As 2013 Draws to a Close: Reflections on Opera


2013 brought world-wide celebrations for rival composers, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.  Whilst they both respected each other deep down (if not secretly admired each other), so many words of exclusion were uttered between them during their tenure as the greatest living opera composers of the 19th Century. One did not seemingly have time for the music of the other and we might go as far as saying that the music of one did not exist for the other; but, exist it did.  In fact, Verdi may never have been inspired to compose Otello or Falstaff without Wagner’s presence and his threat to Italian operatic supremacy.  Nonetheless, without either of these composers we may not have been blessed with what remain the most important and valuable operatic compositions in history.

Wagner 200th



Wagner’s epic and gargantuan Der Ring Des Nibelungen continues to be a monumental presentation in opera houses like Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera and directors are attempting, still,  to create new ideas for this magnitudinous work.  Verdi, on the other hand, bore operas that are staples of melody, intricate plots, drama, and memorable arias to the point that there isn’t an opera house on earth that doesn’t present a Verdi opera in every season.  What would Italian opera be without the magnificence of Il Trovatore, Don Carlo, Traviata, or Otello?  The world over, celebrations have graced this operatic year, giving honour and praise to these two giants.  These are interesting historical times to live in, to say the least.


Amidst celebrations, there has also been fear over the economic and artistic state in Italy, and threats to close La Scala, the leading opera house in the country.  That Italians might even ponder this idea seems like a self-imploding mistake, but I hold fast to the fact that Italians are very territorial and very patriotic.  They will not let the house close or be threatened because opera is, contrary to some who think it’s soccer, the national pastime of Italians.  It is their greatest universal export and the birthplace of opera.  Let’s keep Italy and all countries in our thoughts as the New Year chimes in, in hope for continued prosperity and the protection of the art we love.

For some, 2013 has brought strife, illness, losses, anxiety, death, and suffering.  So many people I’ve spoken to have had one of the worst years possible. Nearing the end of this year, I lost my beloved grandfather Raffaele Greco, who was an artisan, and Italian trained tailor and clothing designer who inspired my life in many ways. The pain of loss never ceases but it eases by lingering in memories.  Every time I try on a new gown or costume, I can’t help think of him and his precise and pristine manner with clothing to the point that I, myself, have become picky about tailoring. Whatever the reasons, perhaps it’s the association with the number 13, or just a turning point in the scheme of life this year, we will never know understand reasons for having an extraordinarily bad year. On a positive turn, I think the best thing to do in this case is to take the bad with the good, even if it comes in small doses.  It is important to be thankful and know that a bleak year usually means that the next one won’t be so bleak.  Hopefully, it will be filled with joy, happiness, good health, success, birth, and prosperity.  We can only take what we’ve learned and move forward so here’s to ending 2013 and starting 2014 on a positive and prosperous note. I, for one, intend 2014 to be a fabulous year.  I hope you do, too!


Rising Tenor, Michael Fabiano

Since, I keep abreast of all things Metropolitan Opera, I want to encourage you to tune into the New Year’s Eve broadcast on Met Opera Radio or Live on the Met Website, which is the ever fun and fashionable Die Fledermaus.  In it, the fabulous rising tenor, Michael Fabiano, makes his debut as Alfred and will show you the fun and comical side of his usually handsome, brooding, and serious characterizations.  Although Michael is versatile and will wow you in this role, we’re waiting to see him at the Met in his exquisite interpretation of Rodolfo and other romantic roles.  Congratulations to him and all singers who have made debuts and recordings this year, specifically a new recording by the ever beautiful Ailyn Perez and her handsome husband and sunny-voiced tenor, Stephen Costello.  You will want to get this one while it’s hot!  Also, kudos to mezzo-soprano’s Jamie Barton on her Met Debut as Adalgisa and her winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and to Isabel Leonard who was the recipient of the Richard Tucker Award. These young singers are the lifeblood of opera today and I wish them every bit of success possible.  Keep your eye on them in 2014 and you won’t be disappointed!


Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez

Jamie Barton

Cardiff Singer of the World:  mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton

Isabel Leonard

Richard Tucker Award Winner:  mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard

To all opera lovers:  it seems like we belong to a special club that no one else understands.  We actually do and how blessed are we to understand, know, and adore this art that has caused controversy, excitement, audience explosions, scandal, thrills, and absolute beauty since its inception?  To talk about it and discuss it is to keep its blood flowing, to keep it thriving.  I will never stop talking about opera or wanting to share its magnificent message.  There is nothing like it!  We can all do our part to keep it alive in our own communities, to share it with people who haven’t yet been bitten by the bug, and to continue to support LIVE performance.  Here’s to 2014 and to opera, the greatest art in the world, and the closest thing to Heaven that we’ll ever know.  May 2014 be blessed  for you and yours.  Cheers!

