Luciano Pavarotti, the iconic tenor of our age as Caruso was of his, died today at age 71 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.
His wife, Nicoletta, four daughters and sister were among family and friends at his side, manager Terri Robson said.
“The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer,” Robson said. “In fitting with the approach that characterised his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness.”
Pavarotti’s charismatic persona and ebullient showmanship — but most of all his creamy and powerful voice — made him the most beloved and celebrated tenor since the great Caruso and one of the few opera singers to win crossover fame as a popular superstar.
“Luciano’s voice was so extraordinarily beautiful and his delivery so natural and direct that his singing spoke right to the hearts of listeners whether they knew anything about opera or not,” Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine said in a statement.
Fellow singer Jose Carreras called Pavarotti “one of the greatest tenors ever, one of the most important singers in the history of opera.”
I must admit that I’m an opera fan only in fits and starts and only for voices that send ripples through my spine. Caruso, Sills, Robeson, Marian Anderson – they can all set the hairs at the back of my neck trembling as if I’ve been jabbed with a cattle prod. The voices have to do it because the music can’t.
I find most Grand Opera, with very few exceptions, to be musically turgid and overblown, and lyrically as simplistic as a child’s primer. Opera lyrics typically have less depth than a good rock song. As Michael Feldman put it when the Met installed an electronic signboard over the stage to run subtitles for the audience, “At last you can see they’re singing about nothing. What can you say with a knife in your back? ‘Ouch, that hurts.'”
The best and greatest of opera singers are really consummate actors. They do with their voices what the music and lyrics can’t do – give the passage/aria/duet meaning, and legitimate the hypertheatricality of the music by bringing to it more genuine human emotion than the composer intended. For me, then, the two greatest opera singers ever were Pavarotti and Maria Callas.
“Creamy” is probably an excellent description of Pavarotti’s liquid tone but it doesn’t begin to approach doing justice to his seemingly effortless ability to cut through all the melodrama and key on the essential existential pain of characters caught in the vise of life. If Caruso’s Pagliacci squeezed every demi-ounce of sentimentality and histrionic drama out of Vesti la giubba, Pavarotti made it throb with the real human pain of a jealous husband forced to pretend everything is fine, just fine, as he witnesses the loss of the woman he loves to another man and is powerless to prevent it.
Studs Terkel once brought Carmen down to earth by translating the section of the opera when she jilts her young suitor like this: “She laughs at him and says, ‘Go home. Yer mudda wants yah.'” Pavarotti had that same ability to ground ludicrously inflated music to real human experience just with the way he used his voice.
Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see him on stage so I don’t know if he could act in the standard sense of the word. But even if his face was as unexpressive as a shaved wooden plank – which I find difficult to believe – that remarkable voice, vivid, nuanced, blessed with subtlety as well as power, could express a wealth of genuine feelings in a single held note.
I doubt I will see his like again in my lifetime.