Luciano Pavarotti is one of those tenors who have become legends in their own time. Since the early 1970s, when he was launched to stardom, he has been regarded as one of the most important tenors of his time, with one of histories most compelling voices. Unfortunately, media fuzz, flirts with commerciality and an extreme popularizing of his persona has added detractors and a negative ring to his name. It would be a shame, however, if this would allow for the neglect of his many and great achievements as a tenor of unusual rank.
Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy on 12 October 1935. His father, Fernando Pavarotti, was a baker and an amateur tenor who sang in the local opera choir. His young son early showed a talent for singing and Fernando brought him along to choir rehearsals. When becoming a teenager he joined the city choir of Modena where he sang alongside his father. At a song contest in Wales, the choir won first prize, which made the young Pavarotti change his mind about pursuing a career as an elementary school teacher, and go for a professional career as a singer. He commenced vocal studies under Arrigo Pola, followed by Campogalliani, along with the soprano Mirelli Freni, also of Modena.
At the age of 26, in 1961, he participated in the International Song Contest at Reggio Emilia where he won. The first prize was a recital concert at the city theater, Teatro Reggio Emilia, to be held on the 29th of April the same year. His performance made an immediate impression on the Italian operatic scene, leading to his operatic dibut as Rodolfo in La Bohème in the same city that very same year, and his first international appearance in Belgrade, yet again as Rodolfo. The year later, in 1962, he was invited by Tullio Serafin to sing the Duke in Rigoletto at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.
1963 was a busy and important year for the young tenor; he sang throughout the whole of Europe, appeared on television and most importantly, made his debut at London’s Covent Garden as Rodolfo, substituting an ailing Giuseppe di Stefano. The British audience was ecstatic. The following year he performed a much celebrated Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival.
1965 brought him to Miami for his American debut with no other than Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor. They initiated a long-lasting collaboration, together with Joan Sutherland’s husband, the Australian conductor Richard Bonynge, starting with the revived works of Donizetti under Bonynge’s direction touring Australia, England and the US. Pavarotti had received ecstatic reviews, and just before embarking on the six weeks tour of Australia with Sutherland/Bonynge, Herbert von Karajan invited him to La Scala for his debut appearance with the Milanese house, singing Rodolfo to Mirella Freni’s Mimi. He returned to La Scala the following season (1966/67) for Rigoletto, La Bohhme and Bellini’s I Capuletti I Montecchi, and stepped in for Carlo Bergonzi in Verdi’s Requiem at La Scala under Karajan, on the occasion of the centenary commemoration of Toscanini’s birth. Later that year (1967), he recorded the work with Sir Georg Solti, with a star cast that included Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and Martti Talvela, after having signed an exclusive contract with Decca Records. Pavarotti was then 32.
Late 1967 he made his debut at the San Francisco Opera in the role as Rodolfo and the long awaited New York and Met debut came in 1968, yet again as Rodolfo to Mirella Freni’s Mimi. While he received more than favorable reviews in the US, England was on fire as he had set the house buzzing with his vocal artistry in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, having launched the nine consecutive high C’s in the aria Pour mon ame in full voice, seemingly effortlessly, both on stage and in the now legendary studio sessions of the recording of the opera with Bonynge and Sutherland. Pavarotti-mania commenced with full force in 1972 when Pavarotti performed in the same opera at the Met, and on completion of the famous aria, the house erupting in a frenzied ovation, the Pavarotti phenomenon was a fact.
Following the recent death of Luciano Pavarotti, the hundreds of obituaries in almost every language covered just about every aspect of the excellent tenor from A to Z. If one should stop the ordinary man in the street who has no interest whatever in the world of opera and ask him to name a famous operatic singer, the answer would almost certainly be “Pavarotti“. That was the measure of the man whose voice was instantly recognizable to millions.
His parents, Fernando and Adele, married very young. His mother was nineteen years old and his maternal Grandmother was only thirty eight. Shortly before his birth, his grandmother had lost a very young daughter named ‘Lucia’ so when Adele’s baby boy was born, he became ‘Luciano.’ He was the only boy to have been born for a number of years in their apartment block which housed sixteen families and as the men were out working every day, he was fussed over consistently. He would always freely admit that he was spoiled terribly by women and he submitted to it happily. It was something that he cheerfully accepted later in his professional life as well.=
Luciano was a child of World War II with vivid memories of the bombs falling on his home city of Modena, and the horrors of reprisals taken against the local partisans. If one German was killed by partisans then the Italian men would be taken from their families and ten of them would be publicly hanged. Luciano and his young friends witnessed such atrocities but even so, he later recalled that he and his friends were resilient youngsters and grew up in as normal a manner as one could expect in wartime Italy. His younger sister Gabriella has recalled that as a little girl she was constantly dragged into their games of football where goalposts were chalked on a wall and she became the designated goalkeeper while Luciano and his pals peppered her with their football. Luciano and his childhood friends remained friends for life. Even as his fame grew, he retained his links with Modena where another famous son of that city, Enzo Ferrari wanted to give Luciano one of his cars. Luciano recalled that he had to graciouslydecline and say to Ferrari that with his ever increasing bulk, he would need a corkscrew to get in an out of one of the prestigious cars which displayed the Prancing Horse emblem.
