Last month I visited Verona’s arena, a Roman amphitheatre familiar to audiences today as the setting for outdoor opera and other musical spectaculars. The concert – which veered with exuberance from Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, to stars of Italian rock, to footballers, and back again – was to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Luciano Pavarotti. I was too young to have seen Pavarotti in his prime – indeed I was not yet a teenager when he first came into my consciousness as part of the Three Tenors phenomenon in 1990. He became, for many, synonymous with the ‘operatic tenor’, and for a generation ‘Nessun Dorma’ became not a key aria in Puccini’s Turandot but quite simply one of the best-known pieces of music in the world.
Pavarotti, alongside his fellow Three Tenor colleagues, radically changed the classical music business of course. An album of mainly operatic arias sold millions of copies, and arguably took the genre of accessible classical music known as ‘crossover’ further than many (the annual Pavarotti and Friends charity concerts were a true melting pot of musical styles). But like many figures who bestride an art form, Pavarotti – one of the greatest opera singers of his era, yet one whose reach was universal – overrides any easy attempt to categorise him, or his music-making, or his impact. Even 10 years on I can’t think of any comparable classical star today who is a popular cultural icon in the way Pavarotti was. None of his peers – however respected or revered – fits the mould.
Did we learn anything new, a decade on, about the great man? Well, we heard first hand that the foundation established in his name is clearly supporting some impressive young singers. But what struck me as rather touching is the way that, for all that the music world considered Pavarotti a global figure, Italians held him – hold him still – as one of their own. From the crowd’s chanting from beyond the Arena, punctuating proceedings, to the succession of Italian stars paying homage, or ‘singing along’ with him (which worked surprisingly well) in a succession of pop or rock numbers, here was a global icon who is still firmly rooted in his own nation’s affection. It was felt at the time that we shall not see the like of him again; 10 years on, I daresay that still holds true.
If nobody can match Pavarotti’s reach, one who comes close is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Like Pavarotti she possessed one of the most exquisite voices of her time. And having sung at a royal wedding, and even been sprinkled with a touch of sports-anthem star-dust herself, her reputation also resonates beyond the classical world. Such that, when she chose the occasion of receiving her Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award to announce her retirement, it was prime-time news. We should be pleased when the wider world pauses to acknowledge such moments; it draws attention to the great gifts figures such as Dame Kiri, and Pavarotti, have given to music and to our world, and allows us to say a heartfelt thank you. Incidentally, you can still watch the full ceremony of the 2017 Gramophone Classical Music Awards – including of course Dame Kiri’s acceptance speech – at medici.tv and on our own site.
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Gramophone, on sale now