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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 1)

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."

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