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Pavarotti Memories

Posted at 10:46 AM on September 6, 2007 by Rex Levang

Tom Crann, of All Things Considered, sends a personal memory of a Pavarotti appearance (registration required for New York Times articles):

Yesterday, Fred Child and I were talking and we agreed that Luciano Pavarotti, who died at home in Modena this morning, was probably the most famous classical musician in the world. Maybe ever. A couple of nice remembrances here and here.

These last couple of days, I've been reminded of the one and only time I heard that voice, in person. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, of all places. It was a gloomy Saturday in September 1999. Lashing rain. Security was tight at Stormont Castle; it always is. Stormont is famous more for the tenor of its political debate, rather than the soaring voice of an operatic tenor. But Luciano Pavarotti was booked to sing on the grounds of a place that is known to all Irish for its contentiousness. He hadn’t cancelled, or even threatened to. It was a big coup for Lyric FM, the brand new station I was working for in Ireland. We were set-up to broadcast the concert, live.

All of us who were working on the live relay waited backstage for the arrival. Some of us had been teased with glimpses at the luxurious backstage accommodations, the white leather couches, and the full kitchen set-up. For Luciano, there was always a full kitchen set-up. At about 3 pm, the back stage walkie-talkies crackled and soggy workers snapped to action. He was on his way. Attendants waited with umbrellas as an official-looking Mercedes pulled-up. (Bullet-proof?) Then the great man himself emerged, under cover of umbrellas and one large floppy hat, right onto a golf cart with a canopy and up the ramp into the elaborate dressing room. Gone in seconds.

The next we saw of him was a half an hour later. He was on stage, backed up by the Ulster Orchestra. He was sporting some odd fashion choices. The floppy hat was still in place, an oversize beret, really. Around his neck, multiple, clashing scarves to guard against the Irish "soft day." A green waxed Barbour hunting coat (XXL, at least) over white sweat pants. His beard, hair, and eyebrows suspiciously ink-black. He was a weird, exaggerated presence; a caricature of himself. About two dozen of us working the show in different capacities were allowed to stand quietly in the rain and watch the warm-up. OK, what will he sound like? Does he still have it?

The orchestra lit into the jaunty intro of one of those Italian folk songs he loved. Then the voice! No question: he still had it. Even in rehearsal, the voice was all the things that have been said over the years: supple, golden, effortless, emotionally true. It really had that clean, clear, familiar ring. No signs of wear and tear after all the years of stadium concerts and outdoor stages. (Although he didn’t tackle "Nessun dorma" that night.) We were all hearing that voice ring out in the unlikeliest of places, and we just stood smiled at each other in the rain. And if I tell you that about 15 minutes before the concert the skies parted and the sun shone dramatically through the clouds, would you really believe me? It happened. And then the breeze carried the smell of Italian sausages. It's true. They were being grilled by a vendor for the large outdoor crowd. No better smell at a Pavarotti concert. It was one of the luckiest assignments I ever had.

The golf cart, the backstage kitchen, the six scarves. Cliches, sure. But what struck me is that night really did have all the hallmarks of the man and his outsized reputation. If he’d thrown a public tantrum, pulled out a throat atomizer, sprayed the nozzle, and went "mi, mi, mi, mi," if he’d been eating a wheel of provolone cheese, with salamis hanging from the Barbour coat, it wouldn’t have made it more clichéd. And yet it was so real, at the same time. Those trappings are part of the experience, but what lasts is the voice.

Tommasini gets it exactly right in the NY Times. You’d never mistake Pavarotti’s voice for anyone else’s. It’s always instantly recognizable when you hear it on the radio. It will always bring a smile of amazement and a little head shake. It will always be a reminder of why he was so famous.