Opera's Golden Tenor

Luciano Pavarotti tops the scales in brilliance, bulk and brio

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Don't you know that the tenor is a being apart ...? He is not a denizen of this world, he is a world in himself.

—Hector Berlioz

It was 1969. At the San Francisco Opera an Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti was singing the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème, Suddenly, midway through the third act, the entire theater seemed to rumble and shudder. Chandeliers began swaying. Members of the audience stood up in confusion; some bolted for the exits. "What is happening?" Pavarotti hissed to the prompter between phrases. "Terremoto—earthquake!" the prompter breathed back. Pavarotti gripped the hand of his Mimi, Soprano Dorothy Kirsten, a little more tightly, but kept on singing at full voice and never missed a beat. The earthquake drew to a peaceful conclusion and so did the performance.

Last week Pavarotti was back at the San Francisco Opera, starring in the season's opening production, Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda. Once more there was drama and tumult. Profound tremors again swept through the house. But the intervening decade had made an enormous difference. This time Pavarotti himself was the earthquake.

No other tenor in modern times has hit the opera world with such seismic force. At 6 ft. and nearly 300 lbs., "Big P," as Soprano Joan Sutherland calls him, is more than lifesize, as is everything about him—ins clarion high Cs, his fees of $8,000 per night for an opera and $20,000 for a recital, his Rabelaisian zest for food and fun. "He is not primo tenore, " says San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler. "He is primissimo tenore."

Pavarotti is one of those magnetic performers, like Nureyev in dance and Olivier in theater, who not only please the cognoscenti but also wow the masses. His LPs reach well beyond the normal opera market, making him the bestselling classical vocalist on records today. At any given time over the past 18 months, at least four albums featuring him have been on the charts. The man in the street, who may care little about opera, knows Pavarotti as that bearded guy with the boyish grin and the funny accent on the TV commercial for American Express cards. Millions have seen Pavarotti's live performances on public television: the 1978 solo recital from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, or this week's La Gioconda, winch PBS transmitted from San Francisco across the U.S. and by satellite to Britain and Europe.

Little wonder, then, that San Francisco treated Pavarotti as the top attraction in La Gioconda, although the tenor role is not exactly the lead. Local hostesses vied for his exuberant presence at their parties. A dealer lent him a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud for ins seven-week stay. Between socializing and vocalizing, Pavarotti jetted to Los Angeles for one of his periodic jousts with Johnny Carson on the Tonight show. When he had free time, he took to the tennis court. A surprisingly graceful Gargantua, he is quick on his feet and gets about as much English on the tennis ball as he does into his conversation. "I gave him the toilet paper," he said of one opponent, meaning that he took him to the cleaner's.

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