The death of Pavarotti

I have a colleague who likes to tease me that all I blog about is obscure French literature -- his way of telling me he thinks many of my posts are hoity-toity and pretentious. So I only invite ridicule by writing about classical music.Truth is, though, I have the same relationship with classical music that I suspect many Americans have: I've bought the occasional CD at Borders, based usually on the fact that I heard some snippet of some Great Work in some movie. I bought an edition of "Cavalleria Rusticana" based on hearing some of it in "Godfather III" and, more memorably, in "Raging Bull."My wife, her sister and father have all received some classical training - I sobbed the first time I heard my-then girlfriend perform in public, stunned by her talent - but, so far at least, it hasn't rubbed off much. I like the classical music I've heard, but I don't know it; not like I know, say, Hollywood science fiction of the last 25 years. I am a middlebrow American.But I know who Pavarotti is. So did you.He was on the very short list of classical musicians who entered the realm of pop culture. Some of this was by design: He sang Christmas carols on "Saturday Night Live" with Vanessa Williams once, and he provided the bridge on that one U2 song where U2 was pretending it wasn't U2. I think Pavarotti might even have been on "Sesame Street" once. I don't remember. And let's not forget the whole "Three Tenors" thing.Some of this, though, was by dint of rather awesome talent.A few months back, I - like everybody else who saw it - got a little misty-eyed when I saw the YouTube clip of Paul Potts, the snaggle-toothed cellphone salesman who performed opera on "Britain's Got Talent":My wife was also moved ... but she wasn't as impressed. To show me why, she showed me a YouTube of Pavarotti singing the same piece, "Nessun Dorma":The difference is clear.I'm not an expert -- I can't tell you just what it is that, qualitatively, differentiates the two performances. The first is given by a man who clearly loves opera, and has an aptitude for it. The second comes from somebody who has just as clearly mastered the art -- and who, to boot, also clearly knows how to bring a little lip-biting drama to the whole enterprise. Potts' version is moving largely because of who he is (and works largely thanks to some savvy post-production editing that added drama); Pavarotti's because of what he does. Pavarotti earned his place in pop culture.One could be cranky, then, that one of the headlines about Pavarotti's death [was this][1]: "Paul Potts' hero Luciano Pavarotti is dead." By any standard, that's a silly, silly obituary angle. I look forward to reading the "Clay Aikens' hero, Barry Manilow, is dead" story a few years hence.On reflection, though, it's not so awful. Luciano Pavarotti sang "Nessun Dorma," which inspired Paul Potts to sing "Nessun Dorma," which - according to the YouTube counts this morning - has been viewed more than 10 million times. Pavarotti didn't just enter pop culture, then; he made it possible for others with a classical bent to do so, as well. That's why he mattered. [1]:


Joel 14 years, 10 months ago

Bonus classical music joke:

Q. How many tenors does it take to sing "Nessun Dorma"?

A. Every damn one of them.

Terry Bush 14 years, 10 months ago

Other tenor jokes: "What do tenors use for birth control? Their personalities." Or "How do you tune a tenor? With a chain saw."

I too mourn the passing of this phenom talent. You didn't have to understand Italian to enjoy the passion and emotion his voice evoked. It's a rare opera singer that is so well known, and so beloved, universally. I just hope that there is a heaven, and that it includes regular concerts by Pavarotti. That is indeed something to look forward to!

bloozman 14 years, 10 months ago

Not that he didn't matter, but the reasoning that "I know who Pavaratti is. So do you" seems pretty weak. I know who Lindsay Lohan is, but that doesn't mean she matters.

Joel 14 years, 10 months ago

Ah, bloozman, but you're supposed to know who Lindsay Lohan is. She's a movie actress and (cough) pop singer whose activities place her well within the pop cultural mainstream -- cover of Us Magazine, fawning profiles in USA Today, etc.

When's the last time you saw an opera singer on the cover of People?

Pavarotti matters because he transcended the ghetto - a very rich, well-heeled ghetto, but still - that usually confines opera and related arts from mass consumption.

Joel 14 years, 10 months ago

Just as a test of the foregoing: Outside of Placido Domingo, can you name another classical tenor working in music today?

bloozman 14 years, 10 months ago

But I don't read Us Magazine, People or USA today. Those mags don't feature opera? Who knew?

MyName 14 years, 10 months ago

C'mon bloozman no need to be disingenuous here. You may not have read Playboy (for example), but you do know what it is about. The same goes for those other magazines.

Keith Campbell 14 years, 10 months ago

I seemed to have gone the same route as you. I discovered the Paul Potts version and then was guided by a friend to the same Pavarotti clip. I agree that the latter is superior, but the moment captured (I agree that good TV editing helped) in the Potts clip gave/gives me goose bumps. I have become a huge fan of Nessun Dorma, it is a powerful piece of music. (Huge fan= on my ipod)

Bloozeman- Playboy has some terrific articles.

Joel: Domingo, Pavarotti, and the third tenor guy.

