazi war criminals.
Pavarotti was not a person who set out to be a career musician rather he was a larger than life character who accurately reflected the great Italian obsessions of Football, Food, Music & Women and who remained loyal to the place from whence he sprung, the great renaissance city of Modena, fiefdom of the Ducs D’Este and modern day home to those great modern day steeds named Ferrari, Bugatti, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati.
Rather having qualified as an athletics teacher (!) he got into music through sheer love of the art form singing in the local choir in Modena with his father, Fernando. Britain played a large part in his career for it was at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in 1955, with the Chorale G. Rossini di Modena which won the Male Voice Choir competition that he, as the lead singer, he got the boost and confidence to follow his musical calling full time. This was such a turning point for him he returned 40 years later in 1995 to give an emotional performance at the closing concert of the Eisteddfod to scenes of adulation which have never been seen before at the event and it is safe to say will never be seen in future.
It was in London’s West End at the Palladium as a replacement for Giuseppe de Stefano he starred in the lead role of Rodolfo in La Boheme for a production which was broadcast to a radio audience of 15 million people which initially made his professional name and landed him a recording contract with Decca with whom he remained for his 45 year career. I might mention he knew the role as he had performed it previously that year at the Dublin Grand Opera Society’s production. He played La Scala in Milan over 140 times. He went onto play in all the world’s great opera houses opposite some of the greatest sopranos and with the greatest conductors . When his career (and voice) was in its peak in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s he played the full repertoire in many operas, frequently with his trademark prop of a handkerchief he used once when he was perspiring due to a cold and nervousness.
So this was no sound bite aria basher but a fully fledged performer who was inspired by a genuine love of music and had paid his full performing dues. So what right has Norman Lebrecht to begrudge him his subsequent celebrity and popular success particularly when more than anybody else he succeeded in bringing Opera to the people and democratising the art form. Who else ever got a whole football stadium to sing along to an opera aria? Here is a man who brought the beauty of great operatic singing to the attention of more people than anyone else. It should never be forgotten than behind the “Big Lucy” razzmatazz of the media there was the figure of another more agile singer with a voice of warmth and colour who produced strong effortless top notes which brought audiences to their feet both in opera houses and football stadia. Even in the era of mega concerts there is ample evidence of this brilliance in his earlier recordings and it can still be glimpsed in his later career, after all he sang with the same vocal cords. Even in his celebrity years with his Pavarotti & Friends Concerts in Modena he did much good work to highlight injustice and raise money to help. What right have we to begrudge him his benign celebrity status?
This avid football fan made Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma” (Let no one sleep) the unmistakable sound and memory of the best world cup ever in terms of fan satisfaction, Italia 1990, and it was obvious that both were Luciano’s passions. This is particularly as it is an aria from an opera with probably, in a very competitive field, the most ridiculous plot ever featuring a cruel Mandarin Princess, Turnadot, three ministers called Ping, Pang and Pong and a hero whose real name is “Love” who captures the heart of the cruel princess who had already beheaded 13 previous suitors!
So tonight as he lies in state in Modena’s great Romanesque cathedral the spirit of Luciano Pavarotti can afford to ignore the carpings of lesser mortals and repeat the words of Calaf, the suitor of Turnadot which Pavarotti sang so magnificently in Nessun Dorma:
All’alba Vincero! Vincero! Vincero!
At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!
Luciano, Addio Maestro et molti ringraziamenti.