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High notes that set all-new standards

Luciano Pavarotti soared as a celebrity and, for better or worse, redefined what it means to be an opera star.

September 07, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

I first saw Luciano Pavarotti in a production of "Un Ballo in Maschera" at the San Francisco Opera in 1971. A music student at the time, I had a standing-room ticket. I was young and fast, and once the lights went down, I made a dash for an empty aisle seat in the orchestra section.

But I wasn't fast enough. Another standee beat me to it. Charles Mackerras was in the pit and about to begin. In a panic, I saw a gap in the front row and, dressed in my hippie finery, pressed my way in between elegantly dressed patrons (opera in San Francisco was formal in those days) just as Verdi's overture began.

Pavarotti had made his debut with the company four seasons earlier and been back every year since. He was not yet known by the general public, but there was a buzz in the opera world. I was curious.

He walked onstage with a kind of bouncy waddle. He was fat. He acted as if he owned the joint. His love interest in "Ballo," Amelia, was sung by Martina Arroyo, a large woman. But Oscar, the page, was an attractive soprano, Helen Donath, who was wearing a costume with tight trousers. I was close enough to see Pavarotti repeatedly try to pat and pinch her. He cheerfully and shamelessly upstaged everyone.

I was repulsed. Hadn't Italian opera gotten over this kind of provincial attitude years ago? Hadn't Maria Callas taught the art form something about theater? Hadn't the '60s put an end to such sexism?

What didn't at first make sense to me is that no one onstage seemed to mind. No one in the audience seemed to mind. After a while, I didn't mind either.

The simple fact is that Pavarotti did own the stage, and when he opened his mouth, when that sound so fresh and alive and gorgeous, like nothing I have ever heard before or since, generously poured forth, there was no resisting the big, happy guy. He knew he was great. We knew he was great. I smiled at the Nob Hill aristocrats around me. They smiled back. For a couple of brief hours, social barriers came down. Pavarotti was a phenomenon, and to behold it, to share in it, was wondrous.

Back then we may not have been able to predict the sheer magnitude of the celebrity that Pavarotti would obtain, but all of us in the War Memorial Opera House recognized a sensation when we heard it.

With his death this week from pancreatic cancer, the story of Pavarotti's rise to heights of fame unprecedented in opera is now complete. As an artist, I think, his greatest days were those exhilarating early ones when he made an audience feel blissful to be alive. But throughout his long career, with its multiple ups and downs, he brought pleasure to vast numbers of people.

Yet Pavarotti's legacy is a complicated one. The celebrity, like everything else about him, became too big, and it proved all-consuming. No one today or tomorrow can be like Pavarotti -- he was of another era. Modern opera is too sophisticated for another plump bumpkin with a golden voice and a million-dollar smile and all the confidence and personality in the world to conquer the stage and the late-night talk show circuit. No one, no matter how great a singer, could get away with a fraction of what Pavarotti did in "Ballo" 35 years ago.

Opera stars today are expected to be lookers. They are expected to act. But they are also expected to be celebrities, and Pavarotti raised the bar of celebrity to an impossible height. Fame distracted Pavarotti as an artist, but he remained a superstar to the end.

I fear, though, that the expectations created by Pavarotti's career -- especially those of the record and opera companies -- could be too much for modern stars. Pavarotti, it should be remembered, developed relatively slowly. He had already been followed by the opera world for five or six years when I heard him in 1971, and it would still be a few more years before he made it really big. And while Pavarotti was not immune to stress, his happy-go-lucky personality certainly made those early years a whole lot easier than they might have been for other singers.

Unfortunately, post-Pavarotti opera has become an impossibly stress-filled occupation, and that stress is taking a worrisome toll on the current generation of stars. Rolando Villazón brightens up the stage. But expectations have proved too much, at least for the time being, for the young Mexican tenor. Described as suffering an artistic crisis, he has been canceling appearances this summer and fall.

Villazón's glamorous stage partner in many productions, Anna Netrebko, has been clawing at celebrity with special fervor, and burnout has become a real danger for this Russian soprano known for her intensity onstage and late-night partying off. She too has started canceling, mostly blaming colds and flu.

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