Golden Sky Happy New Year 2014 HD Wallpapers

Threats to the Future of La Scala Milano

La Scala

Yesterday, Italian Newspapers released articles discussing that factions of cultural government are threatening the continuation of La Scala and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano.

Di Cultura. Pisapia, senza modifiche gravi difficoltà per la Scala e per il Piccolo Teatro

Il Sindaco, chiederò audizione a Commissione Cultura Camera

( Milano, 27 settembre 2013 – “Ho sperato sino all’ultimo che il Senato modificasse il provvedimento che, se non sarà cambiato dalla Camera, provocherà una situazione di grave difficoltà per il futuro non solo della Scala, ma anche del Piccolo Teatro. Per questo condivido pienamente l’allarme dei sindacati”. 

Lo afferma il sindaco di Milano Giuliano Pisapia commentando l’approvazione del Dl Cultura al Senato. 

“Forse il Governo si e’ dimenticato che Milano nei prossimi due anni ospiterà appuntamenti fondamentali per l’intero paese come Expo 2015 e il semestre di Presidenza europea. Quel che e’ più grave e’ che le criticità del provvedimento erano state segnalate, ma non vi e’ stato alcun riscontro. Per questo chiederò subito un’audizione alla Commissione Cultura della Camera per evitare un grave danno a istituzioni che sono un eccellenza di Milano e di tutto il paese”. 

This situation is a rather grave one and bothered me to my fundamental core.  It seems that the Italian government is fine to keep their national sport, soccer (football), thriving but let’s just threaten what is likely the greatest artistic export Italy has ever known and the opera house that stands at the heart of that history: Il Teatro alla Scala.  Something is drastically wrong with this picture.  The mayor of Milano, Giuliano Pisapia, as quoted above, reminded the senate yesterday that Milano is going to host the Expo in 2015 and he is making a plea to the House of Cultural Commissions to evade a grand injustice to the institutions that have led Milan and the entire country to excellence in the arts.

stage of la scala

This history of La Scala is rich within the artistic climate of Italy and has been since its inception on the 3rd of August 1778 Originally known as the New Royal-Ducal Theatre alla Scala (Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala). The premiere performance was Antonio Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta

Most of Italy’s greatest operatic artists, and many of the finest singers from around the world, have appeared at La Scala during the past 200 years. Today, the theatre is still recognised as one of the leading opera and ballet theatres in the world and is home to the La Scala Theatre Chorus, La Scala Theatre Ballet, and La Scala Theatre Orchestra. The theatre also has an associate school, known as the La Scala Theatre Academy (Italian: Accademia Teatro alla Scala), which offers professional training in music, dance, stage craft and stage management.

But, really….let’s close this house up.

La Scala’s season traditionally opens on 7 December, the feast day of Milan’s patron saint, Saint Ambrogio.  All performances must end before midnight, and long operas start earlier in the evening when necessary.  Within La Scala exists The Museo Teatrale della Scala  (La Scala Theatre Museum), accessible from the theatre’s foyer and a part of the house, contains a collection of paintings, drafts, statues, costumes, and other documents regarding La Scala’s and opera history in general. La Scala also hosts the Accademia d’Arti e Mestieri dello Spettacolo (Academy for the Performing Arts). Its goal is to train a new generation of young musicians, technical staff, and dancers (at the Scuola di Ballo del Teatro della Scala, one of the Academy’s divisions).

But who cares about history and schools for young musicians and dancers….let’s close this house up.

La Scala Interior

A fire destroyed the previous theatre, the Teatro Reggio Ducale on 25 February 1776, after a carnival gala. A group of ninety wealthy Milanese, who owned palchi (private boxes) in the theatre, wrote to Archduke Ferdinand of Austria -Este  asking for a new theatre and a provisional one to be used while completing the new one. The neo-classical architect Giuseppe Piermarinii produced an initial design but it was rejected by Count Firmian (the governor of the then Austrian Lombardy).

