John J. St. John
September 7, 2007
Luciano Pavarotti died last night.
We all knew it was coming; there is no death sentence more certain than pancreatic cancer. So the reaction is not one of shock. Nor can it entirely be one of loss for those of us who never knew the man personally. After all, his incomparable voice remains as accessible to us as our CD cabinet.
I think what I am feeling tonight, together with unknown thousands around the planet, is – a certain sadness, without doubt – but one that springs from awareness that we have been privileged to live in a time when two of the greatest tenors ever to grace the opera stage have been active. A time, moreover, in which technology guarantees our ability to enjoy their recorded performances well into the future, and with lifelike fidelity that was never possible with singers of similar stature in earlier eras.
But there is something about the immediacy of a live performance that can never quite be equaled by a recording. And I would like to share with you a brief recounting of the only time I heard Pavarotti perform in person.
It took place, as best I can recall, in 1982 in Geneva, where we were stationed at the time. As soon as I learned that Pavarotti had scheduled a single concert at Geneva’s Opera House, I dug deeply into my pocket in order to invest in three tickets for my wife Elsa, our fourteen-year-old son Chris, and myself. At Geneva prices, it was an investment, but I didn’t hesitate.
The timing could hardly have been better. The great man was at the height of his powers and his popularity. And at that time he was still doing concerts in the old-fashioned style – in opera houses, not stadiums; just he alone on the stage with piano accompaniment, no orchestra and minimal or no amplification.
The concert was all I could have asked for – filled with great operatic arias, and a sprinkling of Neapolitan favorites. The audience kept calling for encore after encore, and Luciano kept responding. I have heard Pavarotti criticized as being little more than a big voice. And big it certainly was. But this overlooks the unsurpassed depth of expression and the tonal beauty he also brought to his music. All of this was in evidence that day in Geneva.
The concert ended as all his concerts did, with the biggest of all the big arias, Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s “Turandot”. As he approached those show-stopping final notes, he sucked in air like a great industrial vacuum. And when he returned that air to us in vocal form, it was nothing short of triumphal! I can’t imagine anyone else ever did it quite so well.
After the many curtain calls, as we began filing out, Chris asked permission to go backstage to see if he could get Pavarotti’s autograph. Remembering my own days as an autograph hound, I told him to go ahead, and specified where he should meet us afterward.
Twenty minutes or so later, he had not returned. Elsa and I, getting a little worried, decided to go backstage in search of him. Backstage, we found out, was a rabbit-warren; poorly lit, full of little rooms and stairways. We asked a stagehand if he knew where Pavarotti was signing autographs. He gave us complex, gesture-filled directions in French that seemed to indicate we should go up those stairs, then make two or three (or maybe it was five) turns in different directions, and we couldn’t miss it.
Surprisingly, we found the place.
We entered a darkish room, perhaps twelve by twenty feet in size, quite crowded with standing people, and there, seated at a plain wooden table, patiently signing concert programs, was the great tenor himself. Elsa and I were both struck by our sudden proximity to him, she perhaps even more than I because she involuntarily called out, “Luciano”!
Pavarotti, perhaps thinking it was someone he knew, looked up with a big smile and said something like “Eh?” Elsa, realizing a reply was required, responded, “Bravo!” Pavarotti’s smile got even bigger, as he said “Grazie”, and went back to his signing.
So we all received a bonus that day. Chris got his autograph, Elsa got a big smile from Luciano, and we all got a nice memory that softens somewhat our sadness at his loss. jjs