Looking tanned and relaxed - if a little tired from jet lag – Luciano Pavarotti is just back from his holiday in Palm Springs, California and Barbados, spending a few quiet days at his hillside home in Rossini's birthplace, Pesaro.
Unusually, his home is empty, apart from housekeeper Signora Anna, and two personal assistants. Jet lag notwithstanding, I tell him he looks rested.
'Yes I am. I don't do anything except listen to records.'
He has been preparing for his tenth 'Pavarotti and Friends' concert at the end of May and has just celebrated the 40th anniversary of his operatic debut as Puccini's Rodolfo with a concert in his home town of Modena. That, at least, was a meeting of Pavarotti's real friends: a roll-call of international singers, including José Carreras, Renata Scotto, Aprile Millo and the Alagnas, attended the party on April 29. It has been a long career and, unusually for a high-flying Italian tenor, it's not over yet. Pavarotti is 65 - and, despite the liberal use of black dye on his hair, beard and eyebrows, he looks it - so his days as a stage performer are clearly numbered. But he doesn't talk of retirement. He has performances of Puccini's Tosca at London's Covent Garden and the New York Met scheduled for 2002 - beyond that he doesn't commit himself - but he has concerts planned up to 2005.
Nevertheless he hints that the close of his career is near if not nigh. 'This may be the last [Pavarotti and Friends concert], I think; it must end. Everything must end. There are three or four more singers I want and then I'll stop: Madonna, McCartney, Jackson - Michael, he promised he would come - and Springsteen - he'll never come but I hope. The last one will be the best and the biggest.'
These 'crossover' Pavarotti and Friends concerts have symbolically broken down the barriers between 'classical' and 'pop' and raised substantial charitable donations for the relief of children as victims of war: in Kosovo, Liberia, Afghanistan and, this year, Guatemala. He likes to emphasise his philanthropy, but we are here to talk about his strictly classical work. Before we get down to business, though, he suddenly but characteristically changes the subject.
'What is that?' he asks, taking a fancy to my Sony Mic'n Micro cassette recorder which I use for the interview. 'It's beautiful. I want that! I like toys. Other people don't like to admit it but it's one of the greatest advantages of being an artist: to be able to be always a child. I saw an interesting television interview on the life of Marcello Mastroianni. At the end, they asked him: "What is the best thing your profession gave to you?" And he said, "The possibility to remain a kid." It's true.'
Does he feel like that, I enquire? 'Yes I feel like that,' but there is a half-weary grimace on his face: after knee and hip operations, he still moves with difficulty - the last time I saw him on stage, in Turandot at the Met, he had to sit down on strategically placed stools because he can no longer stand for any length of time - and, although he has lost weight, his bulk clearly causes him concern.
'Even if you don't feel physically like a kid, your soul can be young. My father is 89 in November and he has the same kind of soul as me - everybody wants to talk to him. He's a great companion. He's still driving his own car. When he's 93 they'll ask him to read something on the wall and if he can't they won't give him his driving licence. But knowing him, he'll go there and say "I've just been running because I'm going to play Boccia [bowls] at one o'clock and I have to be right at the front of the line."'
Finding it hard to imagine son Luciano running to join him, we change the subject to his records. He says the worst thing that can happen to him is when he is invited to friends and they play his records - 'because I am a super-critic of myself. But when pushed he admits that he has made some good records: 'I think there are at least 20 which are exceptional.'
Which are they, I ask? 'First of all - in order of composition Mozart: Idomeneo. Second, Bellini: Sonnambula and Puritani – Puritani with Joan Sutherland was something special for me. Then there is a whole group of recordings of the operas of Verdi and many of them are very good. And then there is Puccini: I am very happy with Tosca, I am super-happy with the Bohème with Karajan and the Turandot conducted by Mehta.'
Among this partial list, his only commercially recorded performance of a Mozart role (though there exists a bootleg edition of his Glyndebourne Idamante to the Ilia of Gundula Janowitz and Richard Lewis's Idomeneo) stands out, and he gives the impression of particular pride in his contribution to the performance history of Idomeneo.
'I sang Idamante in 1964 at Glyndebourne and later I sang Idomeneo in Jean-Pierre Ponelle's beautiful production at the Met and in Salzburg. It was very good – so good, in fact, that even PIácido decided to do it afterwards!
'When I sang Idamante at Glyndebourne I was always observing the Idomeneo of Richard Lewis. I thought: "That is an artist!" And I said to myself, one day I will try to sing this role.'
He says Idomeneo is one of the most difficult parts he has taken on stage, but it was judged - by exigeant critics - as one of his most significant artistic achievements. Critics would also agree, perhaps, that his Rodolfo to the Mimì of his friend and fellow Modenese, Mirella Freni in La bohème, conducted by Karajan, and his Calaf to Joan Sutherland's Turandot and Montserrat Caballe's Liù conducted by Mehta represent probably the high point of his contributions to complete opera recordings. They were made in the early 1970s - his late thirties - when his lyric tenor was in peak condition. But what about the Karajan Madama Butterfly with Freni?
'It's good, but I remember very vividly when I arrived in Salzburg very early and I was completely sleepy in the afternoon when the recording was made. I was groggy. So it wasn't on the same level as the Bohème.'
By the early 1970s, he had long since left Pinkerton behind, but he recorded it because of his admiration for Karajan, with whom he worked only occasionally in the theatre: 'I only did one Bohème [with him] at La Scala, the last he made in Milan, and then three performances in Salzburg. And I also made one of the most important performances of my career with him: the Verdi Requiem - my first - in honour of Toscanini (1964). I was singing in Rigoletto in Milan and I was covering Bergonzi for the Verdi Requiem: he didn't make it, so they were forced to take me. I was very young, a kid of 32 - well that's young for a tenor in the Verdi Requiem with Karajan.'
This last remark is perhaps a key to Pavarotti's vocal longevity, for whatever his physical problems, his technique, though not infallible today, is in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old. Certainly, his concentration on purely lyric roles - Rodolfo, Alfredo in La traviata, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto were the four cornerstones of his early repertoire - and that first decade of his career laid the foundation for his gradual transition to more dramatic roles such as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Radames in Aida. The Duke of Mantua is perhaps his second most famous role on disc, and few tenors have sung it with more vocal glamour, more rhythmic élan and self-confident braggadocio than Pavarotti.
'Rigoletto was the starting point of my international career. I was singing the Duca in Dublin, and Joan Ingpen from Covent Garden came to hear me because she was looking for a tenor to sing a group of performances of La bohème before di Stefano arrived. And she booked me. It was Rigoletto that put me in this position. It's one of the great operas for the tenor. It's very exposed and it's very famous. Everyone knows "La donna è mobile". It needs a tenor with a very good technique.'
He thinks singing these light, high, elegant roles inevitably contributed to the health of his voice and the length of his career and he still uses them as vocal 'medicine', limbering-up exercises for his performances today.
'When I prepare for a concert, I always try to sing "Una furtiva lagrima" and "La donna è mobile". Even when I moved into the heavier roles, I still sang L'elisir d'amore and Rigoletto. Not now - Rigoletto is a little more difficult for me. But I do try to keep my voice like it is - as my father is still doing now - no bigger than what it is, with agility, with rhythm and fresh accents.'
When Pavarotti was young he had of course many models to learn from and standards set by his older contemporaries - di Stefano, Bergonzi, Corelli, Kraus - to aspire to.
'I listened to them all, because I am curious. The reason why I made The Three Tenors is because I am a fanatic of tenors: you are singing exactly what you like, you are singing with two other tenors and at the very end they even pay you.'
It's interesting that he mentions Bergonzi and Kraus, because they were 'rival' Dukes of Mantua when he started singing the role in the 1960s; both were very successful and quite different from each other and him. Yet if you look around today, while there are good singers - 'Very good singers' he interjects - they are, I suggest, not the personalities and technicians who would have been his peers and exemplars.
Young tenors, cautions Pavarotti, should take care not to force their voices. 'You shouldn't enlarge the hole through which the voice comes. It should be like the throat of a bird. A bird is born with that voice and he never tries to push it, otherwise he loses it.'
Although he has recorded almost his entire stage repertoire plus several operas he has not sung in the theatre (Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, Rossini's GuiIlaume Tell, Verdi's Macbeth, Giordano's Andrea Chenier, and Des Grieux from Puccini's Manon), I ask if there are any operas he would still like to record. He doesn't think so. 'I'm not a quantitative person. There are a couple more I would like to study if I had time, but my excuse is that I simply don't have time.'
And they are? 'One I cannot say the name because it is bad luck; the other is Lohengrin. Lohengrin was an opera which was sung often in Italian because Wagner asked for it when he was in Bologna. The Italian text has incredibly beautiful words.'
Although Tebaldi, Callas and Gobbi sang Wagner in Italian in Italy 50 years ago, it seems hardly possible that Pavarotti should attempt Lohengrin at his age and at a time when Wagner, when performed in Italy's more prestigious houses, is invariably sung in German. His opera senza nome is presumably La forza del destino, which has long been the subject for a stage production at the Met and a possible recording. He also mentions La Fanciulla del West as a potential addition to his discography. I wonder aloud whether companies such as Decca are really interested in the expense of re-recording classic operas that the public appear to have no interest in buying.
'They buy records, but what they want is song and they want songs written today. If you make a record of songs of today you will sell more than if you record antique songs.'
That sounds like a pessimistic view of the future for classical music, I say. 'I am not pessimistic. I am realistic. It is an attitude of the audience. Audiences like novelty - they like new operas, they like new singers, they like everything new. [By new he doesn't mean contemporary, but rather music that he and other popular classical artists haven't done before.] I have almost recorded everything in opera that I can. One thing I am going to do which I have neglected recently is recitals with piano. It's the most difficult thing of all because it is yourself up there, alone with the pianist.'
There's also a lot of Italian repertoire, I suggest, that still isn't well known to his public. Songs by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi are neglected as well as those by Respighi. 'I have done all of these. My concerts generally consist of three or four baroque songs, three or four Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti songs, then one aria - maybe "Una furtiva lagrima". The second half begins with either Tosti, or Respighi, or Liszt's Sonetti di Petrarca, then another aria, and then I make four songs of Tosti and then encores, two more arias or Neapolitan songs.'
He has a recital tour looming in June. He takes out his diary. 'Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, San Diego. Then London - an open air concert in Hyde Park - in July. In September we go to Berlin, Barcelona, New Mexico, Sacramento, Paris, Birmingham, Alabama, Shanghai.'
It doesn't sound like a light workload for a man in his mid-sixties. And it goes on until at least 2005. Already we've probably heard the best of him - the wisdom of his recent performances in Aida at the Met were questioned by the New York press - but there are, as he says himself, at least 20 'exceptional' records and many others that will be marvelled at for some time to come.
This interview originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's leading classical music magazine, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe