It would be difficult to imagine a celebrity in the last 100 years, larger in every way, than Luciano Pavarotti.
He ranks with Enrico Caruso as one of the two greatest tenors in opera history, famous for his brilliant and unmistakable voice but also for his voracious appetites, good works, and joie de vivre. Now, you can see, hear, and experience more of him, positive and negative, in a new documentary by Ron Howard. M and I saw it this weekend and have been all over YouTube, our CD collection, and PBS’ Great Performances listening to Nessun Dorma at the opening ceremony of the Torino Winter Olympics, watching an early film production of La Boheme and enjoying the relentlessly entertaining early Three Tenors concerts in Rome and Los Angeles.
With his over-the-top celebrity and blow-you-over pipes it is notable that Luciano Pavarotti was a genius, a flawed human being with a God-given gift, and one of the great philanthropists of the last 50 years. He willingly, joyfully, and generously shared himself and his gift with the world.
He married his wife, Adua, in Modena, when they were young, had three children in four years and then left to develop his gift. Over the years there were infidelities but they stayed married for 39 years. In 2003, three years after their divorce, he married his assistant, Nicoletta, 34 years his junior, with whom he already had a daughter. He died 4 years later, and after a contentious battle between Adua, the daughters, and Nicoletta, the estate was settled and the women have worked together since to protect the Pavarotti legacy.
In 1984 two American friends, living in London, asked me if I would be their guest to see and hear Pavarotti singing in Aida at Covent Garden. It was an amazing offer that included dinner at Annabel’s, the posh private club on Berkeley Square, and I remember it all in detail – the spectacle of the Egyptian court, hundreds of extras, elephants crossing the stage, and Luciano in the role of Rademes , followed by champagne and oysters at Annabel’s. Opera doesn’t get any bigger or better. I’m not very knowledgeable about opera but to have seen and heard Pavarotti in such a spectacular production is one of the artistic highlights of my life.
Superlatives don’t really do justice to the voice, the life and the generosity of Luciano Pavarotti. Even after his voice could no longer reach its famous high C, his reputation continued to grow. He was a dominating figure on the stage. He drew stadium-sized audiences, worked with Bono to assist the survivors of the Bosnian genocide, joined forces with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to celebrate Carreras return to the stage with the Three Tenors concerts following a bone marrow transplant at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The Three Tenors performed 34 funny, collaborative, and sensational benefit concerts as this clip of La Donna e Mobile from the 1994 Los Angeles concert shows:
Marilynn has a hazy recollection that on one of his visits to Seattle, either when Carreras was in treatment or when he was in town for a Key Arena performance in 1997, Pavarotti made a stop at Shorecrest High School where my three step-sons went to school. Ken Noreen, the school’s former music director, was well connected but no one seems to know how or who it was that was able to entice the great tenor to visit the school, if indeed he did visit, but that is Marilynn’s recollection. True or not, it’s just who Pavarotti was – always generous with his time and energy.
The other linking thread in the Pavarotti story is mortality. He was only 71 when pancreatic cancer took him from us, and though not fatal his second wife, Nicoletta, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and daughter Giuliana was beset with symptoms of myasthenia gravis, the same disease that forced me to quit flying. We are all mortal, but some live larger and leave a more indelible impression. I loved the Ron Howard film and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to revisit the extraordinary life, voice, and personality of Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest tenor of our time.
I took this photo of the Frecce Tricolori (Italian Air Force aerial demonstration team) in 2016 from the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. This is the same exact fly-over and tri-color streaming that took place at the funeral of Luciano Pavarotti.
Buon Viaggio, Luciano!