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On a High Note

Operatic supertenor Luciano Pavarotti enjoys a fine cigar.

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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."
One of the luckiest overtures made at Covent Garden was by Joan Sutherland and her husband, the conductor, Richard Bonynge. They were so taken with the tall 28-year-old tenor that they signed him immediately, two years in advance, for an Australian tour with a stop in Miami. The 1965 Miami stop was his U.S. debut. After that, he sang in San Francisco and Chicago. In the fall of 1968, he contracted a brutal case of the Hong Kong flu, and canceled out of a schedule of 10 New York performances of La Bohème halfway through the second night. Disappointed at having aborted his first New York Metropolitan Opera stint, he flew back to his home in Modena, Italy, and was sick in bed for almost three months.
In 1972, four years after the ill-fated Met debut, he dazzled the New York crowd, bringing it to its feet after his nine-high-C aria in a Met production of La Fille du Régiment. Since that night, the resounding triumphs have far outweighed the disappointments in Pavarotti's 36-year career.
"You can be disappointed by a friend, a woman, a political party, an organization. I have had all of these. But they have been few, and I have had so many other big things that I am a privileged person," the maestro says, exchanging the towel at his neck for the Hermès scarf. He covers his neck at all times, irrespective of the season, to protect his instrument.
"I know I am a privileged person," he continues. It is four days before his 61st birthday. "I have realized even more than I ever even dreamed of." Among his proudest accomplishments: the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, a competition of young opera singers he established in 1982 (he performs with the winners); a horse competition and concert he has done in Modena every year since 1990 called the Pavarotti International-CSIO San Marino; the Three Tenors concerts--he has done 14 to date and plans at least four more; the War Child foundation, which is expected to raise more than $4 million to build a children's music center in the war-torn Bosnian city of Mostar; and the concerts with pop stars such as Sting, Elton John, Liza Minelli, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Bono.
Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, a small city in northern Italy, on Oct. 12, 1935. From the start, cigars and food were connected in his life. His mother, Adele, worked long hours in a Toscano cigar factory and his father, Fernando, was a baker. (Both are "sensationally alive.") They lived in a 17-family apartment building on the outskirts of Modena. His grandmother, Nonna Giulia, took care of him.
Luciano's father, a "very fine" tenor with inconquerable stage fright, loved vocal music. At home he played records of the great tenors of the era--Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli. When he was five, Luciano would close the door to his room and sing "La Donna é Mobile" (the famous aria from Rigoletto) at the top of his lungs. That same year he plunked himself down in a child's chair in the courtyard of the apartment house, played a toy mandolin and sang full out for all the neighbors. They tossed candy and nuts in approval.
After that, approval was harder won, but it prevailed. He joined the Corale Rossini, the local opera chorus, of which his father was also a member. When the young Pavarotti was 19, the group went to Wales for an international choral competition and came back with first prize. Around the same time he began studying voice with Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor who lived in Modena. Pola gave the lessons gratis because he saw potential in Luciano and because the Pavarotti family didn't have the means to pay.
The aspiring tenor, svelte in those years, earned a living as an elementary school teacher (the profession his father chose for him) and then as an insurance salesman. He was so successful at selling insurance that he was offered a position managing a branch office in a nearby town. Urging him to take the job, his boss said, "As a singer you will undoubtedly die of starvation, while in insurance you will have bread for life." Pavarotti seems to have been destined for bread either way. He finally abandoned insurance because "all that speaking from my sales talks was damaging my voice. Talking can be harder on the voice than singing." He's still a good talker.
In 1961, at age 25, Pavarotti won the Achille Peri international singing competition. The prize was a chance to perform in a bona fide opera production. The date of that production was April 29, 1961, in the northern Italy city of Reggio Emilia. The opera was Puccini's La Bohème. "The best thing about winning that competition was proving to myself, more than anyone else, that I could perform an entire opera. It was not until that performance on that day in 1961 that I realized that I would really be an opera singer," he recalls 36 years later.
Rodolfo, the lovelorn Bohemian artist, has become his signature role, a favorite among the 30 he has sung. Even closer to his heart is the character of Nemorino in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore. "He [Nemorino] is a peasant-poet-dreamer, a bit nearer to my own personality," says Pavarotti. "Despite the fact that I was born under the [astrological] sign of Libra [balance], I am a person who calculates little and dreams a lot. With the grandissimi advantages and the grandissimi disadvantages. But, the advantages are 90 percent and the disadvantages, 10 percent. So it's worth living as a dreamer."
