Thursday, November 18, 2004

The immortal genius of Luciano Pavarotti

Luciano Pavarotti has redefined what it means to be a tenor. Gifted with a fabulously large yet wonderfully beautiful voice, Pavarotti sang for 40 years. Critics have hailed him as one of the greatest tenors of all time. He certainly has earned a place among the legends such as Caruso. Pavarotti has not only attained immortality in the opera world, but he also has brought opera to the masses. By collaborating with artists such as Whitney Houston and Sting, Pavarotti has helped reach listeners normally devoted to pop music. This has greatly contributed to the success of such cross-over artists as Josh Groban, Charlotte Church, and Andrea Bocelli. Before Pavarotti, opera singers felt that pop music was beneath them.
Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy in 1935. At a very young age, Pavarotti began singing in choruses with his father Fernando, who was also an operatic tenor. These choral experiences fired his desire to become a singer, and he began to train as a tenor under the tutelage of Arrigo Pola and later Ettore Campogalliani. Originally he trained to be a teacher, but that changed when he won the Concorso Internazionale competition in 1961. From there, Pavarotti went on to his operatic debut at the Theater of Reggio Emilia that same year in the role of Rodolfo in La Boheme. Following this performance, he sang at most of the houses throughout Italy, and within a few short years, he had went on to achieve immortal fame. In fact, he even holds the world record for the longest curtain call ever, and he has released recordings representing almost every phase of his career.
In this biography, I will focus on Pavarotti’s contributions to the world of singing and his own personal insights into the fine art of singing opera. Like all singers Pavarotti had many difficult barriers to scale while attempting to break into the professional opera world. He lost numerous competitions and was turned down at every audition. Italy is a country that has a high concentration of talented singers, so Pavarotti essentially was in the most competitive area of the world when it came to singing opera.
Secondly, Pavarotti himself stated that he studied voice for six years seriously, and that during that time he struggled with many of the same pit-falls that affect all voice students. He especially noted his difficulty with learning to negotiate the passagio or the breaks in the voice. He said that the breaks must become like “the automatic transmission of a Cadillac.” Secondly, he also talked of the discouraging losses he experienced at vocal competitions. He actually considered giving up his dream at one point and simply becoming a real-estate salesman. However, luckily for us, he went on to win that one key vocal competition and from there his career was launched within an incredibly short period of time.
Pavarotti gave wonderful advice to would be singers in his book. He discussed never giving up and truly working hard. Also, he pointed out that opera is not for those who are not willing to suffer for their art initially. Secondly, he encouraged young singers to stay in shape so they could increase their chances of being cast, since especially today, opera directors more and more prefer to cast the thin or athletic singer. Qualities he said were important for a singer to have were a willingness to work with others, humility, belief in one’s own talents, genuine emotional engagement, and connection to audience members.
Pavarotti was able to sing a vast range of operas during his long career including everything from some Mozart and Rossini all the way to the very dramatic Puccini and Verdi roles. Perhaps his ability to negotiate these vastly contrasting styles was what made him so famous. Pavarotti began his career with lyric favorites such as Rodolfo (La Boheme) and Nemorino (L’Elisir D’amore). However, he quickly moved into some Spinto repertoire such as Mario (Tosca) and even Prince Calaf (Turandot). In fact, Calaf’s famous aria “Nessun Dorma” became one of his calling cards. Throughout his career, Pavarotti strived to maintain the light, brilliant lyric quality of his voice. He never pushed his voice for more dramatic power than it was able to give, and although he possesses a large instrument Pavarotti’s voice is still essentially lyric. He maintained that even the role of Calaf was too heavy for his voice.
His voice itself follows the traditional Bel Canto teachings of producing effortless high notes and legato lines. Unusual is the brilliance and piercing nature of his voice that perhaps help it to have its enormous size. Pavarotti definitely has a bright instrument, but not to the point of being strident. His technique is highly polished, and many will claim close to perfect. He became famous for his effortless high Cs and Ds. In fact, he performed La Fille du Regiment including Tonio’s aria with nine high Cs without any cuts and without any bugs in the final performance. At the same time Pavarotti was able to hold his own in Spinto to almost Dramatic roles. He lent power to the Verdi and Puccini heroes.
In his career Pavarotti performed all over the world and at almost every big house among them the Metropolitan Opera, the Glynebourne opera, the Bastille, La Scala, Covent Garden, and The Vienna staatsoper. Somehow, he managed to always maintain freedom no matter what climate he sang in, or how difficult the role. Pavarotti always approached each role the same way, and often shipped in his old voice teacher to help him perfect a new role. In my opinion because he never stopped learning, Pavarotti was able to solidify every role and achieve consistency in every role he sang. His voice did not even begin to show wear until he was in his 60s which is also a testament to his technique.
Pavarotti has also taken opera to new audiences like no singer has ever done. Through his collaboration with Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo to form the Three Tenors, he was able to reach stadiums full of eager listeners, not to mention those who watched from their home televisions. Pavarotti also possesses an amazing ability to talk to people and win listeners over with his confident yet charming personality. Some attribute his huge popularity as much to his charismatic personality as to golden voice. In an age where classical music has been said to be dying, this legacy left to the opera world was priceless. He brought countless new people, uncultured in the ways of opera, into the classical fold. Also, he helped bridge the traditional gap between Pop performers and classical singers. Another contribution worthy of note, are the vocal competitions that he has sponsored to find the future opera talent in the upcoming generations.
In conclusion no singer in this century has done more than Pavarotti in giving back to the art form of Opera. He took opera to millions of new listeners and he helped to nurture upcoming stars. Pavarotti will go down in history as probably not only the most famous tenor, but also as the most widely known singer. Even non-opera people have heard the name Pavarotti. Although many singers criticize him for singing such a dangerously wide range of repertoire and for his lack of acting ability at times, I feel that Pavarotti still deserves the respect of all singers.

L. Pavarotti: My Own Story (London, 1981)