From our files: An interview with Luciano Pavarotti

In 1972, the Monitor spoke with the legendary tenor, who died last night in his hometown of Modena, Italy.

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From the May 26, 1972 edition of the Monitor.

Twelve or so years ago, young students in a school in Modena, Italy, had as their instructor a big, burly fellow townsman, only recently out of the Scuola Magistralle, where teachers undergo an extensive preparatory course of training in a variety of subjects. His name was Luciano Pavarotti, and with his boyishness and outgoing charm, he must have been able to make lessons in languages, music, religion and gymnastics very palatable to his charges. Just as his awesome size would automatically discourage malfactors.

Today Mr. Pavarotti's former pupils must represent a very select coterie in Moden, where, in his own words, 'We all begin to go to the opera at the age of four or five." For the big young Modenese teacher of 12 years ago is today one of the world's most sought-after operatic tenors, a singer in the great tradition of Italian bel canto. And everyone in Modena, from youngsters to oldsters, knows from experience what that means.

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Family ties

After opening the Metropolitan Opera's spring tour in Boston opposite Joan Sutherland in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment," Mr. Pavarotti was comfortably relaxed before an upcoming "Boheme." The talk turned to home – he is very much a family man in the Italian tradition. His wife, who joined him for part of the current tour, was a classmate when they were both training to be teachers. In his absence – he is away for all but about three months a year – she and their three daughters, aged 9 1/2, 7 1/2, and 5 1/2, live with her sister's family with includes four boys of about the same age. Mr. Pavarotti's father ("He has a fine tenor voice") still sings in the Modena opera chorus and in church, but his mother is confined to their home, and to her son's regret, has never heard him on the stage.

"My wife is not a musician," he said, "but she makes very normal, sensible judgments about music. She is an expert – the real thing. One night we went to a very fine opera with a big conductor – famous – and after a while she said "Why is this conductor so famous" He is impossible, he does this and this - ' I had thought, he's all right. I hadn't noticed this and this, but the day after, the critics came out and wrote just like what my wife had said about this conductor, and he was – pfuff, finished." Mr. Pavarotti smiled rather wanly, and chuckled softly – a winsome tribute to woman's intuition.

Pavarotti and pirates

After the tour, Mr. Pavarotti sings in the Met's three week Verdi Festival (June 5 – 24) at the opera house in New York, then goes to England to record Puccini's "Turandot" for London Records. He will be in good company – Miss Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, and Nicolai Ghiaurov are the other principals, and Zubin Mehta the conductor.

"This is a new opera for me," Mr. Pavarotti said, "and I hope it will go well. It is beautiful, beautiful to sing, but when I record I must concentrate – I think I cannot sing this opera on the stage for a few years..."

"I like to make records, but let me tell you a story. In Philadelphia last winter I sang Donizetti's 'Puritani' on the stage with Beverly Sills. It was a big success with the public and we were very happy. Then 15 days later, someone came to my dressing room at the Met after a performance. 'Would you please sign this record?' he said. 'What record is this?' I asked. 'It's your "Puritani"'...

"A pirate record! This did not make me very happy. I signed, but I told this young man if someone makes pirate records of my voice he should at least give me five or six copies for me."

Mr. Pavarotti laughed. "And what do you think? The next time I sang, there in my dressing room at the Met were six copies of this pirate record – for my father, my mother, my wife, for me. No note – nothing." How did it sound? He hesitated. "Cosi, cosi," he said with a smile.

'Father, go home, please...'

Summer will not be all recordings. Mr. Pavarotti will sing performances of Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" at the open air Arena di Verona, which is ust 60 miles from home. Then there will be some vacation with the family before the traveling starts again.

There had always been music in the Pavarotti family, and Luciano's interest in singing continued even when he was pursuing a teaching career. In 1961 he was urged to enter a singing competition, for which first prize was an operatic debut. It all worked like magic. He was the winner and the debut – as Rodolfo in "La Boheme" - was made under the happiest auspices in Regio Emilia's "jewelbox of an opera house," with Fansciso Molinari-Pradelli conducting and the famous retired soprano, Mafalda Favero, staging an opera for the one and only time.

