If toward the end he became almost a caricature of himself — expanding in girth, canceling performances, indulging his appetites, leaving his wife for a young secretary, earning barbs from critics for sometimes sloppy performances — there were solid reasons Luciano Pavarotti was the most celebrated opera singer since Caruso.
Pavarotti, who died last week at age 71, had charisma and personality, of course, but most of all it was that magnificent voice and the artistry with which he employed it that made him special.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell one good tenor from another. But within two or three notes, anybody who paid attention could tell Pavarotti from anybody else. The lower register had an unusual richness and even a darker timbre, which made the apparent effortlessness with which he nailed those ringing high Cs seem all the more amazing.
The voice itself was a gift, as was his innate talent. But as with most “overnight sensations,” Pavarotti’s success was hard-earned. He began studying voice seriously at 19 and it was repetition and work. As he wrote in his 1981 biography, “Pavarotti: My Story,” however,
“Many singers find studying voice — the solfeggio, the endless vocalizing, the exercises — very boring. I didn’t. I became intrigued with the entire process. I was interested from the detached point of view of an experimenter as well as from the point of view of one who stood to profit from the lessons’ progress.”
It was almost seven years of daily lessons and hours of practice (supporting himself by selling insurance) before he started getting paying engagements, then won a competition that launched a career in Italy’s secondary musical cities. A lot of effort goes into making it seem effortless.
So he enjoyed an international career, waved his scarves, showed magnetism on television, started selling out stadiums, even made a movie. Then came “The Three Tenors,” with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, and duets for charitable causes with pop stars that included Bono, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, James Brown, even the Spice Girls.
Pavarotti became a pop icon but with a solid foundation. With his peerless technique and impeccable diction, in his prime he was one of the finest interpreters of Italian opera — especially the lyrically virtuosic bel canto repertoire of Bellini, Donizetti and the like — ever to captivate an audience.