It's been a few days since his death, and it is still difficult to think of a world without Luciano Pavarotti. He was the first real superstar of opera: the mega star of the late 70's and early 80's, the years when I became interested in this art form.
It was great to be a kid and be present at his first piano recital at the MET where he sang music that I did not know too well back then, and which later on turned out to be signature pieces in his repertory. If I remember correctly, one of his encores, even then, was "Nessun dorma" and the recital started with "Una furtiva lagrima," another aria which he loved to perform, and did quite often.
I saw Luciano Pavarotti many times at the MET. The most memorable of all his performances was his characterization of Nemorino in L'Elisir d'amore. His characterization of the opera's country bumpkin was all Pavarotti, and that was the greatest thing of all. Luciano made opera palatable for everyone, even for country bumpkins. Everyone liked Luciano, and as a result everyone started liking opera. It was a cultural phenomenon that we may never see again during our lifetimes. When he sang the role of Rodolfo in the MET's first television live broadcast of La Bohème, he carried the art form to the masses in the same way that Enrico Caruso carried the opera house into people's homes when his voice was etched in wax in those glorious 78's at the beginning of the 20th century.
I missed the glorious years at the MET when Luciano belted a string of high C's in The Daughter of the Regiment, and then went on to wow the public in I Puritani. During the 1950's it was Tebaldi and Del Monaco, or Callas and DiStefano, but in the 70's and 80's it was Luciano and Joan Sutherland. Birgit Nilsson arguably never had a tenor to equal her greatness, but Pavarotti was blessed with Sutherland's unique voice, and together they made beautiful music on stage and on a string of memorable recordings for the London label.
Pavarotti's repertory rarely ventured beyond his native Italian, and his ability to read music was limited. His acting, at times, was straight out of a silent movie, and his physique never really matched the character that he was supposed to be playing. For these and many other shortcomings he was unfairly compared to Plácido Domingo, whose musicianship was rock solid, whose looks were dashingly romantic, and who ventured into repertory which included English and German. But Domingo manufactured his tenor from his inherent baritone beginnings until it rang out with incredibly beauty whether he was singing Verdi or Wagner. Pavarotti was a true tenor right from the start, with real high notes that he belted out in those great days when he made us think that singing Bellini's high D's was the easiest thing in the world.
We didn't realize it then, but those days were a true golden age of opera, and Luciano Pavarotti was one of its brightest stars.