A second plan was accepted in 1776 by Empress Maria Theresa. The new theatre was built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre gets its name. The church was deconsecrated and demolished, and over a period of two years the theatre was completed by Pietro Marliani, Pietro Nosetti and Antonio and Giuseppe Fe. The theatre had a total over 3,000 seats organized into 678 pit-stalls, arranged in six tiers of boxes above which is the ‘loggione’ or two galleries. Its stage is one of the largest in Italy (16.15m d x 20.4m w x 26m h).

Building expenses were covered by the sale of palchi, which were lavishly decorated by their owners, impressing observers such as Stendhal.  La Scala (as it came to be known) soon became the preeminent meeting place for noble and wealthy Milanese people. In the tradition of the times, the platea (the main floor) had no chairs and spectators watched the shows standing up. The orchestra was in full sight, as the golfo mistico (orchestra pit) had not yet been built.

But again….why would anyone care?  Let’s just close it up.

La Scala in Verdi's time

La Scala in Verdi’s time

Above the boxes, La Scala has a gallery where the less wealthy can watch the performances, called the loggione. The loggione is typically crowded with the most critical opera aficionados, who can be ecstatic or merciless towards singers’ perceived successes or failures. La Scala’s loggione is considered a baptism of fire in the opera world, and fiascos are long remembered. (One recent incident occurred in 2006 when tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage during a performance of Aida, forcing his understudy, Antonello Palombi, quickly to replace him mid-scene without time to change into a costume.) Of course, La Scala is not without scandal.  For me, the most outstanding of scandals took place in 1868 with the premiere of Boito’s Mefistofele, when the entire audience was so shocked by the presence of the devil and his “control” of the world that they ran out of the theatre screaming into the Piazza della Scala.

But…never mind….let’s close her up!

La Scala was originally illuminated with 84 oil lamps mounted on the palcoscenico and another thousand in the rest of theatre. To prevent the risks of fire, several rooms were filled with hundreds of water buckets. In time, oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps, these in turn were replaced by electric lights in 1883.

The original structure was renovated in 1907, when it was given its current layout with 2,800 seats. In 1943, during WWII, La Scala was severely damaged by bombing. It was rebuilt and reopened on 11 May 1946, with a memorable concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini—twice La Scala’s principal conductor and an associate of the composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini—with a soprano solo by Renata Tebaldi that created a sensation.

Toscanini Conducts

Arturo Toscanini


La Tebaldi at La Scala

La Scala hosted the prima (first production) of many famous operas, and had a special relationship with Verdi. For several years, however, Verdi did not allow his work to be played here, as some of his music had been modified (he said “corrupted”) by the orchestra. This dispute originated in a disagreement over the production of his Giovanna D’Arco in 1845; however the composer later conducted his Requiem there on 25 May 1874 and he announced in 1886 that La Scala would host the premiere of what was to become his penultimate opera, Otello. The premiere of his last opera, Falstaff was also given in the theatre.

Otello premiere

Falstaff Manifesto

Turandot Prima

In 1982, the Filarmonica della Scala was established, drawing its members from the larger pool of musicians that comprise the Orchestra della Scala.

But yeah….see ya later La Scala.


They Italians have no problem promoting soccer or sports, but it’s ok to throw out comments that suggest closing a theatre that stands historically at the helm of the greatest art Italy has exported.  I think the issue is that government officials are  coming to office younger and younger and like many Italians, they are obsessed with la Cultura Americana, which also placates to sports more than it does to Opera and other classical arts.  It has seemed that La Scala has always been a house that North American opera companies have looked  going because La Scala has always been there, like a father figure, showing them the way, and now that the main helm of opera is being threatened, what will happen here? Some people think opera and music is a dispensable art.  Is it?  How many films have you watched in complete silence?  How many children go to schools now and receive absolutely no music or arts education?  What are we creating, a society of robot-like and technologically savvy youngins who have no idea who Beethoven is or who Verdi is?

The very notion of closing La Scala, or even the very mention of it threatens so many things.  It’s the large rock that falls into a still pool…the ripples will continue to resound in areas that we can’t even imagine for years after.  It is my hope and I’m sure the hope of many that the Italian government will protect the institutions of art that bring so much joy and culture to the world.  If not, North American companies and other European houses, remain steadfast in your devotion to opera and the arts.  Do not follow suit.  A life with out art is darkness….a life without opera….unimaginable, at least for me.


Soprano Raina Kabaivanska Speaks of the Vecchia Scuola in Opera News

Reunion: Raina Kabaivanska

Steven Mercurio catches up with the great Bulgarian soprano who became one of verismo’s most thrilling performers.

