I met Pavarotti, the great Italian opera singer, in Turin in early 1996. My interview appeared in Q Magazine’s May issue of that year.
If this guy’s anything to go by, Italian football managers look just like their English counterparts. Except they’re 15,000 times better dressed. The evidence is striding down a Turin hotel corridor, to a suite that’s acting as the day’s HQ for the world’s favourite operatic tenor. Our dapper and silver-haired specimen, who is frowning and silent, is the coach of famous local side Juventus. He has sought a brief audience with the singer – a singer invariably referred to as “Il Maestro” – because the team has not been playing well of late. Il Maestro, it is said, has studied their poor results. And Il Maestro is “unhappy”.
The manager disappears behind some ornate double doors. The rest of us – a great many of us – wait in the corridor. Twenty minutes pass. No sound can be heard from inside. But then – at last! – the doors re-open. The “Juve” supremo re-emerges and he is beaming. An expensive-looking overcoat is draped about his shoulders. He heads towards the exit with a fresh spring in his step, dispensing a gracious nod and a happy “Buona sera!” in our direction.
We do not know the content of his conversation with Il Maestro. But if we examine the matches in Serie ‘A’ across the weeks that follow, one fact is impressively apparent: those Juventus boys have finally got their shit together …
It’s all in a day’s work for Il Maestro Luciano Pavarotti – and today is a busier day than most. In town to perform a centenary season of Puccini’s La Bohème, the Pav has set aside some hours for promotional duties. Q’s own encounter with the big man is already running late. First he had a lunch date with his great chum from the crazy world of rock’n’roll, Bryan Adams. Then there was German TV. And French radio. And something else, then another thing. Oh, and then he had to take a phone call from Nelson Mandela. And then – yes, yes, Nelson, mate, but there’s another caller on the line – a chat with Elton John. This evening Luciano will have dinner with his Italian fan club, a delegation of fearsome matrons in fur coats. Phew! Classical music!
In the Turin streets outside, Italian opera’s greatest arias are piped all day, every day, from concealed speakers. Our hotel venue is awash with Continental film crews, record company personnel and Pavarotti’s personal assistants. The latter category, it’s often observed, tend to be of the young, female and gobsmackingly beautiful persuasion (but then, he’s Il Maestro and we’re not). Whatever, pressurised media people and the entourage of an Italian operatic superstar are not the ideal recipe for calm. In all, there is maximum flappage.
And yet the Pav himself looks merely tired. Emerging from the room, searching for the Gents, he wears an outsized pink shirt, pale baggy jeans and worn-in trainers. Blackly-bearded and vast, he’s often likened to a pirate, but this afternoon he is gently led around like some big, sad bear. A keen footballer and horseman in his day, he is now a martyr to his knees, one of which is arthritic. He walks with painful, if stately, slowness. His speech is lively in Italian, but as a courtesy to foreigners he deploys a more faltering English. At one point he announces to the room that he will retire in 2001- and one suspects he will be a happier man in 2002.
He moans dejectedly about the day’s schedule. Just before the Q slot, he declares that he can talk no more. A pair of female attendants cajole him into one more interview. “You two,” he sighs, feebly. “You two should be killed.”
But as Godfathers go, he is vulnerable rather than threatening. The whole point of everything, in Pavarotti’s world, is the Voice. It must be pampered and protected. He cannot step into the frigid Alpine air outside. Don’t even think about greeting him with a cheery reference to the rotten cold you’re coming down with. Every so often he swathes his neck in some gargantuan psychedelic scarf. “Please!” he implores. “No more talk!” And he plucks despairingly at his throat.
Pavarotti’s body is just the packaging for the Voice – for the mysterious, sacred thing inside him. The operatic tenor, he explains, is not a natural voice, but an artificial thing. It is a physical construct that demands a lifetime’s dedication and daily “re-making”. On the stage he is supremely televisual – the camera’s close-up shows alarm and amazement in his eyes when this supernatural sound comes out of him. In the beginning and the end, then, Pavarotti is a Voice. The fat man sings, and miracles occur. Something is liberated. The bird flies up the chimney.
Luciano Pavarotti is 60 now, born in the same year as Elvis Presley. (The King sang Now Or Never, Il Maestro had O Sole Mio.) A baker’s son from Modena, he was briefly a teacher and an insurance salesman. In 1964 he appeared on Saturday Night At The London Palladium, and was swiftly signed by Decca UK – the people who had just turned down The Beatles and discovered The Rolling Stones. They’ve held on tightly to him ever since. He’s sold more classical albums than anyone dreamt was possible.
He has received love and acclaim in abundance. Some say that his rival Placido Domingo is the better singer, but the Pav has become the best-known tenor in history, surpassing his boyhood idols Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. His mass popularity invites charges that he’s “vulgarised” his art. Others reply that extravaganzas like his rain-sodden show in Hyde Park, and the Three Tenors concerts, are the ultimate reconciliation of high art and popular culture: snob and yob united.
He is called “the King of the High Cs”. But are his powers declining? At La Scala in Milan, not long ago, his singing was heckled by the hard-core “loggionisti”, who are a sort of operatic Shed End. More rupturously, soon after our meeting, scandalous rumours about an affair with his 26-year-old personal assistant Nicoletta Mantovani are confirmed by the Pav himself: “We are very happy and it shows. To hide it and deny it would be a crime.” Nicoletta, for what it’s worth, explains that “before knowing him, I was just a girl. Thanks to him, I have become a woman.”
His task today is to publicise a new album, Pavarotti & Friends For The Children Of Bosnia – the live record of last year’s festival in Modena, where he was born. An annual cross-cultural wing-ding, its guests have included Sting, Bob Geldof and other stars from the rock firmament. It’s in support of War Child, the charity that inspired the multi-artist Help project. Glance at a map and you see that Italy is extremely close to the former Yugoslavia. But Pavarotti had another reason to become one of War Child’s patrons.
“We make a lot of benefits, but not of this intensity or importance,” he says. “It is a very ambitious thing that we want do. We would like to participate substantially in the foundation of a music centre in Mostar [a war-ravaged city in Bosnia]. I think, when the war is finished, everybody would like to sing. Everybody would like to stay together to tell themselves they are alive. They want to go home and spend the rest of their life singing, and not being scared of bombs.”
You think that music can have such value?
“Music has an incredible value. Because I remember, myself, the Second World War. I was ten when the war finished, and the first thing everybody wanted was to have light – because during the war we cannot have light in the night. And secondly, to gather round the fire in the open air and to sing and play. Stupid things, but together. And singing and singing and singing. I think that music, art, is the bread of the soul. So we would like to participate to give nutrition to the soul.”
He’s called upon more pop stars than ever before. The CD features him in duets with Dolores of The Cranberries (Ave Maria, no less), Meat Loaf and Simon Le Bon. There are local acts such as Zucchero. Michael Bolton is a surprise hit, joining Pavarotti in the operatic standard Vesti La Giubba. And, above all, there is the stage version of Miss Sarajevo, performed with Bono,The Edge and Brian Eno. As on the Passengers single, Pavarotti’s entrance is uplifting; the U2 singer is wise enough to keep his own vocal separate and restrained.
Being for War Child, these collaborations have a purpose that will put them above reproach. But at other times, Pavarotti’s dalliances with pop music have taken some stick. Classical buffs are apt to be sniffy – even if, as John Peel quipped recently, “Saying Schubert is better than Blur is like saying Tuesday is better than a piece of string.” Pavarotti himself has no intellectual pretensions and is unapologetic: “Since I am a kid I always sung: pop songs, that has always interested me… I go 1,000 kilometres in my car. For 800 kilometres I listen on the radio to pop music, for 200 classical music. Because I think is lighter, more dancing, the body moves more. Is less cerebral, more immediate. And I was always like that as a person.
“Bono, he write on purpose Miss Sarajevo. I enjoy. Believe me, is a great enjoyment. They are great people generally, very nice. And they make music today. The music I am singing in the world of opera is written 100 years ago. We are celebrating Bohème now, 100 years old. So Bono has done a song. Of course, I don’t want to make comparison between Bohème and Bono song, but is still very good music, very important music and is done now, in the occasion of your life. Is a piece of your life. Is not music that you put in your life, but your life that goes inside the music. Is very gratifying.”
You’ve said you were fascinated by rock people. Do you mix with them easily?
“Very easy. Very fascinated. Very easy. This year we probably make another concert with Elton John. I would like to do that for a very long time while I am singing. It is good, because it make known classic music to the pop kids, and make known pop music to the classic people. A very good combination. Last year we divide the audience exactly in two, the kids were here standing, the other side Lady Diana was sitting in the very first row. It was an incredible experience. Beautiful.”
Among his sunniest memories is the day that he spent on Bruce Springsteen’s farm in New Jersey. He actually got to meet the Boss’s pet ostritch, and how few of us can claim that privilege. Is Springsteen a friend?
