Who was Luciano Pavarotti? A guide to the life and times of the world's most famous opera singer
Luciano Pavarotti was one of classical music's biggest stars. We remember the tenor who famously ‘couldn’t act for toffee’, but brought opera to an audience of millions
For some, their introduction to Pavarotti may have been an enthralling opera at the Met or Covent Garden; for others it would have been a drenched night in Hyde Park or a balmy evening in the company of Domingo and Carreras. For others still, it was Lineker scoring, Gazza crying and Pearce missing from the spot.
Whatever image or event they might associate it with, more people have become familiar with Luciano Pavarotti’s tenor voice than any other.
Who was Pavarotti?
Luciano Pavarotti was, in short, the most famous opera singer that the world has known.
Opera critic and broadcaster Christopher Cook assesses just what it was that brought Pavarotti into the ranks of superstardom…
The heavens opened and the traffic jammed up around the park. St John’s Ambulance volunteers treated 193 people who were said to be suffering from hypothermia.
The Prince and Princess of Wales were drenched when the star suggested that they should fold up their umbrella because the people behind them couldn’t see. And when the best known tenor in the world hit his final top note in ‘Nessun dorma’, 100,000 cheered him to the damp skies. They must have heard the roar from one end of London to the other.
There were sneers of course – complaints that Luciano Pavarotti had ‘sold out’, that the big man was more interested in money than art and, anyway, the voice was at the end of its tether. But that wasn’t how it felt that wet day in Hyde Park in July 1991.
The big arias from Tosca and Turandot and Luisa Miller were as big as ever, but the tenderness was there too and that remarkable gift for intimacy, a sense in Neapolitan standards like ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘Torna A Surriento’ that he was singing for you and you only. And where was the artistic betrayal about singing in a public park?
Taking a longer view, the Swedish and Irish tenors Jussi Björling and John McCormack before him had abandoned the theatre to perform in sports arenas and public halls to audiences who wouldn’t have been seen dead in an opera house. Pavarotti was doing what Italian tenors have always done: playing to the gallery.
Pavarotti was all that an Italian tenor was supposed to be. He ate for Italy we were told, mountains of pasta before and after a performance, and he never travelled without saucepans and olive oil. He gave concerts for charity. He founded a singing competition. And he ran away with a woman half his age and was done for tax evasion.
In a sense, his career was all about playing a role, one that he had perfected by the time he embarked on that career’s final stage and been crowned the world’s most famous tenor.
When was Pavarotti born?
The modest circumstances of his birth in Modena in 1935 to a mother working in a tobacco factory and a baker father was spun into a history that presented young Luciano as a football-mad country boy who stumbled on magic gold when he discovered he had a voice.
When did he become a singer?
But this was a young man who trained first as a teacher and, when he began to think about singing, took lessons with the formidable Ettore Campogalliani in Mantua who in his time had coached Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Scotto and Mirella Freni.
More like this
In the mythical version, the remarkable voice was ‘just there’. In truth it was probably Campogalliani who taught the young singer how to sing through the passagio, the part of the voice above a high G which is at the heart of the Italian tenor’s art. The voice was undoubtedly unique, but it was technique that helped it last so well.
It was the American Herbert Breslin, an artist’s manager with a transatlantic flair for PR, who gave the ‘country-boy-made-good’ its final polish after Pavarotti had stormed the Met in New York with nine effortless high C’s in Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment in February 1971. And it was Breslin who took Pavarotti’s fees up into the stratosphere to as high as $100,000 a performance.
But the singer himself was no slowcoach when it came to shaping his image. It is sometimes said that when the call came from Covent Garden to sing Rodolfo for an indisposed Giuseppe di Stefano in Puccini’s La bohème in 1963, Pavarotti was out horse riding on the South Downs. In the myth, then, the child of nature was transformed into an overnight operatic sensation.
The detail is a little more prosaic. Having heard him sing the part the previous year with the Dublin Grand Opera Society, the Royal Opera had booked the young tenor as the cover, promising him one shot at Rodolfo on stage at the end of the run. His debut was always planned; it simply happened earlier than expected when di Stefano was ill.
Pavarotti’s image as a naïf – he famously confessed that he read a score with difficulty and told a British journalist that he relied ‘on his ear’ and his own rudimentary form of annotation to learn a musical work – belied a shrewd business sense. He and his first wife Adua Veroni ran an extremely successful artist’s agency called Stage Door Opera Management and, following in other celebrities’ well-trodden steps, he lent his name to a cologne.
Was that perhaps the perfume on the ubiquitous white handkerchief with which he mopped his brow during concerts? Here was another role to be played. With his generously collared shirt, the floppy white tie, the elephantine tailcoat and the watch chain spread across a generous girth, Pavarotti in concert seemed a parody of the 19th-century concert platform singer.
A kind of clown, too, in his baggy evening suit. The final pictures of the singer also have something of the circus entertainer about them: the improbable straw hat with its broad brim, the hair dyed blacker than the raven’s wing, the bird’s nest beard. You suspect that it was a carefully cultivated image.
On stage Pavarotti was terrible. Former Royal Opera House chief Jeremy Isaacs, in a masterly understatement, told the Radio 4 audience that the tenor ‘couldn’t act for toffee’. When he sang Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden in the 1970s, Pavarotti’s death scene made your average forest look like Laurence Olivier.
What was so special about Pavarotti's voice?
But the voice… that’s where the acting that mattered was to be heard. What Mimì could have resisted his silver voiced seduction in La bohème? As Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, he brought such sweet sorrow to ‘Una furtive lagrima’ even when he was physically unsuited to the role in the latter part of his career.
