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On a High Note

Operatic supertenor Luciano Pavarotti enjoys a fine cigar.
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

The rain beats relentlessly and the wind howls on a nasty autumn afternoon in New York. Luciano Pavarotti, a self-described homebody, is not home. A few hours ago, he went to visit a friend in the hospital.

Pavarotti's secretary, Nicoletta, becomes concerned about his uncommonly long absence. She phones his driver. No one answers. Nicoletta summons Veronica, the opera singer's full-time masseuse, who is ensconced in the adjacent apartment. They compare agendas: both have the same cell phone number for the driver. Nicoletta redials, and again no one picks up. We are in Pavarotti's Central Park South apartment, huddled around his desk.

The desk is in a catercornered position at one end of a large, light living room with views of Central Park. A cluttered shelf behind the desk holds a small wooden humidor and plastic Groucho Marx glasses. On the wall above it hangs a photograph of Giacomo Puccini, composer of La Bohème, the first opera Pavarotti ever performed on stage, and, next to it, a portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, the composer of Rigoletto, the second opera Pavarotti did. There is also a photograph of Caruso, the original supertenor (who was the highest paid performer in the world when he died in 1921), and a small note, handwritten in Italian, which says, "With a most sincere wish for a big, big success. Affectionately, Enrico Caruso." (Caruso died 14 years before Pavarotti was born--the note was written to a former director of the Metropolitan Opera and willed to Pavarotti by the former editor of Opera News.)

In front of the desk is a black Baldwin grand piano. It is covered with snapshots of Pavarotti posing with: Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Gerald and Betty Ford, Bob Hope, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, Herb Breslin (his manager of 30 years) and his parents. The largest, not-yet-framed photo on the piano is a recent one of the 61-year-old singer embracing his 27-year-old secretary, Nicoletta, her head resting on his shoulder. Even though he is not here, his larger-than-life presence permeates the place.

The telephone rings, and it is Pavarotti, calling from the car. "I am underwater," he says, exaggerating slightly. "There is wind, rain, even ice water, and is incredible. We are only five blocks from home but it may take a half hour to get there."

Ten minutes later Pavarotti enters with his personal assistant, Tino, whom he affectionately calls "Ciccio," in tow. The tenor's brow is wet, as it often is, this time either from the rain, the exertion or a combination of the two. He wears white jeans and a cotton-candy-pink shirt, unbuttoned at the top. (All of his shirts must be custom-made to fit his circa 300-pound frame.) He replaces the pink, yellow and green Hermès silk scarf wrapped around his neck with a white cotton towel, which he uses to mop his brow.

Taking his place behind the desk, Pavarotti asks Nicoletta, whose lips are tinted a shade darker than his shirt, to bring some water and a grissino (bread stick). Last night he performed Andrea Chenier on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and tonight he is scheduled to fill a seat in the audience, for fellow tenor Placido Domingo's performance of Fedora, a lesser-known opera written by Umberto Giordano, the composer of Chenier. Due to the weather, he calls to cancel.

"Buon ora," (his own variation on "good afternoon") he says, the accent on the upbeat, to Herb Breslin. "I don't think I go out tonight--the weather is terrible. We will try another night. With better weather. I would really like to see it because I have never seen Fedora--can you believe that? Please call them and let them know. Thank you."

Bowing out seems rather painless for Pavarotti, who has been criticized for canceling many a scheduled performance (as well as interviews, photo shoots and other appearances). The performance cancellations are almost always due to feeble health or, more specifically, ailing vocal chords.

It was another tenor's cancellation (Giuseppe di Stefano's) that gave Pavarotti one of the early breaks in his career: the opportunity to fill in for di Stefano as Rodolfo in La Bohème at London's Covent Garden Royal Opera in 1963. He ended up doing almost the whole run, and the Royal Opera staff nicknamed him "Lucky."

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