If Pavarotti is not calculating, his manager certainly is. Herb Breslin was an adman before managing Pavarotti, and Michael Walsh, Time magazine's former music critic, calls Breslin's methods "a bread-and-circuses approach to art." A virtuoso breadwinner and marketer, Breslin is credited with masterminding Pavarotti's one-man shows and "arena" concerts around the world. While Pavarotti relies on Breslin's ability to calculate, many attribute the singer's longevity to the fact that he has paced his own career, selective about when to sing which roles and careful never to push his voice--renowned for a pure, open quality that presents the words with clarity-- beyond its limit. He does push the Casanova envelope. Famous for being a flirt, he was once interviewed on television by Pia Lindstrom, Ingrid Bergman's daughter. She made some reference to a critic's comment that Pavarotti's vocal chords were kissed by God. "I think He kissed you all over," Pavarotti replied without missing a beat.
Just five months after that first performance of La Bohème in 1961, he got married. It wasn't exactly unexpected--he and Adua Veroni had been engaged for eight years. Within six years they had three daughters: Lorenza (now 34), Cristina (32) and Giuliana (30). Adua, originally a school teacher from Modena, eventually started an agency for young singers called Stage Door Opera Management, with which she is no longer connected. She was involved with her husband's career until 1996, when they separated.
There had been scores of rumors over the years. Often seen with other women, the tenor had remained a family man, at least on the record. Last year when he left Adua after 35 years of marriage, it was for his secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani. Also from Modena, she is 34 years his junior. The press, particularly in Italy, has lambasted him for it. For his part, Pavarotti has said little about the issue, simply stating that he is in love. Famously protective of his privacy, Pavarotti politely dismisses the issue when I try to get him to elaborate.
In his second autobiography, Pavarotti: My World (written with William Wright, Crown 1995), Pavarotti wrote, "I love Ballo [Un Ballo in Maschera--The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera] for many reasons.... The tenor character, Riccardo, is a good man who is deeply in love with his friend's wife. I sympathize with him, not because I have ever been in love with a friend's wife, thank God, but because I know how powerful love can be and how it can make a man do things that he knows are wrong." Perhaps that is one of the disadvantages of being a dreamer.
"I care a lot about the people in my life--the ones who were my friends even before I started to sing, and have remained close all these years," says Pavarotti. "These are the friends in whom I have no doubt, whereas I might have doubts about the friends who have approached me since I've become a singer." Although he is one of the most outgoing, visible singers alive, he values his privacy. His greatest fear has always been "some-thing happening to the people that I love. And there are a lot of people that I love."
He's also loyal to Villigers, the Swiss cigars he's been smoking since he bought them on a whim at a London airport about 20 years ago. He turns to the humidor behind his desk, opens it and pulls out a Villiger. "These are my cigars--very simple. Gentle and dry, they are perfect for me, because they are just the right length and not too heavy for my delicate throat."
His cigars are the only small-scale component about the larger-than-life star. The big man has huge appetites for big audiences, big houses, big cars, big meals and big deals. He is big box-office fodder and makes big bucks.
He's been known to smoke a big Cuban cigar or two. At a New York Metropolitan Opera gala celebrating the opening of the '93-'94 season, Pavarotti sang Otello and Domingo sang Act I of Valkyrie. At the party afterwards, the renowned tenor José Carreras made a surprise appearance. In his pockets were Cohibas for all three tenors. "We had a big smoke on the Grand Tier!" exclaims Joseph Volpe, the general director of the Met, who is an aficionado of Cohiba Esplendidos and Partagas.
Pavarotti likes to smoke in the summer, during his annual August vacation at his sprawling beach house in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic Sea. "After a meal, a cigar relaxes me. And, I like the smell," he says, dragging out the word "smell" as he might sustain a high note.
The smell was what got him started, but it was from a pipe rather than a cigar. "In 1962, in the second year of my career, I had just finished performing in Budapest, where I boarded a train for Vienna. I was to sing there next. I was seated alone in a compartment. At the second stop, a well-dressed man got on and entered my compartment. He had two pieces of luggage: a large one and a small 24-hour bag. He sat down, opened the small one and asked if I'd mind if he smoked a pipe. 'Well, I am a singer,' I protested. 'I just finished singing and I'm going to Vienna to sing the day after tomorrow.' He got up to change compartments, but I asked him to stay, because there was something very charming about him. After a while he asked if I'd like to see the pipe. He opened the smaller bag and it was full of 10 or 12 different pipes. The smell was wonderful. He was going to Vienna for a pipe competition. They give you a quantity of tobacco, and the longer you can keep it lit, the better. Very, very interesting," says Pavarotti, who is fascinated with competitions and endowed with a propensity for winning them.
"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.
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