Reunion Kabaivanska hdl 913

Photographed by Joseph Nemeth in Modena, Italy
© Joseph Nemeth 2013
When I first became interested in opera and singing, I used to be an avid reader of Opera News.  It was fascinating to read the articles and see the pictures of the singers on stage, and read about their thoughts on singing and acting, but in recent years I honestly haven’t read it as much as I used to.  This month, I decided to pick up the September issue, mainly because of Anna Netrebko’s face on the cover (her interview is also worth a read since she discusses other aspects of today’s school that are both conflicting and difficult) and was pleasantly surprised to find a feature on the Bulgarian Soprano Raina Kabaivanska.  Normally, I wouldn’t write a blog post on this sort of article but I feel it’s important to reiterate what Mme. Kabaivanska said and why.  
Immediately attractive to me was the mention of her studies at the Liceo Musicale di Viotti in Vercelli in 1959 and how her teachers immediately placed her in a specific repertoire.  There was none of this toying around in every genre and style, which is beneficial in many respects, but in regard to training an opera voice, perhaps the old school way of following a maestro or maestra’s indelible knowledge to guide a voice in a specific repertoire was more economical in the long run. Also, when young singers are spread out among repertoires they often become confused and aren’t sure where their voice should remain.  She wrote that her teacher immediately placed her in the Italian repertoire and she “began to focus on the major Italian roles–Nedda, Mimi, Desdemona, etc.” At one time, and many aficionados remember, there were separate wings at the Met in which specific singers were known for specializing in either the Italian, German, or French Repertoire.  Today, it seems that a soprano is supposed to sing everything and be jack of all trades, master of none.  That is not to say that one should not sing German opera if you are an Italian singer, but maybe the old school had it right….leave the singing of specific operas to those who can sing them best.  Would you rather hear Nilsson in Wagner or in Verdi? Caruso in Freischutz?  No thanks, at least not me.
Kabaivanska talks about pronunciation because most of what you are doing in bel canto is sustaining words (vowels) as opposed to sustaining sound.  She brings up the issue that in today’s school (if we must segregate the two) that singers aren’t as apt to focus on the word.  I tend to agree with her.  It isn’t just about sound, it’s about sound connected to your own natural innate one, your own voice…the one that speaks.  I won’t even get into the number of contrasting and contradicting technical schools I’ve come across in my life, but essentially “si canta come si parla” is a rule of thumb for this woman and I’m with her.
She discusses her first Tosca and her love of the role Francesca da Rimini, which she doesn’t classify as a Verismo opera.  She sees it more like “Strauss alla Italiana,” but what is most interesting is her discussion about the conductor’s role in preparing the singer to achieve a role successfully.  “Often in today’s musical environment, conductors find themselves in a situation where the singer is “prepared” or has learned the role in a particular way, with little interest in learning, sharing or discovering more,” she says.

“Those times were completely different!

We approached our work with much more humility.”

According to Mme. Kabaivanska, once you learn the music correctly, there is the learning of “tradition.” She recalls her first days with Maestro Fausto Cleva and how terrified she was to please him.  “Everyone respected the authority given to the position of the maestro.  It was important to get it right. But once again, these conductors had the insight to understand talent and how to help bring it out of everyone, which in my opinion is at present unfortunately and sadly missing,” she says.  Openly, she goes further to say that issues also plague the theatres in that they are being run by people who aren’t really qualified for the position.

I must say that I have always respected Mme. Kabaivanska, but I think my respect deepened for her in reading this because it really illuminates clearly the fact that two schools exist, but also that we as singers need to pay attention to those who were linked to that period of opera she discusses.  She belonged to opera of a different time.  Audiences did not want less or more, but they expected singers to follow in the tradition of Muzio, Tettrazzini, Ponselle, Cigna, then later Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Favero, etc.  As generations pass, who is going to know about this tradition if today’s singers are not following in it.  There are, of course, those singers who are but there is no question that a distinct shift in technique and style is audible and no one can deny that. Personally and I think for many young singers, we want to cling to that “vecchia scuola” which is for some of us the “only” school.  Of course, this is my opinion and it is not the only one.  Many may disagree with me, but I hold to it and hope that when I open my mouth and my singers open their mouths that something of our attempt to belong to that tried and true tradition is present.



