Il Maestro è morto.
Yet the voice is still heard, and was near ubiquitous yesterday on the day of Luciano Pavarotti’s death. He is survived by thousands of recordings in every possible medium. He can be downloaded for your cellphone — donna è mobile — or for your alarm clock: Nessun Dorma.
He was a great opera star, of which there are several, most of whom remain unknown in the culture at large. He was the world’s favourite tenor, a phenomenon of popular as well as elite culture, and in that he was singular.
I first heard Pavarotti as a young boy in the 1970s, on the Christmas album which my father played. There was the static and hiss of the old LP, but hearing Pavarotti sing O Holy Night was likely the first time I understood what a marvellous instrument the human voice could be. In the iPod age, I rather doubt whether fathers can fill the house with classical music for their children’s benefit, but if it can be done, no doubt it is Pavarotti who is doing the singing.
He brought the great classics to the masses, which is no small achievement. Opera is not for everyone, but it does highlight the human voice in a way that Broadway show tunes and the Billboard Top 40 do not. Pavarotti made that attractive to far more people than would ever go to an opera house. He was the great ambassador for the beauty of the human voice.
Yet it was not, in the end, the voice that made him a cultural phenomenon. There were other great tenors, and opera critics would point out that Pavarotti’s best days were decades before he became an international sensation. While his contemporaries were polished and elegant, Pavarotti — bursting out of his tuxedo, furiously sweating, hair and beard and eyebrows in need of a trim — was a sort of everyman. Every man would like to sing the great love songs, the melancholy ballads, the martial marches, the great hymns, but most can’t. Luciano could.
His last turn on the international stage was at the Olympic opening ceremonies in Turin last year. The ceremonies plodded along with the usual incomprehensible costumes and choreography that plague such things, until the organizers thought it was time to have some fun. Out came a squealing Ferrari doing doughnuts on the field, and then for the big Italian finale, who else? The Maestro singing Nessun Dorma.
Pavarotti was always the local Italian boy who loved all things Italians do well. Even at the height of his fame and extravagance, one sensed that nothing brought him greater delight than a good pasta, preferably served by a pretty girl. Whatever discipline he possessed he devoted to his voice, for in the rest of life his appetites were unrestrained. He spent wildly, ate until he was grossly obese and shamelessly cast aside his wife of 35 years for his secretary. The fact that the latter was not even born when the former was helping him launch his career in the difficult early days made the affair particularly revolting.
His appetite for the limelight was perhaps greater still, leading to the absurd “Pavarotti and Friends” events, in which the fig leaf of fundraising would be made to cover a multitude of musical sins. I saw yesterday, courtesy of YouTube, a “duet” with James Brown, the only reason for which could be that both were famous and willing. Pavarotti was clearly amused, and somehow the fact that he was in on the joke was part of the fun.
Of course, the real friends that Pavarotti brought with him were his fellow tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. That was real fun, as they both delighted in what Domingo called yesterday “the God-given glory of his voice.” It is now sometimes forgotten that the original Three Tenors concert was supposed to be a Roman cultural embellishment to the World Cup of soccer in 1990. The concert eclipsed the tournament, hitherto unthinkable in football-mad Italy. That the classics of opera could command as much attention as the World Cup! It was a long way from Covent Garden and La Scala and the Met, but it was Pavarotti’s defining popular moment and enduring cultural triumph.
His signature aria, Nessun Dorma, is set at night, even if a rather different night than the Christmas hymn I grew up listening to. The sleepless lover is waiting for the dawn to reveal his love, and the beloved is watching the “stars which tremble with love and hope.” Now that the great Godgiven voice is stilled, his listeners hope to hear it again amid the angels, in the presence of the one that other great Italian artist, Dante, called the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The everyman tenor." National Post, (Canada) September 7, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2007 National Post
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