Probably the most popular tenor since Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti (born 1935) combined accuracy of pitch and quality of sound production with a natural musicality. His favorite roles were Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème, Nemorino in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, and Riccardo in Verdi's Un Ballo Maschera.
Luciano Pavarotti was born on the outskirts of Modena in north-central Italy on October 12, 1935. Although he spoke fondly of his childhood, the family had little money; its four members were crowded into a two-room apartment. His father was a baker who, according to Pavarotti, had a fine tenor voice but rejected the possibility of a singing career because of nervousness. His mother worked in a cigar factory. World War II forced the family out of the city in 1943. For the following year they rented a single room from a farmer in the neighboring countryside, where young Pavarotti developed an interest in farming.
Pavarotti's earliest musical influences were his father's recordings, most of them featuring the popular tenors of the day—Gigli, Martinelli, Schipa, and Caruso. At around the age of nine he began singing with his father in a small local church choir. Also in his youth he had a few voice lessons with a Professor Dondi and his wife, but he ascribed little significance to them.
After what appears to have been a normal childhood with a typical interest in sports—in Pavarotti's case soccer above all—he graduated from the Schola Magistrale and faced the dilemma of a career choice. He was interested in pursuing a career as a professional soccer player, but his mother convinced him to train as a teacher. He subsequently taught in an elementary school for two years but finally allowed his interest in music to win out. Recognizing the risk involved, his father gave his consent only reluctantly, the agreement being that Pavarotti would be given free room and board until age 30, after which time, if he had not succeeded, he would earn a living by any means that he could.
Pavarotti began serious study in 1954 at the age of 19 with Arrigo Pola, a respected teacher and professional tenor in Modena who, aware of the family's indigence, offered to teach without remuneration. Not until commencing study with Pola was Pavarotti aware that he had perfect pitch. At about this time Pavarotti met Adua Veroni, whom he married in 1961. When Pola moved to Japan two and a half years later, Pavarotti became a student of Ettore Campogalliani, who was also teaching the now well-known soprano, Pavarotti's childhood friend Mirella Freni. During his years of study Pavarotti held part-time jobs in order to help sustain himself—first as an elementary school teacher and then, when he failed at that, as an insurance salesman.
The first six years of study resulted in nothing more tangible than a few recitals, all in small towns and all without pay. When a nodule developed on his vocal chords causing a "disastrous" concert in Ferrara, he decided to give up singing. Pavarotti attributed his immediate improvement to the psychological release connected with this decision. Whatever the reason, the nodule not only disappeared but, as he related in his autobiography, "Everything I had learned came together with my natural voice to make the sound I had been struggling so hard to achieve."
A measure of success occurred when he won the Achille Peri Competition in 1961, for which the first prize was the role of Rodolfo in a production of Puccini's La Bohème to be given in Reggio Emilia on April 28 of that year. Although his debut was a success, a certain amount of maneuvering was necessary to secure his next few contracts. A well-known agent, Alesandro Ziliani, had been in the audience and, after hearing Pavarotti, offered to represent him. When La Bohème was to be produced in Lucca, Ziliani insisted that Pavarotti be included in a package deal that would also provide the services of a well-known singer requested by the management. Later Ziliani recommended him to conductor Tullio Serafin, who engaged him in the role of the Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto.
Pavarotti's Covent Garden debut in the fall of 1963 also resulted from something less than a direct invitation. Giuseppe di Stefano had been scheduled for a series of performances as Rodolfo, but the management was aware that he frequently canceled on short notice. They therefore needed someone whose quality matched the rest of the production, yet who would learn the role without any assurance that he would get to sing it. Pavarotti agreed. When di Stefano canceled after one and a half performances, Pavarotti stepped in for the remainder of the series with great success.
His debut at La Scala in 1965, again as Rodolfo, came at the suggestion of Herbert von Karajan, who had been conducting La Bohème there for two years and had, as Pavarotti said, "run out of tenors." He was somewhat resentful that the invitation did not come from La Scala management. Also in 1965 Pavarotti made his American debut in Miami as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Illness troubled him during his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1968 and compelled him to cancel after the second act of the second performance.
Nineteenth-century Italian opera comprised most of Pavarotti's repertoire, particularly Puccini, Verdi, and Donizetti, who he found the most comfortable to sing. He treated his voice cautiously, reserving heavier roles until later years. Still his rendering of Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca was criticized, both for the light quality of his voice and for his misinterpretation of the role. He sang few song recitals, as he regarded them as more strenuous than opera. Very few opera singers are convincing actors and Pavarotti is not among them. He improved considerably over the years, however, and by the mid-1980s he spent nearly as much time on his acting as on his singing. Although by that time he felt that he had covered the range of roles possible for him, he had not exhausted everything inside that range. Among the roles he hoped to add were Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen and the title role in Massenet's Werther. In 1972 he starred in a commercial film, Yes, Giorgio. His solo album of Neapolitan songs, "O Sole Mio," outsold any other record by a classical singer.
Throughout the 1980s Pavarotti strengthened his status as one of the opera world's leading figures. Televised performances of Pavarotti in many of his greatest and favorite roles not only helped him maintain his status, but to broaden his appeal. He was able to reach millions of viewers each time one of his opera performances and solo concerts was seen. He also began to show increasing flexibility as a recording artist. He recorded classical operas, songs by Henry Mancini and Italian folk songs, thus becoming the world's third highest top selling musician, right behind Madonna and Elton John. By the time he proposed and staged the first "Three Tenors" concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Pavarotti was unabashedly thrilled with his immense popularity. "I want to be famous everywhere" he told Newsweek and he continually showed his appreciation to the fans that made him. "I tell you, the time spent signing autographs is never enough" he continued in the same interview.
He received his share of criticism and rejection as well. He was barred from contracts with the Lyric Opera of Chicago 1989 because he canceled performances excessively due to bad health. He was sued by the BBC in 1992 for selling the network a lip-synched concert. He was booed at La Scala during a performance of Don Carlo. He finally canceled tours and took several months off to rest.
Pavarotti returned to the stage with concerts before 500,000 people in Central Park. Critics accused him of blatant commercialism, but the crowds loved the performances. He learned a new role, Andrea Chenier, for a 1996 Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Pavarotti was praised for both his diligence, his survival, and the fact that he undertook a new role at the age of 61. In 1997 the three tenors—Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Pavarotti—toured to mixed reviews but delighted audiences who seemed unwilling to let Pavarotti even think of retiring.
Further Reading on Luciano Pavarotti
Pavarotti's popularity was such that he was in the media constantly. Unfortunately, the information ranged widely in its credibility. Recommended are articles by R. Jacobson appearing in Opera News (March 14, 1981 and February 14, 1979). A short and fairly objective profile by Giorgio Gualerzi appeared in the British publication Opera (February 1981). An autobiography, Pavarotti: My Own Story, with William Wright (1981) is comprised of articles by Pavarotti and by those around him, including his wife, his accompanist, and his manager. While the book contains information, and even wit and charm, one must do a lot of sifting to find it. The discography and list of first performances appearing as appendices are helpful. Critic Alan Blythe regards his Rodolfo in La Bohème conducted by Karajan (London) and his Arturo in Bellini's I Puritani conducted by Bonynge (London) to be among his finest recordings.