I respect deeply those singers like Mme. Kabaivanska and others who speak their mind and lived during that magnificent period of golden voices and excellence.  We can all learn from their continued devotion to the art form and by trying to place our feet gently and carefully within the giant footprints they left for us to follow.

Six Years Gone and Still His Voice Gleams Brilliant: In Tribute to Luciano Pavarotti

By Dr. Mary-Lou Vetere

Pavarotti End

The Greatest

His voice is unmistakable, individual, a ray of sunshine that gleams brighter even on the sunniest day, a thread of gold that blessed our lives for the limited time he was here.  Six years ago, the radio suddenly stopped its regular program and his voice began playing over the airwaves.  Who would have known the next information would be that this voice would now remain silent.  Luciano Pavarotti was simply the most beautiful voice in the world and then…in a fleeting moment, it was over.  What remains is a gaping hole that is meagrely filled by recordings and videos, pictures, and memories of those who heard and saw him live, but these things can never capture the larger-than-life essence that was this man.

Young Luciano 1

Young and handsome

Luciano Pavarotti was born in 1935 on the outskirts of Modena in Northern Italy, the son of Fernando Pavarotti, a baker and amateur tenor, and Adele Venturi, a cigar factory worker. Although he spoke fondly of his childhood, the family had little money; its four members were crowded into a two-room apartment. According to Pavarotti, his father had a fine tenor voice but rejected the possibility of a singing career because of nervousness. 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 neighbouring countryside, where the young Pavarotti developed an interest in farming.

After abandoning the dream of becoming a soccer goalkeeper, Pavarotti spent seven years in vocal training. Pavarotti’s earliest musical influences were his father’s recordings, most of them featuring the popular tenors of the day – Beniamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli, Tito Schipa, and Enrico Caruso. Pavarotti’s favourite tenor and idol was Giuseppe Di Stefano. He was also deeply influenced by Mario Lanza, saying, “In my teens I used to go to Mario Lanza movies and then come home and imitate him in the mirror”. At around the age of nine he began singing with his father in a small local church choir.

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 Scuola Magistrale and faced the dilemma of a career choice. He was interested in pursuing a career as a professional soccer goalie, 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. Recognising the risk involved, his father gave his consent only reluctantly.

Pavarotti began the serious study of music in 1954 at the age of 19 with Arrigo Pola, a respected teacher and professional tenor in Modena who offered to teach him without remuneration. In 1955, he experienced his first singing success when he was a member of the Corale Rossini, a male voice choir from Modena that also included his father, which won first prize at the International Eistedfodd in Llangollen, Wales. He later said that this was the most important experience of his life, and that it inspired him to become a professional singer. At about this time Pavarotti first met Adua Veroni. They married in 1961.

When his teacher Arrigo Pola moved to Japan, Pavarotti became a student of Ettore Campogalliani who at that time was also teaching Pavarotti’s childhood friend, Mirella Freni, whose mother worked with Luciano’s mother in the cigar factory. Like Pavarotti, Freni was destined to operatic greatness; they were to share the stage many times and make memorable recordings together.

Just like many young singers, during his years of musical study, Pavarotti held part-time jobs in order to sustain himself – first as an elementary school teacher and then as an insurance salesman. The first six years of study resulted in only a few recitals, all in small towns and without pay. When a nodule developed on his vocal chords, causing a “disastrous” concert in Ferrara, he decided to give up singing. THANK GOD HE DIDN’T!!! 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”.

Young Luciano 2

Getting ready with that mischievous smile

Pavarotti began his career as a tenor in smaller regional Italian opera houses, making his debut as Rodolfo in La Boheme at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia in April 1961. He made his first international appearance in La Traviata in Belgrade. Very early in his career, on 23 February 1963, he debuted at the Vienna State Opera in the same role. In March and April 1963 Vienna saw Pavarotti again as Rodolfo and as Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto. The same year saw his first concert outside Italy when he sang in Dundalk, Ireland for the St Cecilia’s Gramophone Society and his Royal Opera House debut, where he replaced an indisposed Giuseppe Di Stefano as Rodolfo.

With Sutherland

With the great Joan Sutherland

While generally successful, Pavarotti’s early roles did not immediately propel him into the stardom that he would later enjoy. An early coup involved his connection with Joan Sutherland (and her conductor husband, Richard Bonynge), who in 1963 had sought a young tenor taller than herself to take along on her tour to Australia. With his commanding physical presence, Pavarotti proved ideal.The two sang some forty performances over two months, and Pavarotti later credited Sutherland for the breathing technique that would sustain him over his career. He made his American début with the Greater Miami Opera in February 1965, singing in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Joan Sutherland.  The tenor scheduled to perform that night became ill with no understudy. As Sutherland was traveling with him on tour, she recommended the young Pavarotti as he was well acquainted with the role.

