The Pavarotti Effect



I have been told that there is something called the “Pavarotti Effect,” and that this phenomenon is observable and definable.  Perhaps sometimes the Pavarotti Effect was an affect, or perhaps it was subsumed by the “Superstar Effect,” as Sherwin Rosen called it in a paper published in The American Economic Review in 1981.  Rosen insisted that a big reputation would lead to a cornering of the market, when a particular name seems the answer to the problem of product selections: If you are going to acquire only one DVD of Turandot, then you will get the “outstanding” one with Pavarotti.  The options of other once-respected performers are cast aside, and the ostensible freedom of the market becomes something less than free.

Well, was the late Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) a Superstar?  Though he was not so to me, I have to concede that he was to many thousands of others.  He paid a price for the distinction, even as it paid him—if such an evaluation was positive in any particular way.  After establishing the basis of his career in the 1960’s, Pavarotti had an operatic success in the 1970’s; by the 1980’s, he had gone to another place.  Success within the limits of the repertory and even within the limits of his idiosyncrasies was not big enough for him.  Pavarotti was terribly full of himself, both literally and figuratively.  He wanted to be more than a competent singer—he wanted to be a genial entertainer and an international image of goodwill, benign politics, and popular acclaim.  And he wanted more money for less work, and then a lot more money for a lot less work.  In the 1990’s, the corruption was manifest, as for example the episode in which he was caught lip-syncing a recording onstage, in live performance.  But even before that, the damage had been done.

Pavarotti knew something about the necessities of discipline and technique—he had as a youth heard Beniamino Gigli extensively vocalizing and going through the scales, even when that successor of Caruso was an old man on tour.  Later on Pavarotti learned something about correct breathing and voice support from Joan Sutherland.  He had no excuses for his undisciplined approach to the obvious demands of physical being and health.  His answer to the challenges of weight was to have no answer.  His answer to another form of greed was to cheat on his taxes, and then to cheat on the nature of opera itself in order to escalate his fees, and so on.  “The Three Tenors” programs offered in various stadiums were betrayals of opera itself, justified by swag beyond the dreams of avarice.  And how rich were those dreams?  The Pavarotti estate was very nearly worth a half-billion dollars, just below 500 million.  (In comparison, the Von Karajan estate was worth a full 500 million, which says something about why a conductor who worked with his eyes closed would want to make so many narcissistic videos of himself.)

Now if we speak legitimately of betrayals, let’s try to make some analogies.  Clearly, opera is a challenge and a difficulty—a burden that is only for those performers who love it, who do it because they have to do it.  But Pavarotti, who was a ham and never an actor, didn’t relate to opera except as a rack of songs to exploit.  He believed in his own Greatest Hits—his repertory was what he could take the most advantage of.  Let’s leap into the field of championship tennis for a comparison.  At least two accomplished players were notable for their refusal to abide by the ethos of the game: Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.  They refused to play as gentlemen, and being great players, they got away with it.  But by lowering the level of discourse, they actually harmed the great game that gave them so much.  As far as I know, they have still not understood the implications of their incivilities.  Perhaps in their generation, there was something in the water supply.  Andre Agassi began as a brat, but finished as a spokesman for the game’s traditions and for charity as well.  But this analogy is only useful insofar as it applies to Pavarotti.

To get back to Luciano, let’s remember (as if we could forget) Pavarotti’s one movie, Yes, Giorgio (1982).  Why would the bloated Pavarotti allow himself to get trapped in such a failure?  Why would he think, with his resemblance to a stuffed turkey, that it could ever work or even just make money?  Yes, Giorgio is so bad—no, I mean Yes, Giorgio is so bad, it is the only movie I know that provoked comparisons with Sincerely Yours (1955), the cringe-worthy exercise starring Liberace.  Such an extremity of embarrassment would have been a lesson to anyone else on the planet, but not to the singularly exceptional Pavarotti, the rotund hedge fund or Round Mound of Sound—you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Sir Rudolf Bing, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was already retired after 22 years of service when he remarked, “I must say that seeing that stupid, ugly face everywhere I go is getting on my nerves”—but he had a point.  There is no question of whom he was speaking, and perhaps a comparison to a singer would be more productive than a comparison to a tennis champion.

In 1969-70, Pavarotti did a little exploring in the repertory; he dipped his toe into the waters of early Verdi and neglected Bellini.  This was itself negligible compared with the work of the tenor Carlo Bergonzi, particularly in early Verdi.  And it was even less impressive compared with the explorations of perhaps the greatest singer of recent times, Cecilia Bartoli.  But before we look at some of her accomplishments, we must also remember Pavarotti’s limitations.  He could not read music, which limited his ability to learn operas.  What he did do was memorize as much repertory as he could, and then stop there.  Another limitation was his disinterest in other languages—he could not approach Donizetti’s La Favorite in any language but his own, unlike the Italian composer!  There is a passion here for laziness that does not square with a commitment to opera or music or both.  Yet this same lazy disposition was no barrier to the exploitation of opera and music for lots of money.

There was even a difference between Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, though probably less with the third tenor of The Three Tenors, José Carreras.  Though Domingo no doubt liked banking the swag, nothing changed him as a musician and as a man of the lyric theater.  He has sung Wagner, sung baritone roles, and conducted as he has aged.  Whatever he could do to continue, he did, and he did it very well.  He shirked no work—Domingo performed 147 roles in six languages.  Pavarotti did as little as he could in his calling, and as much as he could in his ingestion of foodstuffs.

If Domingo is notable for having performed both the Duke and the title role in Rigoletto (Bergonzi did that also) and for having performed Tristan, I would also nominate Cecilia Bartoli as a model of productivity for a gifted singer.  She achieved global success and recognition in a way that challenged her listeners and educated them—she gave her devoted listeners an education in musical history.

She redefined not only what a mezzo-soprano is, but also what such a singer used to be.  Her historical investigations into the background of Bellini’s Norma opened that work up to her, and was a revelation to her audience.  She showed the public that Vivaldi was a composer of vocal music, and not just of The Four Seasons.  She reinvented Rossini for our time, in performances that were exemplary definitions of coloratura.

Though Bartoli has iterated a respect for Pavarotti’s technique and his voice, she has apparently passed over the opportunity to take the measure of exploitative and indulgent Three Tenors stadium concerts.  She has not indicated that singers should do as she has done, by research and hard work as well as musical gifts.  Yet she has shown by her actions that international attention can be awarded to the reconsideration of musical assumptions during the age of bel canto and even before.

Cecilia Bartoli has done the world a great favor, by showing that a singer can be a musical leader.  She has shown that the energies of talent can be harnessed to academic purposes, and finally to a new vision of the music that we thought we knew.  In finding new contexts for her vocal type, she did herself a favor, yes—but she did a favor for her vast audience as well.  She set a new standard for what a singer can do, when she or he is not disposed to accept easy answers or to settle for the same old same old.  I hardly need add that Bartoli’s mastery of vocal technique has been a great part of her authority.

The success of Cecilia Bartoli has been a lesson to those who care about classical music and about the survival of opera.  She has proved that corny exploitation is not necessary in order to sell the product.  As far as she has been concerned, challenges and even revolutionary revisions have been rewarded with a success that seems to be a lesson in itself.  Or we might say that the best answer to the Pavarotti Effect is the manifest Bartoli Effect.       


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