ARCHIVES: Pavarotti, last of the great rock stars

This is the first installment of my pre-Franorama World blog posts. Eventually, all my posts from other places will be available here. In cases where I can’t find the original photos/links, I’ll use something close or nothing at all. This was my first blog post, period — from the Fresno Beehive, Sept. 6, 2007, 11:02 a.m. PDT:

There’s nothing like someone’s death to make everyday utterances seem like irony and to make time seem more precious.

Five years ago (story ran 9/22/02), I had the chance to interview Luciano Pavarotti for my last place of employment, the New Haven (Conn.) Register. (He was generous with his time with a total stranger that afternoon; the phone interview ran more than a half-hour.) At the time, he was gearing up to what was his planned retirement: Oct. 12, 2005, his 70th birthday. His explanation for walking away from the stage was simple: “Because it’s time. I have many things to do. Many private things to do.”

He probably never did get to do most of those things, having spent the last year fighting pancreatic cancer. It was his equivalent of the office or factory worker who whiles away his/her whole life, looking forward to those golden years, then dies right after retirement. Except that Pavarotti never did anything on a small scale. And no, I’m not talking about his weight, either — the man was large and he lived large, and he leaves a hole that might not be filled, at least for a few generations.

If you want to argue it, he might have been the last of the great rock stars. Enormous talent, with equally huge amounts of excess, personal drama and influence — he was the entire package.

It might sound disingenuous coming from a longtime pop music fan and pop music writer and radio show host — someone who’s spent much more time listening to Little Richard’s and Esquerita’s wooooooos and James Brown’s screams than Luciano’s soaring high C’s. But even the most popular of current pop stars only draw a small percentage of the world’s ears (or, to be crassly businesslike about it, a target demographic). Thanks to this baker’s son from Modena, it seemed almost everyone in Western civilization — from the haughtiest classical highbrows to the lowest-common-denominator pop music fans, from bankers to bakers — knew a little about opera and surely knew the name Pavarotti. (He told me that when he made his debut in 1961, “Two percent of the people knew what [opera is] about. Now at least 50 percent know what is opera, and I’m probably being pessimistic.”) And when several world-renowned musicians got together in the mid-90s to raise money for Bosnian children, it wasn’t Bono who was the draw, or Elton John or Eric Clapton — it was Luciano. The man with the best voice of our lifetime.

And before Pavarotti, who ever heard of an opera singer performing to a half-million people? That’s what he did in Central Park in 1993 — a crowd only matched by Elton John’s performance there in 1980. For a few years earlier this decade, as part of New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New York’s Metropolitan Opera would give a free performance on the Green, in the middle of downtown, and the Green would be packed to capacity (over 30,000) on a June evening with music-lovers from a vast cross-section of life. That wouldn’t have happened without Pavarotti paving the way. He was the embodiment of what Beverly Sills (whom we also lost this year) and Robert Merrill (whose recording of the national anthem is still a staple at Yankee Stadium) strived to do: make opera — a centuries-old art form with a complex orchestral structure, sung in foreign languages with unreachable notes — accessible to everyone.

Some people criticized Pavarotti for staying around long past his prime — like the injury-wracked Mickey Mantle or the halfway-decent Michael Jordan of the Wizards. OK, that’s valid, but it’s also missing the point. The resonance of his hitting nine high-Cs in “Pour Mon Ame, Quel Destin!” in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” — not once, but three times — carried him through the world and through the next four decades. It gave him carte blanche to be opera’s ambassador to the world and to remake our perception of his art form as he saw it. Even if we didn’t listen to Pavarotti as a steady diet, we at least knew greatness. Even a diminished Pavarotti was better and more effective and more transcendent than what many could dream of being. Even without opening his celebrated mouth, just the presence of the big, bearded Italian at an event signified Something Really Important.

In any sense, I can’t see anyone else in the music world captivating and uniting the millions again the way Pavarotti did. And that song “Party Like a Rock Star?” Please. He had been there, done that three decades ago.


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