Shortly after, on 28 April, Pavarotti made his La Scala debut in the revival of the famous Franco Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, with his childhood friend Mirella Freni singing Mimi and Herbert von Karajan conducting. Karajan had requested the singer’s engagement. After an extended Australian tour, he returned to La Scala, where he added Tebaldo from I Capuletti e i Montecchi to his repertoire on 26 March 1966, with Giacomo Aragall as Romeo. His first appearance as Tonio in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment took place at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 2 June of that year. It was his performances of this role that would earn him the title of “King of the High Cs”.

Being nasty

Being a tad nasty with Renata Scotto.  That mischievousness latent here.

He scored another major triumph in Rome on 20 November 1969 when he sang in I Lombari opposite Renata Scotto. This was recorded on a private label and widely distributed, as were various recordings of his I Capuleti e i Montecchi, usually with Aragall. His major breakthrough in the United States came on 17 February 1972, in a production of La fille du régiment at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in which he drove the crowd into a frenzy with his nine effortless high C’s in the signature aria. He achieved a record seventeen curtain calls. Pavarotti sang his international recital début at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri on 1 February 1973, as part of the college’s Fine Arts Program, now known as the Harriman-Jewell Concert Series. Perspiring due to nerves and a lingering cold, the tenor clutched a handkerchief throughout the début. The prop became a signature part of his solo performances.

With Price

With the fabulous Leontyne Price

He began to give frequent television performances, starting with his performances as Rodolfo (La bohème) in the first Live from the Met telecast in March 1977, which attracted one of the largest audiences ever for a televised opera. He won many Grammy awards. In 1976, Pavarotti debuted at the Salzburg Festival, appearing in a solo recital on 31 July, accompanied by pianist Leone Magiera. Pavarotti returned to the festival in 1978 with a recital and as the Italian singer in Der Rosenkavalier in 1983 with Idomeneo, and both in 1985 and 1988 with solo recitals. In 1979, he was profiled in a cover story in the weekly magazine Time. That same year saw Pavarotti’s return to the Vienna State Opera after an absence of fourteen years. With Herbert von Karajan conducting, Pavarotti sang Manrico in Il Trovatore In 1978, he appeared in a solo recital on Live from Lincoln Center.

Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti

With the lovely Mirella Freni, his childhood friend and lifetime devotee

At the beginning of the 1980s, he set up The Pavarotti International Voice Competition for young singers, performing with the winners in 1982 in excerpts ofLa bohème and L’elisir d’amore. The second competition, in 1986, staged excerpts of La bohème and Un ballo in maschera. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his career, he brought the winners of the competition to Italy for gala performances of La bohème in Modena and Geneoa and then to China where they staged performances of La bohème in Beijing (Peking). To conclude the visit, Pavarotti performed the inaugural concert in the Great Hall of People before 10,000 people, receiving a standing ovation for nine effortless high Cs. The third competition in 1989 again staged performances of L’elisir d’amore and Un ballo in maschera. The winners of the fifth competition accompanied Pavarotti in performances in Philadelphia in 1997.

In the mid-1980s, Pavarotti returned to two opera houses that had provided him with important breakthroughs, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala. Vienna saw Pavarotti as Rodolfo in La bohème with Carlos Kleiber conducting and again Mirella Freni was Mimi; as Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore; as Radames in Aida conducted by Lorin Maazel; as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller; and as Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera conducted by Claudio Abbado. In 1996, Pavarotti appeared for the last time at the Staatsoper in Andrea Chénier.

With Millo

With his beloved and devoted friend Aprile Millo, Luciano

and she recorded one of the greatest Ballo in Maschera’s in history.

In 1985, Pavarotti sang Radames at La Scala opposite Maria Chiara in a Luca Ronconi production conducted by Maazel, recorded on video. His performance of the aria “Celeste Aida” received a two-minute ovation on the opening night. He was reunited with Mirella Freni for the San Francisco Opera production ofLa bohème in 1988, also recorded on video. In 1991, he recorded with his dear and devoted friend, American Soprano Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Ballo in Maschera’s in history, with James Levine at the podium and Leo Nucci.  In 1992, La Scala saw Pavarotti in a new Zeffirelli production of Don Carlos, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Pavarotti’s performance was heavily criticized by some observers and booed by parts of the audience.

