I had come home from school one day in 1973 and as was my habit even at that young age, I turned on the late, lamented WTMI, our classical station here in Miami, to listen to the afternoon program with Alan Corbett. I guess I nodded off, because as I woke around the five o’clock hour, I heard an amazing voice that held me in a spell until the piece finished. Later, I discovered that what I had heard that day, the day my love of opera was born, was an aria from La Boheme (“Che gelidda manina”) sung by a tenor that would dominate opera for over three decades. That voice, that amazing voice, belonged to Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti died today at the age of 71 from cancer.
I own two of the greatest opera recordings ever made, featuring his voice: La Boheme, recorded in the early seventies, and Madama Butterfly, recorded a decade later. No one has captured the essence of the music, the characterization via voice, of the roles of Rodolfo and Pinkerton quite like Pavarotti. He was a seminal tenor. His presence in opera, concerts and recitals was so ubiquitous that he almost single-handedly brought opera back into the mainstream of American and world culture. Of the many roles he sang throughout a long (too long) career I would say that he made whatever he sang in Puccini or Donizetti (and a lot of Verdi) his own. Only Placido Domingo, a different type of tenor, was his peer.
In later years, I questioned his choice of projects — the execrable “Three Tenors,” his duet albums, the song albums he did with “celebrity” singers. I called him a hack for abandoning his art in search of more and more lucre. I may have been too idealistic, but I stand by my statements. His voice, already failing 15 years ago, was a shadow of its former glory; he should have ridden off into the sunset as the greatest tenor of the last half of the twentieth century, but he did not. These less than optimal offerings will be a sad part of his legacy. But those recordings I still own, and the live performances I saw here in Miami, will always give me pause that I once saw one of the world’s greatest tenors at the height of his art.
Thank you, maestro. Rest in peace.
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