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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

(continued from page 3)

"The Hungarian said, 'Promise me you'll try smoking sometime.' I told him I couldn't possibly smoke because I was a singer. 'But you don't inhale a pipe,' he said. The first thing I did when I got off the train in Vienna was buy a pipe and some beautiful tobacco flavored with Cognac. I went to my hotel room and lit up. But [smoking a pipe] was a little complicated because you can't smoke at the table--it's too messy. So I thought I'd try cigars--there was less preparation and fuss. I've smoked them ever since."

While he may be consistent, he is not predictable. He tells of an episode that occurred in May 1987 while shooting a PBS special called "Pavarotti Returns To Naples." The show involved the tenor exploring various famous scenic locations in and around Naples. One scene put the big man in a small boat, rowing alone in the Bay of Naples while singing "O Sole Mio" (which he had pre-recorded). It was a key scene, meant to embody the quintessential image of Neapolitan song: the fisherman on the water making beautiful music, solo.

On the final day of shooting, Pavarotti had a bad knee. When the time came to shoot the rowboat scene, it was almost dusk and the air was "dangerously damp." With a concert scheduled the next day, he was not willing to risk getting sick and doing further damage to his knee by getting into the cramped boat. To accommodate the star, the director found a heavyset double who could do the distant shots in the Bay of Naples. He asked Pavarotti to get into the boat for one quick closeup. The singer refused, and there was a long, tense pause.

Suddenly, Pavarotti plunged into the boat, took a cigar out of his jacket pocket, lit up and told the director to dismiss the double, resolving to do the whole scene himself. "If I was going to take chances with my throat, I might as well have all my forbidden pleasures at the same time," he recalls. Another forbidden pleasure--food--was broken out at the big buffet celebration minutes after the scene was in the can.

There is no concealing the fact that eating is one of the tenor's principal pleasures. He also loves to cook. "I'm not a great cook," he maintains, with characteristic precision on the subject of greatness. Pavarotti is careful to distinguish between what is good and what is great. "Great" sopranos Mirella Freni and Joan Sutherland recall many a memorable pasta meal produced by the maestro in makeshift kitchens all over the world.

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."

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