With his buddies

With his buddies, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras

Pavarotti became even better known throughout the world in 1990 when his rendition of the aria Nessun Dorma from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot was taken as the theme song of BBC’s TV coverage of the 1990 FIFA World CUp in Italy. The aria achieved pop status and remained his trademark song. This was followed by the hugely successful Three Tenors concert, held on the eve of the World Cup final at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome with fellow tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras and conductor Zubin Mehta, which became the biggest selling classical record of all time. A highlight of the concert, in which Pavarotti hammed up a famous portion of di Capua’s “O Sole Mio” and was mimicked by Domingo and Carreras to the delight of the audience, became one of the most memorable moments in contemporary operatic history.  In June 1993, more than 500,000 listeners gathered for his free performance on the Great Lawn of New York’s Central Park, while millions more around the world watched on television. The following September, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, he sang for an estimated crowd of 300,000.  On 12 December 1998, he became the first (and, to date, only) opera singer to perform on Saturday Night Live, singing alongside Vanessa Williams.  In 1998, Pavarotti was presented with the Grammy Legend Award.

Amidst the successes, the type of talent that Pavarotti possessed was also the cause of bitter attacks, as is often the case when people are either jealous of someone’s success or simply when something is so remarkably different and stands out so drastically that the only way to deal with it is to criticize it.  For example, In 2004, one of Pavarotti’s former managers, Herbert Breslin, published a book, The King & I. Seen by many as bitter and sensationalistic, it is critical of the singer’s acting (in opera), his inability to read music well and learn parts, and his personal conduct, although acknowledging their success together.  How petty that someone who worked for this wonderful man had nothing better to do but write sensationalistic material for his own gain.  One can imagine how Pavarotti must’ve felt having to hear this type of news…and yet he handled it with persistence and always a kind smile.  I write this for those singers who think that someone who performed at Pavarotti’s level was not without controversy, strife, and criticism.  The criticism only gets more volatile at that level and unfortunately comes with the territory.  

He received an enormous number of awards and honours, including Kennedy Center Honours in 2001. He also holds two Guinness World Records: one for receiving the most curtain calls and another for the best-selling classical album (In Concert by The Three Tenors).

Pavarotti began his farewell tour in 2004, at the age of 69, performing one last time in old and new locations, after more than four decades on the stage. On 13 March 2004, Pavarotti gave his last performance in an opera at the Metropolitan Opera for which he received a long standing ovation for his role as the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca. On 1 December 2004, he announced a 40-city farewell tour. Pavarotti and his manager, Terri Robson, commissioned the Worldwide Farewell Tour. His last full-scale performance was in December 2005.

On 10 February 2006, Pavarotti sang “Nessun Dorma” at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Turin, Italy, at his final performance. In the last act of the opening ceremony, his performance received the longest and loudest ovation of the night from the international crowd. For many of us…this was the last time we saw him or heard him.

While undertaking an international “farewell tour,” Pavarotti was diagnosed with pancreatic in July 2006. The tenor fought back against the implications of this diagnosis, undergoing major abdominal surgery and making plans for the resumption and conclusion of his singing commitments. He died at his home in Modena on 6 September 2007. Within hours of his death, his manager, Terri Robson, noted in an e-mail statement, “The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life. In fitting with the approach that characterized his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness”.

Pavarotti’s funeral was held in the Modena Cathedral.  The Frecce Tricolori, the aerobatic demonstration team of the Italian airforce, flew overhead, leaving green-white-red smoke trails. After a funeral procession through the centre of Modena, Pavarotti’s coffin was taken the final ten kilometres to Montale Rangone, a village part of Castelnuovo Rangone, and was entombed in the Pavarotti family crypt. The funeral, in its entirety, was also telecast live on CNN. The Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival Hall flew black flags in mourning.Tributes were published by many opera houses, such as London’s Royal Opera House. The Italian soccer giant Juventus F.C, of which Pavarotti was a lifelong fan, was represented at the funeral and posted a farewell message on its website which said: “Ciao Luciano, black-and-white heart” referring to the team’s famous stripes when they play on their home ground.

