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The People's Tenor

The Legacy of Luciano Pavarotti


I have in my CD collection a recording of a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème staged in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia on April 29, 1961. The mono album which I acquired secondhand preserves for history a mixed, generally unremarkable presentation of the opera. But it also preserves the voice of Luciano Pavarotti at the age of 25, making his debut as Rodolfo. Once an aspiring professional soccer player, he had worked as an insurance salesman and elementary school teacher, then won a local vocal competition, aided by a voice instructor who, given Pavarotti’s relative poverty, had waived instructor’s fees

His father was a baker, and mother a cigar-factory worker. On the stage of the Teatro Municipale in this city of textile workers, a center of Communist Party organizing where opera was not elite culture but part of working-class cultural experience, Pavarotti played the role of the impoverished poet smitten with love for the even more impoverished (and doomed) seamstress Mimi. Towards the end of the aria Che gelida manina (“little frozen hand”), Rodolfo holding Mimi’s hand declares that her beautiful eyes have stolen everything he’s ever possessed. But:

Ma il furto non m’accora,
Poiché, poiché vi ha preso stanza
la speranza!

(The theft doesn’t anger me, For their place has been
Taken by hope!)

When Pavaratti hits and holds the F-sharp on speranza (I think it’s an F-sharp, but I’m musically as illiterate as most Pavarotti fans) there’s this very distinct background stir on the recording. It’s not applause as such—it wouldn’t have been the proper moment for that, since the aria wasn’t over and opera fans adhere to a specific sort of restrained etiquette. It’s more of a collective “Wow!”—an undercurrent of murmuring, as though hundreds of people were spontaneously turning to one another in astonishment and saying, “What did he just do? I can’t believe he did that!”

Twenty seconds later, at the end of the aria, the audience explodes in adulation. That’s the beginning of the Pavarotti phenomenon.

I hadn’t played this CD, which I’ve had for years, for quite a while. But that initial subtly audible audience reaction had impressed me. In the last few days, I’ve replayed the recording repeatedly, enjoying that nervous whispering moment, wondering what the young soccer aficionado might have thought as he drew those gasps of astonishment that day on that stage.

Pavarotti of course went on to become the best-known tenor of the late twentieth century. The high-Cs rolled off his tongue as his sparkling eyes and smile seemed to say, with childlike simplicity: “This is so easy, I’m having such a good time, and I’m so glad you like what I’m doing!” He reputedly suffered from nervousness, and this may have occasioned some of his numerous, infamous last-minute cancellations. But once on stage the joy and confidence took over.

He reached his height in the 1970s, thereafter meeting with criticism about his acting ability, interpretations of roles, limited ability to read music, and diminishing vocal range. Placido Domingo (who has just declared, “They threw away the mold when they made Luciano–he will always be remembered as a truly unique performer in the annals of classical music”) was pronounced more “intellectual” and technically competent. Maybe the criticisms were valid, and Pavarotti for his part showed remarkable humility. Booed at La Scala in Milan for failing to hit the high notes, he said he agreed with the critics—because they cared about the art. That’s what it was all about for him: promoting opera.
And that’s what I want to celebrate. Pavarotti more than anyone brought this form of “high art” to the people, including tens of millions of Americans who might otherwise have known it only as the object of parody (in the 1960s the aria Vesti la Giubba, from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, was used in a Rice Krispies commercial) or dismissed it as the pompous product of bygone eras dripping with exaggerated emotionalism and composed in inaccessible languages. Fat ladies wearing horned helmets, shrieking notes so high they shatter glass. Not an art form that could move ordinary folks.

Pavarotti helped change such perceptions. In 1990 the BBC chose Pavarotti’s performance of Nessun Dorma (from Puccini’s Turandot, and Pavarotti’s signature aria) as the theme song of its World Cup coverage. Since then it has become the unofficial anthem of Italian soccer players. In the same year the Hollywood film Pretty Woman, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, features a scene in which the former streetwalker Vivian (Roberts) attends an opera for the first time and is awed by the experience. The opera—Verdi’s La Traviata, about a prostitute who falls in love with a rich man—actually inspired the film itself. Would it have ever been produced, I wonder, if not for Pavarotti?

He cultivated friendships with “popular music” performers while making his own art popular. He performed or recorded with James Brown, U2, Queen, Barry White, Lou Reed . . . .while of course organizing the monumentally successful, nakedly commercial “Three Tenors” concerts with Domingo and José Carreras. When accused of commercialism, he retorted, “We’ve reached 1.5 billion people with opera. If you want to use the word commercial, or something more derogatory, we don’t care. Use whatever you want.” One can see this as a capitulation to capitalist crassness, and this view is apparently widely held in Italy where opera was popular among the masses long before Pavarotti came along. Or it can be seen, at the global level, as a missionary effort on behalf of classical music itself. I think historians of music will be kind to the maestro and emphasize the latter.
Who among those who saw it can forget that moment in 1998, when Pavarotti at the last minute withdrew from a commitment to perform Nessun Dorma  at the Grammy Awards ceremony, and Aretha Franklin stepped in to take his place? Viewers (25 million in the U.S. alone) were electrified, and the audience in the hall rose in a standing ovation as opera met soul. Pavarotti wasn’t there but his achievement hovered over the event.

I don’t know where Pavarotti stood politically. He raised money to aid Bosnian war refugees and associated himself with non-controversial humanitarian causes. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said on the day of his funeral that Pavarotti “made music an instrument for life and against war” and like most Italians and other human beings he opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq. From what I’ve read, he was a warm, affable, sensitive, generous man, a fan of soccer and rock ‘n roll, unapologetically vulnerable to the temptations of the flesh (food in particular), about as unassuming as someone in his demigod position might be.

“I will win! I will win!” concludes Nessun Dorma, which Pavarotti last sang at last year’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin. Pavarotti’s life was a victory for opera, as a vibrant, relevant tradition, over stuffy cultural elitism. If he was not the greatest tenor of his time, he was the soccer players’ tenor, the rock ‘n roll fans’ tenor, the people’s tenor.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.He can be reached at: