“Almost Famous”: THE THREE TENORS at San Francisco Opera 1967-1981

The Wall Street Journal published an unflattering essay (“A Hissy Fit Too Far”) about tenor Roberto Alagna’s recent unsuccessful appearance as Radames in La Scala’s Franco Zeffirelli production of Verdi’s “Aida”.

The article, under the byline of Ian Brunskill, obituaries editor(!) of the Times of London, held forth the proposition that Alagna has been promoted by his handlers as the “fourth tenor”, attempting to build on the cross-over commercial success that THE THREE TENORS (Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras) achieved towards the end of successful operatic careers, but without Alagna, it is inferred, having paid his dues.

This omission, Brunskill rather explicitly argues, is evidence of a general decline in the relevance of opera as a performing art. Obviously, Brunskill has a point of view, which I suspect, differs from my own perceptions of the current operatic scene.

As of the present time, I have never seen Mr Alagna in live performance and defer any judgment at all on him until that happens (and, of course, I can never experience a youthful Alagna during the time he was – or was not – paying his dues).

However, I have spent a lot of time between 1967 and as recently as last October attending performances by Pavarotti or Carreras or Domingo, mostly in San Francisco, but also in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, so I do feel that I have a point of reference from which to consider these arguments.

What was it like to see these tenors when they were merely “almost famous” (to use the popular book and movie title originated by Cameron Crowe about his experiences as a youthful journalist on tour with the rock band he referred to as Stillwater) at least when compared to the later THREE TENORS roadshow?

Well, for one thing, during the regime of San Francisco Opera’s Kurt Herbert Adler, one or more of them performed virtually every season between 1967 and 1981.

Adler was famous for having a keen eye for upcoming operatic talent, and for providing an environment that was favorable for major voices in early or mid-career – offering them new roles and new productions, and assembling major talents to assist artists in their musical development.

San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s was a “cool” place for major singers to be, whether they were almost famous rock stars or the greatest tenor voices of the latter half of the 20th century.

[Below: Placido Domingo as the blinded Samson, about to pull down pillars that will destroy the temple of Dagon in the 1980 Nicolas Joel production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”; edited image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Robert showed me a picture, that I believe he took personally, either during the 1975 or 1978 S. F. Opera season.  The picture was of a couch in the War Memorial Opera House’s green room.  Sitting on the couch were Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo and Giacomo Aragall.

1975 and 1978 were the two years that the four tenors all were present at the San Francisco Opera. 1975 was the season where the performance schedules of all four tenors overlapped. On the other hand, 1978 was a season in which Robert was engaged in much of his photographic work for the San Francisco Opera.

Pavarotti had opened the 1975 season with Joan Sutherland, Elena Obratsova and Ingvar Wixell in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and was still performing his series of Manricos in that opera.  Carreras was performing Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”.

Aragall (whom I think would have made a great fourth tenor) was performing the title role in a new production of Massenet’s Werther”and Domingo had arrived to rehearse a new production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”.

If the year were 1975, my suspicion is that the foursome posed for the camera sometime prior to Pavarotti’s last Manrico on October 3rd, since star tenors are not noted for staying around an opera house after all of their performances have been completed.

In the 1978 season, Domingo opened the season (September 8) in a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Verdi’s “Otello” which ran through September 30. Pavarotti appeared in Ponnelle’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca” from October 14 through October 29. Carreras appeared in Massenet’s “Werther” from October 18 through November 5. Aragall performed in a Ponnelle production, new to San Francisco, of Puccini’s “La Boheme” from November 1 through November 26.

[Below: the cast of the San Francisco Opera’s 1978 performances of the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”, with, seated from left to right, Giacomo Aragall as Rodolofo, Ileana Cotrubas as Mimi, Samuel Ramey as Colline and Dale Duesing as Schaunard. Standing behind Aragall is Brent Ellis as Marcello; edited image, based on a Robert Messick photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


This was the era of Kurt Herbert Adler, who, as noted above, had a impressive record for inviting future stars to San Francisco early in their operatic careers.  Pavarotti had debuted at the San Francisco Opera in 1967, within a few days of his 32nd birthday, six years after his first operatic performances in Italy.

Domingo first sang in San Francisco in 1969, in “La Boheme” at age 28 (in end of the season “second cast” performances of La Boheme, which Pavarotti and Dorothy Kirsten had sung a few weeks earlier).

Carreras first sang there in 1973 (with Teresa Stratas), like Luciano and Placido, also debuting in “La Boheme”, he at age 27. The recently installed current General Director, David Gockley, has publicly made reference to the Adler era as a time of greatness for the San Francisco Opera, and the model for his planned renaissance for the opera company.