How many lives he touched, and not just singers and opera aficionados.  People the world over who were in horrible situations, marital strife, dying children, world suffering, stopped to hear the voice of this man because it soothed something that nothing else could soothe.  No alcohol, cigarette, drug, or sex could tame the soul like Pavarotti’s sunny, warm, and soothing voice.  It might’ve been an interesting idea to bottle him up and sell him as a tonic.  The proverbial saying is that one never appreciates something until it is gone, and although Luciano Pavarotti was appreciated in life, I think he is appreciated more today than ever. 

Why is it that two little folds of skin in the throat, met by air from the lungs, can manifest the insanity that overcomes an audience and send them into a complete frenzy?  Not to be overly religious here, but God just made it this way and he certainly put something extra special in the throat of Luciano Pavarotti.  When he was trying to play soccer or worked as a math teacher, did he ever imagine that in 2013, six years after his death he would be the standard by which all tenors are evaluated? Every tenor in the world is compared to this man and although there are some fabulous voices singing today, none can quite match the glory that came from that throat.  Not to be morbid, but when he died, I did not sleep well for days because I could not rid myself of the thought that now entombed, that throat would slowly decay…I often wonder if it ever did or if like the relics of the saints, his was kept intact. No one will ever know. Yes, I adored this man almost obsessively.  I recall getting thrown out of a historical conference once because he had been spoken of poorly. I almost ate the speaker alive for doing so, and I would do it again.  For all he was, and for what he gave, for the tears that would slowly and quietly fall down the face of my great-grandfather, who had been an Italian POW kept prisoner in Africa during WWII, whenever he heard Pavarotti’s voice, for the warmth he made at every Christmas when mom would put on his O Holy Night, for the inspiration that he was and remains for me and anyone who attempts to make the “sound” from those two folds of skin, there aren’t words. 

We wait every day for another voice like yours to appear, and like yours there will never be another.  

You were the solitary, singular spirit of true love manifested in sound.

God rest your soul forever, Luciano Pavarotti


February’s Singer of the Month: Renata Tebaldi

The glorious one with the voice of an angel:  Renata Tebaldi

One of the most beautiful Italian voices ever to grace the stage, Renata Tebaldi was born in Pesaro on February 1, 1922.  In memory of Madama Tebaldi’s birthday, having fallen just a few days ago, I decided to implement a new section to this blog called, “Singer of the Month.”  It is only appropriate, knowing my devotion to the old-school and to Italianante singing, that Renata Tebaldi be the first singer featured in this new section.  Every month, I will select a singer or artist of the past or present who has contributed their talents to the field of opera, in one way or another.

Tebaldi was one of those voices that is unforgettable.  Madama’s voice was liquid, lush, filled with vibrancy, with a burnished middle voice, a magnificent upper range, and the power of a hundred chariots.  Her charisma and musicianship combined with her God-given gift, not only made her famous in her day, she remains a true example for any young singer who wants to understand what the “real deal” is.

She studied at the Conservatorio di Musica Arrigo Boito, in Parma with Carmen Mellis and made her debut in 1944 in Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” as Elena. In 1946, when La Scala reopened, she partook in that concert under Toscanini’s baton and subsequently sang Mimi and Eva in the 1946-47 season. From 1949-1954, she sang regularly at La Scala in roles such as:  Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, Desdemona in Otello, and La Wally.  She soon made debuts in London and in San Francisco as Aida.  In 1955, she became a prima at the Metropolitan Opera, where she remained for 20 years.

Tebaldi’s voice was capable of nearly anything.  Not only did she perform the “lirico spinto” repertoire, she also delved into such roles as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Spontini’s Olympia, and Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco, showing a tremendous versatility and range.  Her Forza del Destino is the stuff of legend and I, of course, have a personal devotion to her understanding of Puccini’s repertoire, most specifically Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, and Mimi in La Boheme; not to mention Angelica in Suor Angelica.

If you’ve never watched or seen, or heard her, for that matter, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!? Her elegance, her mannerisms–a true lady–the way in which she used her hands, the beauty of her persona were all aspects that made La Tebaldi what she was, an artist of true value. Her voice lingers in one’s mind and heart, and her’s is a historical lexicon of recordings that we as operagoers, historians, and afficionados must make sure to preserve and introduce to those too young to have known about her.  On this anniversary of her birth, on behalf of all who loved her and continue to, “Madama, we remember…we can never forget and we fight that your legacy continue, that your art, as you saw it and understood it so intimately, be preserved as it were, now and always.  In grand devotion, we thank you.  Grazie mille, Brava!”

Elegance personified: a true diva, private, respectful of her art, and authentic