Sunday 17 November 2019

Classic talk: The night Sinatra and I watched the Three Tenors

Epic night: The Three Tenors after marking the end of the 1994 World Cup
Epic night: The Three Tenors after marking the end of the 1994 World Cup

George Hamilton

In the summer of 1994, as no football fan needs reminding (since the Republic of Ireland was there), North America hosted the World Cup for the very first time. This weekend marks the anniversary of the final and the concert that preceded it, the night the Three Tenors - Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti - who'd sung on the eve of the deciding match in Italy in 1990, came together again.

That first collaboration, amid the ruins of the ancient Caracalla Baths in Rome, had been conceived as a fundraiser for Carreras's charity which he'd set up following his recovery from leukaemia.

There had been no indication of the phenomenon the Three Tenors would become. When it came to discussing performing rights for the CD and video that would follow that first concert, the singers settled for a flat fee - said to be $500,000 each - rather than taking a percentage of sales.

They may well have rued that decision, because the concert, which reached a worldwide television audience of 800 million, spawned what became the biggest-selling classical recording in history.

Pavarotti's promoter, a US-based Hungarian impresario called Tibor Rudas, saw a huge opportunity. He'd already taken the tenor out of the opera house, putting on shows in unlikely locations ranging from a marquee in New Jersey's casino capital, Atlantic City, to Central Park in New York, racking up lucrative pay-days for his client along the way.

For a reprise of the Three Tenors, the first World Cup in the United States would provide the perfect setting.

Bringing opera to people who are not part of the opera world, as Rudas put it, would not only fill the Dodger baseball stadium in Los Angeles on the night before the final, it would deliver stellar viewing figures right across the globe.

The tenors, football fans themselves, were at first reluctant to recreate what they'd regarded as a one-off, but were won over by the fact that this concert, unlike the one in Rome, would be part of the official World Cup programme.

And that was where we came in. Quite literally, from behind the stage and on to the outfield. The organisers had set aside seats for the TV broadcasters. RTÉ got three, and I was lucky enough to occupy one of them.

We were just 17 rows back among a host of VIPs. Former US President George Bush was there with his wife Barbara. Henry Kissinger, too, alongside Hollywood royalty. Frank Sinatra was in the front row. Up around us, the grandstands were packed.

On a stage that featured classical columns, waterfalls, fake rocks, and abundant green foliage - a Southern California rain forest, according to its creator - the three went through their routine with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the chorus of the Los Angeles Opera.

Thirty numbers in all - familiar classics like Funiculì, Funiculà, La donna è mobile, Libiamo, and of course, Nessun Dorma.

They sang medleys of popular songs, too - Singin' in the Rain, Moon River. And My Way got an outing as well - wistful would have been the best way to describe the 78-year-old Sinatra's expression when that one was sung.

Some 50,000 people filled Dodger Stadium and it was estimated that more than a billion tuned in. And the CDs and the videos sold like hot cakes. The tenors each got a slice this time. The franchise had well and truly arrived.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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