September 8, 2007

Big Luciano is Gone: Opera Singer for the Masses

I have to confess to a ridiculous degree of sadness over the death of Luciano Pavarotti—“Big Luciano,” as the Italians call him. As an avid opera fan—indeed I sometimes feel like an opera queen trapped in a woman’s body—I noted that Luciano, over the 30 years I’ve been listening to him, has given me more sheer joy and pleasure than some men I’ve known a lot better….

But it’s difficult when there’s no real political or intellectual rationale for this emotion I’m feeling over the death of a stranger. Pavarotti was not the left-leaning son of Spanish anti-Fascists like fellow tenor Jose Carreras, or the all-round singer, director, conductor, disciplined musician that Placido Domingo is, or a premature anti-fascist like the brilliant conductor Arturo Toscanini. But he was born with one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. As a Marxist, I view this voice, like all great talent, as an expression of our “species being” or human capacity; its beauty is a sort of spiritual experience for me.

And more than any other artist of his time, Pavarotti made opera alive and accessible to the masses.

Sure, Pavarotti got careless and self-indulgent as celebrity and wealth corrupted his artistry. But anyone who tries to dismiss his fame as a product of hype is just plain hatin’. People are not so stupid as to make this man a gigantic global pop star for over 30 years for no reason.

Check this out—two masters, in the twilight of their careers, performing their totally different schticks together and making it work. It’s a duet by Luciano Pavarotti and James Brown! The concert is a benefit for Angolan refugees in Pavarotti’s home town of Modena, Italy, in 2002.

I’m no music critic but when I’ve tried to describe Pavarotti's voice, the images that came to me were red wine and honey. (I later read actual music critics who described it that way.) It was rich and full-bodied and smooth and sweet and deeply colored—ruby, golden. You couldn’t confuse it with any other voice. And the way he married the words and the melody was incomparable, sustaining the meaning of the phrases and the lines while uttering each sound perfectly.

And the other thing, if you ever heard Luciano Pavarotti live, is that you really felt he wanted you—personally-- to have a great time. He wanted you to share the joy that he took in using his beautiful voice. I think this quality is what pulled people in. You can feel it too from the videos of performances, especially in the early live operas that PBS stations are showing this week, from before he became grossly fat . He was never slim but he had the grace of a former soccer player, a compelling physical presence with plenty of stage business, a light comic touch and timing, a melting smile, and those big, warm brown eyes. Nice-looking, not extraordinary, in a very Italian way.

On the weight thing, by the way, I kinda subscribe to the hypothesis put forward by Fritz Perls, the founder of gestalt therapy, in Ego, Hunger and Aggression. He posits that opera singers may tend to over-eat out of some self-protective impulse to replenish and repair. Because they give so much of themselves orally, they tend to take in too much orally.

For me, the emotional intensity around opera and Pavarotti has to do with the records my mother played and the stories she told us about my grandfather the chef, serving the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso at the Waldorf and catching opera from the cheap seats. (I don’t know if it’s really true that once, when Caruso hit the high note, it shattered the flask of olive oil in my grandfather’s back pocket that he had filched from the restaurant—but it’s a great story.) And then the many seasons beginning in the '80s when my mother and sisters and friends got subscriptions to the Met together.

My mother died over a year ago and the times when I hear something and think I need to call her are less frequent. But it happened when I heard, on the 7 a.m. news, that Pavarotti had died. My sister heard it at the same time and called me 30 second later, and we spoke about him several times throughout the day.

When we heard Pavarotti and his homegirl, the soprano Mirella Freni. perform La Boheme in the mid ‘80s at the Metropolitan Opera, I felt that I had experienced perfect beauty and could die happily at that moment. (Pavarotti and Freni grew up together in Modena and, because their mothers worked in the cigar factory which turned their milk sour, they were actually breast-fed by the same wet nurse.)

I was also present at what I think turned out to be Pavarotti’s last good Met performance, (since the 2004 Toscas didn’t work out too well) in Aida in 2000. It was the his last show of the season, and he’d received poor reviews for the previous ones—not in good voice, lumbering around the stage virtually held up by two chorus members because his legs were so stiff. But he somehow got it together for this last performance. He stood on his own two feet and though the high notes were muted, that beautiful legato line was mostly sustained and there were glimmers of the maestro in his prime.

Grazie, Luciano. Non ci scordiamo di te.

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