National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Loving Luciano

The death last week of Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) had a bigger impact on me than I expected. Through his CDs, videotapes and telecasts, this man filled my home with his immense, golden voice more times than I could ever count, and now each replay evokes a sense of mourning.

I’ve never bought any of the clap-trap coming from so-called purists who’ve whined that Pavarotti dragged down opera by his efforts to popularize it. In my view, if anything, he and the likes of the late Beverly Sills more likely saved it.  

I dug through my archives last week to find a photo I took of him during a press conference in the summer of 1992, and published on the front page of my weekly newspaper. It’s now on my bookshelf, my tribute to his memory.

He was masterful at that press conference, held in a room at the National Airport on June 25, 1991, the week before he would perform a concert on July 1 at the old Capital Centre before about 12,000. The press asked some incredibly stupid, even insulting questions, but he handled them with grace. Then, when I asked him simply, “How do you most want to be remembered,” he replied, “I want to be remembered for being an honest person, a very serious, professional person, nothing else.”

When the concert began, there was a delay after the lights went down. An entourage of people moved quickly from the rear to seats in the front row. It was President Bush, Sr. and Beverly with Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa in tow, and a Secret Service detail. But Pavarotti wasn’t feeling well and sang for only 37 minutes.

However, in my most memorable experience with Pavarotti in person, he sang even less.

It was the year before, on Tuesday, June 11, 1991. Pavarotti was performing a free concert on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park. A friend and I decided at the last moment to drive from Washington, D.C. We shot up I-95 and, with very little knowledge of how to get around Manhattan in those days, I had to rely on instinct, which took us right to where we needed to be.

Only moments to show time, I parked illegally, and we charged into the park as dusk turned to darkness. We came upon the Great Lawn and there were thousands of people with blankets and picnic baskets spread out as far as we could see. Espying the bandstand at the far end, we were content to find a spot toward the rear; no blanket, but a couple bottles of wine and some cheese.

The moment arrived. Aided by a new loudspeaker system, Pavarotti’s voice filled the entire space. Even though we could barely see him, it sounded like we were only a dozen rows from the stage. I forget what he sang.

Then it happened. Pavarotti was beginning his second song when a noise far louder than even he could produce interceded. It came from overhead. Pavarotti stopped. More amazing thunder, rumbling and crashing directly above, shook every tree and shrub around the meadow.

The heavens opened an incredible torrent of rain. Most people, despite getting drenched, held their spots on the lawn, hoping the storm would soon abate and the show would go on. It never happened. This was the veritable storm of the century.

Gradually, people began getting up and making for cover. It kept raining hard. There never was a formal announcement, but eventually it was obvious that the concert was over.

My friend and I were in no hurry to leave. Resigned to the elements, we cheerily finished our wine and sat laughing, amazed at whole experience. We were sure it was all evidence of divine approval. Eventually we sloshed our way to the car (no ticket) and home by the not-so-wee hours of the morning, fully convinced the trip was totally worth it.

The true spirit of the mighty, bigger-than-life Pavarotti comes through vividly in the only movie he starred in, a 1982 comedy called “Yes, Giorgio!”

He’s the leading man, and the chief love interest, in this charming film, underrated and too soon forgotten. In it, of course, he does plenty of singing, including his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma,” but it’s his naturally playful, comedic sense that stole the show.

It demonstrates that he, as with all the best in the business of producing true beauty for the most people possible, loved life, loved beauty, and loved humanity.