"My career began well, and that was a good sign," he recalled. "My voice was a little thread, fine for that little theater. I was very proud, of course, but my father said, 'Nice, but Gigli and Schipa don't sing like that – you must work some more.'

"Of course he was right, but I reminded his of it later. Several years ago there was a special gala of 'La Boheme' in Modena. Mirella Freni, who is also a Modenese, and I both sang, and it was arranged for my father to sing Parpignol – you know, the toyseller who has a few phrases in the Café Momus scene. My poor father was very nervous at the general rehearsal, and on one of those few notes his voice cracked – phut! Afterward I took him aside, 'Father,' I said, 'you must go home and study some more, please.'" And the son laughed heartily at what must now be as much a Pavarotti family joke as legend in Modena.

English-speaking tour

After gaining early experience in Italy, the young singer was engaged by theaters in Holland, Austria and Switzerland, and in 1963 made his Covent Garden debut in "La Boheme" as a replacement for Giuseppe Di Stefano. He returned to England the following year as Idamante ("That's a girl's part," he observed with a laugh) in Mozart's "Idomeneo," at the Glyndebourne Festival, where he had a chance to perfect the English he had studied in school at home. These opportunities were furthered when Richard Bonyge arranged to have him make his North American debut (in 1965 in Miami) opposite his wife, Joan Sutherland, in "Lucia de Lammermoor," followed by a three-month tour of Australia with the Sutherland-Williamson company.

The burgeoning tenor returned to his homeland in triumph. His town of Modena honored him with its highest "Principessa Carlotta" prize; that lion's den for singers. Parma, voted him its "Verdi d'Oro," and in 1966 he went to La Scala for his debut as Tebaldo in Bellini's rare "I Capuletti ed I Montecchi," and sang in a Verdi Requiem under Herbert von Karajan in a centenary birthday tribute to Arturo Toscanini. Bellini's birthplace, Catania, very particular about the way its native son's music is sung, took his "Puritani" to its heart, and he sand a variety of bel canto roles in other leading Italian theaters.

Once, a prominent Italian critic compared his Nemorino in Donizetti's 'L'Elisir d'Amore" to that of a famous tenor(a Pavarotti idol) now passed on. "He shouldn't have done this," Pavarotti said with a frown. "I was, of course, honored by his intention, but to say I sang like him, or as well as – well, I think this is not right...." (His large frame trembled as does "Trovatore's" Count Luna when he reacts in melodramatic horror with "Io fremo.") Superstition, one asks? No no - "He was he, I am I" was the gist of his feeling.

Not right and all right

The situation in Italian theaters, once the breeding ground for a race of fine singers, gives Mr. Pavarotti some concern. "For the most part, they are not in good hands," he mourns. "What can one think when many of the leading Italian singers are no longer interested to sing at La Scala, with one of the best choruses and orchestras for opera in the world? It is political trouble – musical politics – changes that neglect the past. I am an Italian, and I a proud of La Scala, like my colleagues, but La Scala looks now in a different way than it did at its country's leading singers. Now, one wins a singing contest on television and becomes famous overnight – without experience or solid training, despite fine gifts. Is this right? Have we all wasted our time? I think not, I think not..."

On a more cheerful note, Mr. Pavarotti spoke of the possibility of Donizetti's "La Favorita" (with its luscious tenor role) in San Francisco in 1973, and "the dream of every tenor – Manrico in 'Il Trovatore' – as long as 10 years away for me. It is a full lyric role, loudness has nothing to do with it, but it must carry and be strong."

Concerts? "Oh yes, I will do some. One with orchestra, only arias, and later in Carnegie Hall, New York, with arias and some antique songs. I hope they will go well, but for me, it is better, the right lights and the smell of the stage – I must enjoy myself when I sing, and concentrate on what is happening. In concert, I don't know. But I tell – if everything is lovingly done – everything will be all right - [crescendo toward high C] all-l-l RIGHT!"

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