And as Tonio in La Fille du régiment, those nine high C’s in ‘Ah! mes amis’ notwithstanding, Pavarotti was the most innocently ardent of young lovers. On record there are magnificent bel canto roles with soprano Joan Sutherland, and there’s no better Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani or Elvino in the same composer’s La sonnambula. Maybe this is where Pavarotti’s true achievement is to be found: as one of the most elegant, accurate and forceful Bellini and Donizetti tenors of second half of the 20th century.
Was it perhaps Sutherland and her conductor husband Richard Bonynge who finished the work that Ettore Campogalliani had begun in Mantua? Pavarotti joined them in the mid-1960s, making his American debut as Edgardo to Sutherland’s Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Miami. Sutherland says they helped Pavarotti with his breathing. But perhaps it was the importance of a proper legato in this repertoire that he learnt from her and Bonynge.
As for diction, that was something the tenor might have taught his soprano. To the end, Pavarotti’s was flawless, every word crystal clear. The voice itself began as platinum, absolutely accurate – Pavarotti had perfect pitch – and diamond bright. There was something viscerally thrilling about the ping at the top of the voice, but a winning vulnerability in his soft singing too.
When he opened up it was a force of nature. At close distance his fellow singers must have hoped for a handrail to cling to on the set! In later years as the voice darkened, platinum gave way to antique silver. There is a burnished quality in his Verdi recordings, a handsome patina to the voice allied to his exceptional accuracy, though Pavarotti can still summon up the heroic. In later years he sounded glorious on stage as Radames in Verdi’s Aida, even if he looked as if he ought to have been in the triumphal procession somewhere between the elephant and the camels.
Comparisons are invidious, but inevitable, particularly after the first triumph of the Three Tenors at the World Cup concert in Rome in 1990 – that extraordinary moment in the modern age when opera once again sprinted out of the stage door and became an entertainment for anyone who had the ears to enjoy it.
Pavarotti was perhaps less adventurous than Plácido Domingo, particularly in his choice of repertoire, but he was more lyrical. He could sound as vulnerable as José Carreras, but so much more secure from chest register to head notes.
Above all he was an Italian tenor, for whom the voice was everything and for whom entertaining an audience was paramount. Thrilling us with the power of the human voice; making us laugh – and he was no mean comedian; and making us weep.
What were Pavarotti's best roles?
Michael Scott Rohan takes a look at the roles that made Pavarotti's career
In bocca del lupo’, as they say before you venture upon a Sicilian stage – or risk trying to select Pavarotti’s best recordings. His opera recordings, unlike the concerts that filled his declining years, remain remarkably consistent; his performances distinguish even the inferior ones.
Pavarotti’s career took off internationally through his stage partnership with Joan Sutherland, and their recordings capture his youthful best – notably Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment, the role that launched him at Covent Garden and the Met with its famous Act I finale.
Conductor Richard Bonynge makes this featherlight music even fluffier; Sutherland sounds rather mature; but Pavarotti’s bright mid-range, secure legato, exuberant personality, and nine killer top Cs as secure as the Forth Bridge are a winning combination, even when he overdoes the forte.
He shows himself adept at more serious bel canto in the same composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and still more so in Bellini’s I puritani, both as star and ensemble artist. He sweeps out ‘A te, o cara’ with dazzling aplomb and elegance, but also delivers his first-act solo with an unusual delicacy and honeyed tone that mark the sensitivity he could bring to his characterisations.
With Verdi’s Rigoletto he moves into Verdi’s more darkly dramatic world. The Duke’s music, focussed of course on ‘La donna e mobile’, breathes boyish ardour and ruthless sexual predation, and Pavarotti’s voice encompasses both seductiveness and steel with deceptively effortless naturalism. Controversially, I’d opt for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s rather strange (and dubbed) DVD film, because it captures Pavarotti’s surprisingly impressive incarnation of the role – a flashing-eyed young giant radiating libertine charm and malicious contempt for his sycophants and victims.
Verdi didn’t always suit Pavarotti and he cheerfully admitted he was not the tenore di forza the heavier roles require. Puccini’s tenors, though, with their more human dimensions, seemed almost tailored to his voice and character.
His Pinkerton (Madam Butterfly) and Cavaradossi (Tosca) are impressive, but two recordings stand out as his greatest legacy. His La bohème with Karajan and fellow Modenite Mirella Freni is the definitive version of the stereo era, his poet hero surpassing Jussi Björling in warmth and unrestrained fullness of tone, Gigli in articulation and nuance, both in convincing youth. And in an adventurously cast Turandot, his strong lyrico-spinto approach makes a triumph of a role, ‘Nessun dorma’ and all, often reserved for heroic belters.
Pavarotti, unlike his rivals, practically never looked beyond the Italian language and repertoire; but he favoured less familiar byways – Donizetti’s La Favorita, for example – with some of his finest singing. And his Mozartian ventures shouldn’t be forgotten, oversung though they are for modern tastes. His 1963 Glyndebourne debut as Idamante in Idomeneo, with Richard Lewis and Gundula Janowitz, is worth seeking out on various historic labels.
When did Pavarotti die?
Pavarotti’s last public performance, singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Turin, Italy. In July, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer
Pavarotti died at home in Modena, 6 September in 2007. His funeral, at the city’s cathedral three days later, was attended by leading names from the worlds of both music and politics.
We named Pavarotti one of the greatest tenors of all time