[Below: Jose Carerras as Werther in San Francisco Opera’s 1978 performances of Massenet’s “Werther”; edited image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Reading Brunskill’s reference to the pre-megastar careers of THE THREE TENORS, and noting Gockley’s references to an Adlerian Golden Age, I thought it might be interesting to see if there might be a correlation between each of THE THREE TENORS appearances in San Francisco and the Adlerian regime.

Although I think I knew the answer instinctively, I was actually a bit surprised by the actual statistics.  In fact, Pavarotti appeared at San Francisco 79 times in operatic performance, 71 of which were in the Adler period.

Domingo appeared in 76 operatic performances on 70 evenings (on six nights he performed both Turiddu in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Canio in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”, of which 66 and 60 respectively were in the Adler regime.

Carreras appeared in 23 performances, all of which were during Adler’s time. (Throughout all of the years each appeared at S. F. Opera, I saw 20 of the Pavarotti performances, 19 of the Domingo roles and 17 of the Domingo performance nights, and 6 of the Carreras performances, which is roughly a fourth of each of these artists appearances.)

Therefore, regular S.F. Opera attendees around the 1970s had a good chance of seeing each of THE THREE TENORS in many different roles.  In fact, I saw Pavarotti and Carreras in each of the roles they performed in San Francisco, and Domingo in every scheduled role except his late 1969 season Thanksgiving appearance with Lucine Amara in “La Boheme”.

(After all, I had just seen the stupendous pairing of Pavarotti and Dorothy Kirsten in that opera earlier that season.) Domingo made an unscheduled appearance in 1971 as Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, substituting for an indisposed James King, but King recovered for a later performance I attended.

There is no question that Adler pulled out all stops to provide great opportunities for the threesome.

He staged a series of productions introducing Pavarotti to new roles, including Riccardo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (1971), Fernando in Donizetti’s “La Favorita” (new production, 1973), Rodolfo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” (1974), Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (1975), Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot”, in a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production new to San Francisco (1977), Enzo in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” (new production, 1979, telecast on PBS) and Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” (new production, recorded for European television and  currently available on DVD).

Domingo in 1972 introduced a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini’s “Tosca”, and in the same year was Vasco da Gama in a new production of Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”, revived for Domingo 16 years later for a telecast currently available on DVD.

(Parenthetically, 12 of Domingo’s 70 performance dates in San Francisco were as Vasco da Gama.  No other role comes close in number of performances.)

There were other new productions for Domingo: 1976, as Turiddu in a new Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” on a double bill with Domingo’s Canio in Ponnelle’s production of Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”.

He revived Ponnelle’s concept of Verdi’s “Otello” in 1978, introduced his Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” in the Harold Prince production of 1979, owned by the Chicago Lyric Opera.  In 1980, he was Samson in a new production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”, that was telecast for PBS and is currently available on DVD.

Carreras, with far fewer performances at San Francisco than his two illustrious tenor colleagues, still was awarded a major new production in 1977 of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”.

Even though the title of this commentary makes reference to Cameron Crowe’s adventures with the Stillwater rock band, it truly is a stretch in Brunskill’s hissy fit about Alagna, to suggest that Pavarotti and Domingo were somehow not really famous before they joined THE THREE TENORS.

Even in the 1970s, they were superstars, generating all sorts of buzz – front-page news stories, magazine covers, and sold out performances (in the case of Pavarotti, even parodies in cartoons and television shows).

[Below: Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe rehearse on the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle sets for the San Francisco Opera 1978 performances of Puccini’s “Tosca”; edited image, based on an Ira Nowinski photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


At that time, Carreras was a well-regarded, popular tenor of the first rank, and the only one of the three that could truly be called just “almost famous” as opposed to being a megastar. But it was what happened to Carreras nine years after that determined that these three popular operatic personalities would be transformed into THE THREE TENORS.

Carreras, as we all know, was diagnosed with a leukemia thought so lethal that it is reported that some doctors gave him a 90% chance of succumbing to it.

He beat it, and created an international foundation for leukemia treatment and research.  He invited his famous colleagues to join him in some concerts that caught the world’s fancy and the idea of THE THREE TENORS was born.

As Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” saith – “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”. Here were three consummate artists, all of whom had achieved greatness, that had a mega-stardom beyond their previous greatness, thrust upon them.

This is an event that could not have been planned and cannot be replicated. It is irrelevant whether anyone wished Alagna could be as famous, and it would not have mattered if he is impossibly temperamental or the sweetest of pushovers, nor whether he sang this role or that at whatever time.

No one could have prepared to be THE THREE TENORS, not even Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. But it does not mean that greatness cannot still be achieved in the performance of opera.

Gockley in San Francisco should be able to recreate most elements of the Adlerian style – dignified productions not designed to demean the operas being performed, stagecraft and costumes meant to enhance the audience’s enjoyment of the work and the singers’ comfort in a role, opportunities for an excellent voice to be challenged by roles in and out of the standard repertoire that are appropriate to that singer.