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
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. A Christmas album and video, The Three Tenors
Christmas, appeared in 2000.
On a less festive note, but also in 2000, prosecutors in Bologna, Italy, asked an
investigating magistrate to rule that Pavarotti be tried on tax fraud charges for claiming
that his primary residence is Monte Carlo. The prosecutors, who said his residence was
in Modena, accused him of owing the government nearly $5 million. A week previous
to this case, Pavarotti lost an appeal against an order that he pay another $5 million in
back taxes. Pavarotti agreed to pay more than $12 million in back taxes. In a letter to the
Turin newspaper, La Stampa, he wrote that "it is very difficult to explain the life of one
who travels the world and who visits 50 cities every year."