As Luciano’s fame increased, he bought a villa at Pesaro overlooking the sea which he named ‘Villa Giulia’ in memory of his maternal grandmother. Every summer would be spent there and as he and the footballing friends of his childhood graduated into old age they could be found together, playing cards but still with a handy football rolling around for the odd kick about.
By the time Luciano was nineteen, he had decided on a singing career and he studied assiduously with Arrigo Poli in Modena then later with Ettore Campogalliani in Mantua, who was also teaching Mirella Freni. It is well known that Mirella and Luciano were childhood friends, in fact they shared the same wet nurse while their mothers worked in the same local tobacco factory and Mirella would later joke about the wet nurse, ” You can see who got most of the milk.” Throughout his career, Luciano always stressed the importance of those lessons. For the first six months with Poli, he sang nothing but scales and vocal exercises. Poli also understood the importance of the passagio, which is the transition of the voice from the lower register to the upper register where the sound becomes different. In order to make the transition smoothly, the professional singer switches to a different part of the throat and strives to do it without any sign. Luciano never ceased to work on this and he would later say that he struggled with this problem for six years before he felt that he finally had it under control. It was the same thing for him to learn the importance of the diaphragm and once again, it took him a few years before he finally mastered the technique with the assistance of Joan Sutherland. The ability to sing at the highest level for performance after performance was something that Luciano always recognized as being the result of the finest training right from the start.
Luciano Pavarotti’s career is well documented and can almost be divided into two parts; Pavarotti the serious and dedicated opera singer and Pavarotti the entertainer. As we know, his debut in 1961 as Rodolfo was a huge success. There is a live recording of the occasion. It is of very poor quality but the high C in ‘Che gelida manina’ bring out audible and appreciative comments from the audience, which is as nothing to the deafening applause at the end of the aria. Here was one of the most glorious of lyric tenor voices. Present in the audience that night was a famous and influential impresario named Alessandro Ziliani, who had himself been a lyric tenor of some stature and it was his organization which was to represent the young Pavarotti in his formative years. Pavarotti became unequalled in the bel canto roles with his beautiful and expressive timbre and his effortless phrasing. The endless ringing high notes were simply amazing and they cemented his reputation as ‘King of the High C’s’ and he could do no wrong. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s his international reputation bloomed, particularly in the United States where he came under the management of Herbert Breslin who promoted him with considerable astuteness. He remained the established opera star with a full quota of concerts, being booked up for about three years in advance, well into the 1980’s but at the age of about 50, after a career of about 25 years, his voice was unsurprisingly not the instrument it had once been. His concert work increased and so did his wealth. His open friendliness and generosity plus his willingness to participate in endless promotions and TV interviews etc., raised his popularity level to that of Superstar which generated enormous fees.
In 1981, a promoter named Tibor Rudas had entered Pavarotti’s life and dwarfed the efforts of Herbert Breslin. Rudas promoted Pavarotti in gigantic proportions with huge Stadium and open air concerts which Pavarotti entered into enthusiastically, bringing into existence Pavarotti the entertainer as opposed to the opera singer. In 1990 came the promotion of a lifetime…the first ‘Three Tenors’ concert. It was originally intended to celebrate the return to health of Jose Carreras and as the three tenors, Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti were also football fanatics, it was also to celebrate the football World Cup. It was to be a ‘one off’ concert and all three singers agreed to accept a flat fee.
However the event was such a success it became the catalyst for for further huge and extremely lucrative engagements. Most classical music critics dismissed them as being unworthy of the talents of these three great singers and in the case of Luciano Pavarotti they resulted in less and less appearances on the world’s operatic stages and more and more concerts with Pop Stars and other celebrities. Even a Pavarotti in vocal decline was a huge operatic attraction but he became known as another ‘King of C’s’, this time the King of cancellations. In the 1990’s he was still an operatic box office powerhouse with an outsize personality but his health became a serious issue due to his considerable weight and failing leg problems. Around 1997, matters became more complicated for him when he left his wife of 35 years to live with his 26 year old ‘secretary’, Nicoletta Mantovani. She was the latest in a long line of attractive young female ‘secretaries’ throughout his career and his wife Adua sued for divorce. The scandal made headlines and her financial demands brought Pavarotti to the attention of the Italian Tax Authorities and after a long and well publicized struggle, he ended up by agreeing to pay a tax settlement running into million of Pounds. He and Nicoletta were married in 2003 and in the same year she gave birth to a daughter. Alice, but a twin brother, Riccardo, was stillborn.
In 2005 , Pavarotti required surgery to his neck vertebrae and in June 2006, he required further surgery for pancreatic cancer. He seemed to recover quite well but by the summer of 2007 he was diagnosed with further cancer and died in the early hours of the 6th September 2007.
The late Alan Blyth wrote of him: “To meet he was jovial, exhibiting a sense of humour. Free of false modesty, he knew his worth. He certainly fulfilled his ambition to bring opera to new audiences and they rewarded him for it.”