Thursday, September 6, 2007
The curtain falls: Pavarotti
Pavarotti as Nemorino. Image: The New York Times
You may think it's odd when I tell you that Luciano Pavarotti was one of the first celebrities I learned to recognize as a little girl, but you probably didn't grow up with a half-Italian mother who listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts every wintertime Saturday. My mom, like her ancestors before her, is an opera fan. (My grandmother was even named after a famous mezzo.) She's not super-cultivated or super-refined--not the kind of fan who owns scores of CDs and debates various singers' merits at the dinner table--but she likes the great melodies, the great voices, the composers like Mozart, Bizet, and the Italians (Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini...). And for people like my mom, Pavarotti was ideal.
This was in the early 1990s--the era of the Three Tenors, when Pavarotti was the world's most famous and beloved opera singer. Our small but growing CD collection had at least eight discs of solo Pavarotti arias, as well as some of his "My Favorite Opera" compilations. And when my mother discovered (probably to her surprise) that her little girl didn't find this kind of music too complex or loud or strange, but really actually LIKED it, we became opera fans together. She'd get picture books from the library that narrated famous opera plots, and tell me the opera trivia she knew: "The tenor is always the good guy, except in Rigoletto."
We would tape the "Live from the Met" TV specials and I would watch them over and over. Mom would always point out Pavarotti (the star attraction) and his trademark handkerchief to me. At the age of 5, I became obsessed with The Elixir of Love starring Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle. I watched it so much I can still hum some of the music--granted, it is a wildly catchy opera.
(Tangent: Kathleen Battle was my introduction to the idea of the "diva". After the stories surfaced about her getting dismissed from the Met for "unprofessional behavior," I couldn't believe that the pretty lady from The Elixir of Love was throwing tantrums and abusing the people who worked with her. Though come to think of it, her character in Elixir was quite a scornful, proud woman herself!)
I even remember Mom, in the kitchen, showing me how to make salad dressing and pointing out the label on the balsamic vinegar: "It comes from Modena--that's where Pavarotti was born!"
And yet--and this is what makes the news of Pavarotti's death today so odd for me--because he was one of the first celebrities I learned to recognize, he also played a part in my understanding of mortality. I think it was because of the disconnect between his voice and his appearance. Here he had this stunning, ringing, powerful, young man's voice encased in a rotund late-middle-aged body that sweated profusely under the spotlights. I don't think I even noticed the dyed beard and eyebrows at the time, but I could sense that he did not have too many more years of performing ahead of him. (This, despite his ebullient personality and my own tender age.) Young children assume that everything is permanent. But watching the aging Pavarotti on television, I realized that that's not so. That there'd come a day (today) when this singer, whom I loved, would no longer be alive.
Ma la voce è immortale.
Pavarotti is still preserved forever young on all the recordings he made. I still recognize his voice more instantaneously than that of any other opera singer, and I still get chills when I listen to "Nessun dorma"--so I try not to do it too much, because I don't ever want to lose that feeling that comes when hearing sublime music sung by a sublime talent.
UPDATE 9/9: This article from The Observer says a lot of what I was trying to say there about the mortal flesh and the immortal voice...or soul? Check it out, it's good.