Pavarotti protests modestly: “Friend… It would be an honour to be friend of these people. I know them, I know them very well. I think we are close to be friends. We have to stay together more to use the word friend, really, and that is what I am planning to do; Bruce is a great person, the family is a great family, they are beautiful kids, they give value to the right-thinking world, beside the greatest performances. Then Sting is the same, he is fantastic fellow, beautiful fellow. Bryan Adams has just left my room now, we have lunch together, very sweet person. Bono, I think we will become very close with Bono. It take me time to convince him to come [to the festival] but when he was ready he enjoy. And when he sang the song by himself, all the kids were singing with him. I think he was very touched, he almost cried.”
It’s said you are nervous of singing with these people.
“1 am nervous anyhow, even in the opera! It was a very different approach to the music, so it’s not so easy:”
Surely they must be far more nervous, having to sing with you.
“They say so, but they are very good. I don’t see them scared. None of them.”
Do you think more people will tum to opera?
“I have no doubt. You should ask Bryan Adams. He was at Bohème last night and he was astonished, really. Because for the first time he realise what is opera. Many people of the pop field didn’t understand what opera is because they don’t know. So they go there and they enjoy. It is a big inspiration, Puccini, for a writer of music like he is … My dream is that one rock person will go with a classic person and together they make an opera. Then it can be that something new is coming out. It must be something new.”
Where should a beginner start?
“They always should go for a good drama. For example, Puccini is a good way to meet – Tosca, Bohème. Comic opera like Elixir Of Love [by Donizetti] is fantastic, Barber Of Seville [Rossini]. And then, little by little, they should go to Verdi, who is more important than all the other composers … For me, I like Mozart and Beethoven in the classic, I like Verdi in the operatic. If I have to choose one composer I will be a traitor of Italy because I will choose Mozart, because he has done classic and opera. In the way he has written, I think, he is the greatest genius of all.”
People still suppose that opera is difficult.
“Luckily for me, yes! Ha ha!”
There is another Three Tenors event on its way, to be staged at Wembley, This shrewd alliance has shot its members into new dimensions of success (“We reach one billion and a half. Incredible!”) In public, Pavarotti and his Spanish colleagues, José Carrereas and Placido Domingo, observe a scrupulous truce. Italian singers, he mentions at one point, will always shine because so much great opera was written in their language. There was an English soprano, for example, who could not perform in Italy because of her “abominable” pronunciation. Then he remembers to make an exception for Spanish tenors: “The Spanish speak Italian perfectly.” Tact or subtle point-scoring? It’s hard to tell.
Their rivalry is polite, but real. Domingo in particular is said to envy Pavarotti’s mass appeal. Whatever the men’s technical merits, Pavarotti’s sheer size and public geniality have made him more media-cuddly than his two part-time compadres. His common touch was sanctified when he sang Nessun Dorma for the 1990 World Cup. He gave the game its international anthem. “It finish with the word Vincero, I will win. So it means you will win in life, that is the reason it is so very popular and it is a beautiful song.”
But purists object to this practice of plucking such songs, or arias, out of operatic context. Nessun Dorma is a key passage in Puccini’s Turandot – a work of some two hours in total. Heard in isolation, it lacks the tension built both by the plot and preceding music. The Three Tenors, and the whole idea of “concerts” as opposed to complete performances, are therefore held in some disdain.
“I think it is out of space, what they say,” the Big Guy thunders in response. “Full opera, you come in the opera house here to see Bohème, beautiful cast, beautiful conductor, beautiful everything. The Three Tenors, they meet to popularise, people want to hear them in song. There is many people come to the world of opera when I make the big arenas and Hyde Park. I really try to give an enlargement to the world of opera in that way. That is a great result for me.”
Unlike many celebrities, Pavarotti is famous because he is good at something. Perhaps he really is the best singer in the world. But the great tenors are a dying race.
“I like modern composers, but they do not write for the voice,” he says, bleakly. “They cannot. Find one modern composer who is writing for the voice of our kind. Absolutely not.” And these are the last years of his career. Operas get more difficult, since the leading tenor roles are for dashing, romantic types. In Bohème, he plays a young and starving artist… His ass may not be history, but it is certainly geography. His size, which helped to build his image, is becoming a theatrical obstacle.
Later, as Q’s photographer Michael Birt -– coaxing a reluctant subject -– compliments him on his face, Il Maestro makes a curious, forlorn remark. “My face. Is the only acceptable part of my body.”