Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

Whether Luciano Pavarotti was the greatest tenor of all time (vs. Enrico Caruso) or the greatest tenor of his time (vs. Plácido Domingo) will be argued for years to come. But there’s no doubt that Pavarotti, "king of the high Cs" turned emperor of classical-pop crossover, will be remembered as the embodiment of the opera singer in the popular imagination.

Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 6 (he would have been 72 on Oct. 12), was an immensely gifted singer and an outsized personality; both fascinated every segment of his audience. His voice was recognized by more people than any other classical vocalist's.

He joins Horowitz, Heifetz, Toscanini and Segovia in bequeathing a surname that serves as a synonym for what he did: Every great, or potentially great, Italian or Italianate singer will be called "another Pavarotti."

Thanks to video, his personality will survive alongside his artistry; that will affect posterity’s assessment of him. No one will hear his pure, ringing, achingly emotive voice without visualizing his handkerchief, his girth, the look on his face.

Many will view him much in the way people have come to view Babe Ruth, to cite a premodern media persona comparable with Pavarotti’s in virtuosity, appetite and mass appeal. Like Ruth, Pavarotti didn’t invent his game. He mastered its moves. He very publicly enjoyed the rewards of that mastery, feeding the fantasies of both fans and aspiring singers.

Bernard Holland’s obituary in The New York Times: