On a High Note
Operatic supertenor Luciano Pavarotti enjoys a fine cigar.
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During the Metropolitan Opera season Pavarotti tends to cook at home and relax at meals with his immediate entourage, so on this fall day in New York there is a large rectangular table and four chairs set up in the living room. On the wall behind the table hangs a predominantly green painting of a big river surrounded by trees. It is the Secchia River, which flows through Modena. Painted by a Modenese artist named Venturelli, Pavarotti commissioned the picture in 1986 so he could have a view of Modena from New York.
Renowned for its balsamic vinegar and its famous tenor, Modena is in Emilia Romagna, the region considered to be the gastronomic heart of Italy (it includes the city of Parma, known for its cheese and prosciutto). The regional style of cooking is hearty, heavy on the cheese, meat and cream sauces.
Alternatively, Tuscan cuisine, another Pavarotti favorite, uses olive oil as the basis for almost everything. "Olive oil is so incredibly healthy--as a digestive," he says, sitting at his desk and munching on a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie. "I love it and I use it despite the fact that it's the most caloric thing in the world!" He has five bottles in his New York kitchen: Monini, Colavita, Badia a Coltibuono, Bertolli and a tall, slender bottle of Ferragamo (a limited-production oil made in the Florentine hills by the fashion family). Monini is his favorite "because it has more taste and texture." With the exception of the Ferragamo bottle, a gift from his friend Wanda Ferragamo, the other oils are rather common and accessible.
This is not surprising, for Pavarotti has remained true to his small-town roots, generally opting for "taste and texture" over quiet refinement. "I am not a boiled potato--I am a fried potato," he says, staccato, for emphasis. Maybe he means he's more snap-crackle-pop than mellow yellow. His daring is visible in his colorful wardrobe of loud printed shirts and scarves.
It is evident in his wine preferences as well. Although he is a "Brunelistà" (appassionato of Brunello di Montalcino, especially vintage 1990), he tends to drink lambrusco. Regarded by some as the "poor relation" of Italian red wines, Pavarotti likes its lack of snob appeal. He maintains that at a dinner party, if there are 50 wines from which to choose, lambrusco is always the first to go. "My wine [lambrusco] is a very wild, unrefined sparkling wine, the only red that must go in the refrigerator. It is a fragile wine, extremely sensitive to atmospheric changes, so it doesn't travel or age very well."
"There are two ways to get a good lambrusco. You can make it at home, which I did for many years with my grandfather. We bought the grapes, using some from here and some from there, and then I squeezed them with my feet. But because it is so fragile, it is difficult to do it well," he says. About 25 years ago he bought a vineyard in Modena, but sold it shortly thereafter. "Wine must be made by people who know how to make it. Like the opera must be done by people who know how to sing," the tenor says.
Hence the second, and Pavarotti's preferred way to get a good lambrusco, is through one of the local cooperatives. "If you are a member of an organization of local wine producers, you can buy some of their limited-production wines. I'm not a member anymore, but I get them through a friend who is," he says. "I've been buying the same lambrusco from Correggio [a town between Reggio-Emilia and Modena] since 1965."
Other passions have been soccer, horses and tennis. Knee and ankle injuries preclude Pavarotti from playing sports anymore, so these days he has begun practicing yoga. For a brief time in the '70s, painting was a very powerful passion. "One night in 1978 I was dreaming about color. I woke up at four in the morning and painted until three in the afternoon, when the painting was finished. This was really a rapture," he says, pointing to a picture hanging over the fireplace in his New York living room. It is a bright-colored rendition of a fishing village, Portofino, in winter. There are no people, just beached boats, buildings, a cupola and a multihued blue sky that fills most of the canvas. The style is naïf. "That is who I am [naïf]," Pavarotti says. "I did about 38 acrylic paintings in the space of five months, mostly in hotel rooms. And then I stopped." The painting is signed "Lupa" (the first two letters of his first and last name), which also means "she-wolf" in Italian.
It is appropriate that his initials are LP, as in Long Playing. He has made more than 90 records, five of them Grammy winners. Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti (Decca), recorded live at the first Three Tenors concert at Rome's Baths of Caracalla in July 1990, has become the best-selling classical album of all time. The telecasts and TV specials are too numerous to count. He's made a movie and given his name to a fragrance. On Forbes magazine's most recent annual "Top 40" highest paid entertainers list, Pavarotti placed 28th, with an estimated total gross earnings (before taxes) of $25 million in 1996. These are no small potatoes. Forbes described him as "without a doubt the world's most marketable voice."
"I don't classify myself--I let the others do that," says the singer. "If you sing all the roles put in front of you, you are a tenor [as compared to a lyric tenor or a light lyric tenor]. Punto [period]. If you are also an actor, or a good driver of your voice, if you have personality and a stage presence, personality in life, you become something more than a tenor, more than just a voice."
Indeed, Pavarotti has been labeled a "phenomenon." "Popera" is the term coined by Forbes to describe the mass popularization of opera for which he is almost singlehandedly responsible. Thanks to his rendition of the Turandot aria, "Nessun Dorma," he has become the "O Sole Mio" of opera. "I want to bring people good music and make them happy," he says, chomping on a thick grissino. "Music, like sport, should be for everybody."
