Luciano Pavarotti: The Four or So Phenomena

This website has memorialized the great opera stars of the past half century through pages of content on 1) their contributions to the history of opera performance and 2) the assessment of performances seen by myself and guest reviewers.

This website has not attempted to post obituary pages, per se, even though some of those stars that the website content pages repeatedly identify as so important to the past six decades of opera performance – including such incomparable artists as Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Regine Crespin, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Beverly Sills – have passed on in the 22 months since this website first appeared.

But, in addition to opera history and performance reviews, this website comments from time to time on operatic phenomena. The passing of Pavarotti has been marked internationally with a collective grief that transcends the sadness that so many of us felt at the deaths of the other stars.

The word phenomenon quite appropriately comes to mind when assessing Pavarotti’s life and artistry. Even so, that word may be too limiting, in that our use of the word seems to imply that there is one phenomenal attribute of a person that is so remarkable that the word “extraordinary” is insufficient. Of course, we could invent a word like “ultra-phenomenal”, but I doubt that that would convey any sentiments other than “this guy was a really, really big deal”.

A more useful construct, I believe, is to think of Pavarotti’s career as a cluster of phenomena, each of which may, and I would argue should, be considered separately. This might be helpful to those persons tasked with writing articles on which tenor is to inherit the Pavarotti mantle. Here is a list of four such phenomena that I would propose for consideration, each of which can be described separately from the others. Others may regard this as not quite an exhaustive list:

1) Pavarotti as the consummate artist and musician and exemplary performer of the great tenor roles of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bellini and other composers of opera.

2) Pavarotti as the opera super-star.

3) Pavarotti as the international media celebrity.

4) Pavarotti as one of THE THREE TENORS.

I read with interest a conjectural article in the Wall Street Journal by Lauren A. E. Shuker, entitled “Who WIll Become Opera’s New Top Tenor?” that suggested that 48-year old Andrea Bocelli might be in line for the “top tenor” honor because Pavarotti was already age 54 when he first performed as one of the THE THREE TENORS. This website has already made the argument that, no matter what anyone might wish, the confluence of forces that produced THE THREE TENORS is unlikely ever to re-emerge. The web-page that contains that argument can be accessed by the hyperlink cited below.

(By the way, Correspondent Shuker, how does one become invested with the title of “top tenor”? If one retains it until one’s death, like the papacy, why would not Placido Domingo, whose performances are still both frequent and peerless, now assume that mantle?)

The other three types of phenomena are more of this world. We will likely always have international media celebrities, although the number of opera stars ever to achieve recognition in such a category is likely always to be quite small. Somehow it seemed absolutely natural that Pavarotti would be there at Princess Diana’s funeral, hobnobbing with Sir Elton John and Tom Cruise, and welcomed unreservedly into the highest pantheon of celebrity. When whatever process the WSJ’s Shuker imagines will be followed to ordain the next “top tenor” it is unlikely in itself to assure the winner access to that pinnacle.

Pavarotti by the late 1960s had been recognized as a opera super-star, joining such talents as Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price (within a year or two Placido Domingo also) and a few others as someone that sold out opera houses, and helped the bottom line of the classical music divisions of record companies.

Aficionados of opera will understand why I have separate terms for “consummate artist and musician and exemplary performer” and “opera super-star”. As my articles on the performance history of bel canto opera in San Francisco continue, the musicianship that Pavarotti brought to the operas of Donizetti (and, in other opera houses, to Bellini operas) converted many a skeptic of whether these operas deserved to be revived.

His bel canto, Verdi and Puccini performances of the 1960s and early 1970s were not “star turns” – they were transformative experiences, made all the more significant by the presence of legendary colleagues such as Dame Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni, Montserrat Caballe, Dorothy Kirsten, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Margherita Rinaldi.

These pages will return to those transformative experiences often in the future.

For the remarks on THE THREE TENORS phenomenon, see: “Almost Famous”: THE THREE TENORS at San Francisco Opera 1967-1981