Shelby 14 years, 10 months ago

speaking of good vocal pieces, do seek out "O Magnum Myste_ium", made famous by Mo_ten Lau_idsen

(NOTE: the 's denote that I can't use the lette_s afte Q on my laptop _ight now.......i'm a tool.

DOTDOT 14 years, 10 months ago

Paul Potts, I'm sure, would be deeply embarrassed by the compliment of even being compared to Pavarotti. Hats off to him.


I get a little righteously indignant (if you can believe it) on the subject of pop v classical music. The distinction is primarily contrived by the industry. Quite a bit of literature has been written under the banner of popular music that carries textural depth and requires technical vituosity to perform. At the same time, music considered 'classical' can be poorly written and, worse, horribly and soullessly performed. It's entirely possible to earn a PHD in performance and not have a fucking clue, but such people never realize how foolish their snobbery appears.


Joel 14 years, 10 months ago

Dotdot: Zepplin rules.

Also: You never responded to my e-mail last week. I was very sad.

Joel 14 years, 10 months ago

And what? Is nobody going to give me crap for buying music based on "Godfather III?"

bloozman 14 years, 10 months ago

MyName: This just in from Joke: to say something in fun or teasing rather than in earnest; be facetious: He didn't really mean it, he was only joking.

DOTDOT 14 years, 10 months ago


Check your inbox.

But whatever happens between us, please remember this like your entire cultural being depends on it. There's two "e"s in Zeppelin.

Aileen Dingus 14 years, 10 months ago

Andrea Boccelli (sp?)

Those guys from Il Divo. Yeah- it's a cheesy pop Simon Cowell "boy band" group, but they have lovely voices.

Deb Townsend 14 years, 9 months ago

I dont know a lot of operatic tenors, I prefer the deep rich baritones, plus they are usually more masculine--a nice manly baritone in costume will make my palms sweat. It annoys my husband who is usually stuck down in the orchestra pit getting absolutely no respect. I tried to tell him that percussionists were hot in their own way, but he's not buying it, probably would help if I wasnt trying to stifle laughter in the process.

Deb Townsend 14 years, 9 months ago

If you want a trippy little YouTube clip to watch, watch Aretha sing "Nessun Dorma" when she filled in for Pavarotti at an awards show. The diction and phrasing are still soul/r&b but it was beautiful nonetheless.

devil_fingers 14 years, 9 months ago

This difference isn't always clear.

Otherwise, many people would have your Paul Potts-Pavarotti experience, having grown up with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, then at some later point encountering Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, and/or Miles Davis.

By the way, Pavarotti was very popular and skilled, but can't clean the shoes of the latter three, either.

belchinginstructor 14 years, 9 months ago

Sorry to come in on the discussion so late, but here goes:

Before I taught belching I taught voice. Therefore, FYI Old Tenors worth a listen: Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tucker, Jan Pierce, Franco Corelli, Jussi Boerling, Fritz Wunderlich, Ernst Haefliger - Boerling is my personal favorite.

Pavarotti was a re-creative artist and a cross over artist. He took what others created, made it his own, and raised the awareness in his listeners of both himself and the composer within the Classical realm and brought new listeners into that realm from other spheres of influence.

To the devil: Zappa, Coltrane and Davis would be better compared with other composer/performers (i.e., Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven - all of which hold up nicely). Pavarotti is not in the same group simply because of his gifts, so I find your comparison odious and unfair to all.

Joel, you should ask your wife's mother what is was like to kiss Luciano and the story of how it happened.


devil_fingers 14 years, 9 months ago

I'm sure no one is reading this anymore, but just for the record -- I agree with you, K, that it is an unfair comparison. But I don't think it's "odious."

My point was about popularity relative to contribution. Many more people know who Pavarotti is and have spent money on his merchandise than that of Zappa, Coltrane, et. al. It doesn't make him a bad person. But it does say something about misplaced recognition relative to artistic merit.

So, yeah, it's unfair. It's unfair to put Pavarotti in comparison with the others. But it's a much greater injustice that more people know of him and think of him as a "great artist" than know of the others. I know this sounds "composer-centric," but I find it disturbing that an excellent performer, but one who will inevitably be surpassed (and probably soon, if not already) in terms of skill is so much more well-known than artists who have made far greater contributions (and this is an understatement) to culture.

So, anyway, I agree with you. But I'm still right.

belchinginstructor 14 years, 9 months ago

Devil fingers,

I've been out of town so I could not respond.

I can relent in one area of the comparison: neither Zappa nor Pavarotti did well in the movie arena. I saw Zappa's 200 Motels (and bought the album) when it came out in the 70's but did not bother to go see Oh, Georgio! at all. Both were rather lame in the box office area. Although I listened to the 200 Motels album a lot. My favorite tune was Bertram Redneck - go figure. I think it was the closing line that got to me, "Opal, you hot little bitch!"

Who could argue with such an eloquent expression of affection.


PS, Self right-ness is its own reward. Have a nice day.

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