One fifth of the world's population is a good beginning. The July 1994 Three Tenors "Encore!" concert was broadcast live from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to about 1.2 billion people in some 107 countries. The 1996-'97 World Tour consisted of 12 shows (each tenor is said to pocket more than $1 million per concert, before royalties), spanned four continents and played to 650,000 people. The question, among critics, is to what extent music, and opera in particular, should be like sport.
Pavarotti, who captivates crowds with his ability to hit the high notes, has compared the "business of top notes for a tenor" to a bullfight. "You are not allowed one mistake," he writes with William Wright in his first autobiography, Pavarotti: My Own Story (Doubleday, 1981). "I suppose there is something undeniably exciting about a grown man singing full out those difficult, unnatural high Cs. It creates a wild, almost animal excitement."
On the evening of July 20, 1996, at New Jersey's Giants Stadium (77,716 capacity), the pre-concert excitement for another Three Tenors performance was reminiscent of the anticipation before a football game. In the stadium parking lot, people began picnicking at 5 p.m., four hours before the concert's scheduled start time. Putting a new spin on tailgating, stretch limousines parked alongside the tables-for-12 they'd brought, covered with linen tablecloths, silver, china and crystal. Typical of the fans' fare: grilled filet mignon and lobster salad, washed down with Taittinger on ice.
The night sky, notably devoid of stars, was also devoid of noise, a result of the concert organizers' successful diversion of all normal air traffic during the concert, establishing it as a "no-fly" zone. Down on the 21,600-square-foot megastage, Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti each warmed up the crowd with a solo. After each tenor performed, he exited the stage as the next singer entered. They met on the edge and gave each other a high-five, like triumphant teammates. "We are friends and we admire each other," Pavarotti insists. "I'm sorry if people are disappointed by that."
At the half, you could buy a Three Tenors silk scarf for $40, a watch for $65, a baseball cap for $25 or a glossy program for $15. You could nibble on Hebrew National hot dogs and popcorn and sip Budweiser. The Three Tenors package seems strangely reflective of the wide-ranging preferences of Pavarotti himself.
"My goal is to sing until 2001, to complete 40 years in the profession," he says, sipping cold mineral water with lemon. In 2001, he will be 65. "I want to do about three or four new roles, but only ones that make sense for me. An opera that is new for the theater, and therefore new for the audience--like the Fedora production at the Met--would be interesting for me to do. Otherwise, to do an opera not new for the audience but new for me would put me at a disadvantage, and I don't like that," he says with a sigh.
Much has been said about his aging, darkening voice. In 1992, he got caught lip-synching at an outdoor multi-artist pop concert in Modena, and a few months later was booed when his voice cracked at an opening-night performance at Milan's La Scala. He hasn't sung there since. "One time he cracked, but hundreds of other nights he has sung in a truly divine manner," opines a Milanese La Scala subscriber.
"I am a workaholic now," says Pavarotti. "Since one of my best friends died a few years ago, I have become more professional. He was a cousin of my wife's, and he always told me to focus more on being professional. He told me I would find an incredible pleasure, and he was right--I have." Despite harsh criticism to the contrary, and accusations that he is "squandering his talent," those close to the tenor attest to his hard work ethic.
Pavarotti is booked through 2000. Scheduled for this year: four Three Tenors concerts in Europe (one was scheduled for Modena on June 17, a benefit concert to raise funds to rebuild La Fenice, Venice's landmark opera house that burned in 1996), performances of Turandot and L'Elisir d'Amore during the Metropolitan Opera's 1997-'98 season, L'Elisir at the San Carlo Opera in Naples, a huge special for television and a possible deal with Disney. This is an ample workload for a tenor of any age.
There is also teaching, and the competition for young singers he sponsors in Philadelphia, for which he hears 2,000 singers every three years. "I initiated this competition because winning a competition changed my life, so I know how valuable this can be for new singers," he says. "I find myself so patient with these kids. I will do anything for a singer if I feel there is material to work with."
A few nights later in his dressing room backstage at the Met, after a performance of Andrea Chenier, there is the usual long line of starstruck well-wishers. Pavarotti sits on a stool in the center of the small room. Still in makeup, he wears knickers (the bottom half of his costume), a red shirt and an oversized printed shawl.
A young man dressed in a suit waits patiently until it is his turn to shake the big man's hand. He mumbles something and Pavarotti smiles. The man moves away, and suddenly Pavarotti bellows, "Oh, yes. I remember your voice very well. I remember what you sang for me. Where are you singing now?" The young man, flattered at having been recognized by the star, tells him. As Pavarotti continues to autograph programs and shake fans' hands, smiling his big, toothy smile, he gives the young tenor a word of encouragement: "That's good--at least you're working. Keep it up. Don't give up, it will come."
One of the most important moments in Pavarotti's life occurred when he was 12. The great tenor Beniamino Gigli, 57 years old at the time, was "vocalizing" on the stage in Modena. "I was watching from below," Luciano recalls, "and when he came down into the audience, I said, 'I, a contralto now, want to become a tenor. What do you, as a tenor, think my chances are?'
'Certainly if you are a contralto, you will become a tenor,' Gigli responded. And then I asked, 'How long did you have to study?' And he told me, 'My child, I just finished five minutes ago.' He meant, clearly, if you intend to follow this profession, you will have to study always, until you don't sing anymore. But I think I will continue to study, even when I stop singing in public."
Nancy Wolfson is a New York-based writer.