“Interview”: Pavarotti and the Music He Really Cares About

By Bradley Bambarger <2004>

Luciano Pavarotti is many things, as Herbert Breslin, the singer’s former manager, conveys in his new book, The King and I. Among them, he writes, Pavarotti has not only been “the greatest tenor in the world” but also “a real pain in the ass.”

As for the latter, it can be confirmed that Pavarotti is a mischievous, even slippery, character. Call the tenor’s home in Modena, Italy, to pin him down for a long past-due interview — an appointment to preview his upcoming solo tour of the U.S. — and he just might try to pass himself off as the butler.

“An interview for Mr. Pavarotti? From America? Now? No, no, I don’t think Mr. Pavarotti is in right now. How did you get this number? From the venue? Are you from the venue? From a newspaper? Oh, no, I don’t think Mr. Pavarotti is here. Well, oh, let me see… All right, OK, this is Pavarotti. You have some questions for me?”

Pavarotti was right in the first place: The lights may have been on, but no one was at home that day. A vaguely disinterested “yes” or “no” was mostly the limit of the singer’s replies. He was only spurred to a poetic response when asked why the age-old operatic art — especially as purveyed by the Italian tenor voice — still commands a wide public.

“It’s simple: People still love Italian opera because it’s beautiful,” Pavarotti said in strongly accented English. “This art is like antique furniture — it’s solid and lasts a long time.”

While long past his prime, at age 68, Pavarotti is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive exponents of the operatic art to ever stride the boards. There may even be glimmer or two left in the big man’s voice as his extended “farewell” tour courses across America.

The concerts are slated to begin with Italian Baroque songs in 19th-century piano arrangements. Orchestral settings of bel canto numbers by Donizetti and Bellini will follow, along with arias by Verdi, Mascagni and Leonvacallo. There will also be duets from Puccini’s La Bohème with a young soprano in tow.

Pavarotti bid addio to staged opera in March at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with Puccini’s Tosca. As the singer admits, his goodbye to the recital format will be longer, extending through 2006, with events in New York City planned.

The central tenet of Breslin’s book — subtitled “The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti’s Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary” and due out in October — is a sad one. He writes that the story of Pavarotti is of a “simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar.”

Pavarotti replies that while he has always been determined to succeed, he is non-aggressive by nature. The tenor adds that while it would be an “untruthful person” who describes themselves always happy, he is actually “very optimistic.”

Although he mentions starting a singing school with soprano Mirella Freni (a friend from his student days), Pavarotti seems most concerned to enjoy his leisure time with toddler Alice, his daughter with Nicoletta, a longtime girlfriend whom he married last year. He has expressed rue over missing too many years with the three daughters from his first marriage.

“Listen — do you hear?” the singer asked, suddenly animated, as the little girl squeals near the phone. “This is the music I most want to hear today.”

(Originally published in 2004 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey… Pavarotti died in 2007 at age 71.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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