Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2004, Luciano Pavarotti retired from the Metropolitan Opera, with performances in Tosca. National Review’s managing editor, Jay Nordlinger, contributed a piece to NR’s April 5, 2004, issue. Its title was “Farewell, Fat Man” — “Fat Man” being an affectionate name used by some of the tenor’s fans. Two days ago, Pavarotti passed away at his home in Italy. We reprint Nordlinger’s 2004 piece today.
He was our Caruso, and now he’s gone — or almost gone. In the first half of March, Luciano Pavarotti bade farewell to the Metropolitan Opera with three appearances in Tosca. He is scheduled to retire altogether sometime in 2005 — on his 70th birthday, he has said, which will be in October of that year. Many people claim that he should have bowed out long before, but it was hard for him to go, and, frankly, it was hard for the public to let him go. Pavarotti was a performer. He was also a superb — a historically superb — tenor and musician.
His story is familiar to anyone who has poked around opera. Born in Modena, Italy. His father a baker, his mother a worker in a tobacco factory. Luciano shared a wet nurse with Mirella Freni (the famed soprano) — that is one of the great trivial facts in opera.
The baker father also happened to be a singer — an amateur one, and by all accounts a gifted one — and he passed this enthusiasm to his son. The son learned, quickly, under excellent teachers. He boasted one of the most extraordinary voices of the century: It was essentially a lyric voice — a bel canto voice — but it had power that came out of nowhere. He was both graceful and strong, a hart and a lion. His technique was astoundingly secure and capable. He was a master of Italian declamation, one of the last such exemplars around.
And his personality? Big and sunny and rich and happy as Italy (pardon the sentimentality).
He became a key part of the bel canto revival around the world, joining Joan Sutherland, her husband Richard Bonynge, and Marilyn Horne. For his feats in Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment, he was dubbed “King of the High C’s,” a label that stuck. The king sold a lot of records. His company, Decca, is describing him as “the most beloved opera star in the history of the recording industry.” They are not to be argued with.
Pavarotti was occasionally dismissed as a simpleton with a freak instrument. This was absurd. Pavarotti was a marvelous musician, though not a schooled one. He was a natural. Anyone can acquire the schooling; musicality is not for sale. It has always been said — whispered, snorted — that Pavarotti can’t read music. I, for one, was always skeptical of this claim. First of all, millions of schoolchildren around the world can read music — it’s no big deal. Second, how could Pavarotti function, in his career, without reading music? It’s on the order of functioning in the literary world without being able to read words.
Not long ago, I had a chance to speak to someone close to Pavarotti, a colleague (who adores him). “Would you put a myth to rest for me?” I asked. “What about this ridiculous notion that Pavarotti can’t read music?” “He can’t,” replied my source. “He really can’t” — which, of course, makes Pavarotti’s achievement all the more remarkable. He has a phenomenal memory, a phenomenal ability to absorb, repeat, intuit.
Over the years, Pavarotti became a celebrity, one of the most famous musicians in the world (classical division). He was the big smiley guy with the big handkerchief and the big voice (the big, lyrical voice). Some of us affectionately called him The Fat Man. Taking a page from opera stars past, he appeared in a movie, Yes, Giorgio, forgettable but not without charm. He lost some goodwill when he divorced his wife of almost 40 years to marry his assistant — but the world doesn’t care much about that kind of thing anymore, if it ever did.
Sometime in the 1980s — different people would pick different dates — Pavarotti began a decline, vocally (and physically, too: They are of course related). I recall a distinguished critic telling me in 1985, I believe, that “they should put that cow out to pasture.” As you know, he sang for 20 more years, and he often sang well — splendidly well. He loved a crowd, and not just an opera-house crowd: He pioneered “stadium concerts,” schlocky events featuring pastiches of arias and songs. Infamously, he was caught lip-synching at one such event. It was the most unforgivable thing The Fat Man ever did, professionally. It was an utter violation, impermissible in the classical world. He pleaded that he could not sing that day but didn’t want to disappoint his fans. Whatever.
I myself attended one stadium-style concert, when out-of-town friends asked me to take them. The year was 1995; the venue was a sports arena outside Washington, D.C. The event was a horror, of course, with Pavarotti crooning and barking and cracking, all into a microphone, with a lousy pickup orchestra. But there were moments when he was his pure vocal, operatic, and musical self, and you forgot the jumbo video screens, and the championship banners hanging from the rafters, and the stickiness of spilled Coke under your feet: You might have been in a box at La Fenice. A talent and a mind — a musical mind — like Pavarotti’s will out. It will out even when covered in goop.
His great rival, of course, was Plácido Domingo, the suave Spaniard. But the rivalry was mainly in Plácido’s mind, and in the minds of the fans. The Fat Man never paid Domingo much heed. I asked someone important in Pavarotti’s career — another source — why Domingo wasn’t a spur to Pavarotti, why Luciano didn’t take better care of himself, just to keep up with Plácido. The source answered, “You don’t understand: Plácido has always cared about Luciano; but Luciano has never given a damn about Plácido or anyone else. As far as Luciano is concerned, he has no rivals.” Besides, Pavarotti “is the laziest son-of-a-bitch God ever made.”
He was supposed to have his swan song at the Met two seasons ago (this was Tosca as well). But he canceled, pleading the flu. This caused some upset, although a singer’s life is precarious, and when you’re sick, you’re sick — even if the gig is monumental. But, for some weird reason, Pavarotti wouldn’t even come to the house to explain, apologize, and wave. As a major agent in New York put it, “all he had to do was show up and croak out ‘I can’t sing,’ and the people would have gone mad in adoration.” Joseph Volpe, general manager of the Met, said to Pavarotti, over the phone, “That’s a helluva way to end a beautiful career” — and he related this conversation to the Met audience. But Volpe gave The Fat Man one more chance, in the form of the three Toscas this March.
On the first night, he was weak, vocally and physically. He did some Pavarotti-like singing, but not much of it. In body, he was quite infirm, sitting whenever he could, and hanging on to his colleagues — literally hanging on — when he had to stand.
But on the last night, he was much better, certainly vocally. He delivered a brave performance, and a dignified one. He went out with his head high, not as a clownish figure who had stayed too long, but as the historic tenor he is: primo tenore assoluto. The final ovation was emotional and long. Pavarotti smiled as big as he could, and waved as big as he could. Has anyone ever loved the audience more? Has the audience ever loved anyone more?
Look: After the hype fades, the recordings will remain, and they will tell the tale. Beverly Sills once said (and I paraphrase), “When they ask what all the fuss was about, I can trot out the records and say, ‘Here: This is what all the fuss was about.’” So it will be with The Fat Man. Caruso made his first record in 1902, and we are still talking about him, more than 100 years later. They will talk about Pavarotti 100 years from now. Maybe 500.