Entertainment Music

Friday 23 February 2018

Classical... Pavarotti: the Irish chapter in his story


George Hamilton

In the spring of 1963, Ireland was in a state of feverish anticipation as the visit of US President John F Kennedy approached. At tea-time on Tuesday May 7, the News on Telefís Éireann, as it was then known, broadcast a report on the preparations at the Kennedy home place in Co Wexford. Around the same time, up the road in the Grand Opera House in Belfast, a novice Italian tenor was experiencing an altogether different kind of nervous excitement. He was about to take the stage as the male lead in a small production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Playing Pinkerton that night was none other than Luciano Pavarotti, just two years into his career, who had not yet sung professionally in either Britain or Ireland. In the audience was a group from St Cecilia's Gramophone Society in Dundalk. Their patron, the late Monsignor Peter Shields, recalled in the Dundalk Democrat how they'd met the singer and invited him to give a recital in the local Town Hall. That concert, Pavarotti would say, was the first he ever gave outside Italy.

From there, it was on to Dublin. It's fair to say that at this stage - he was 27 and making his way on the circuit at home in Italy - he was better known in Ireland than anywhere else abroad. He'd auditioned with the Dublin Grand Opera Society and got the part of the Duke of Mantua, one of the male leads, in their production of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Gaiety Theatre.

Covent Garden's casting director, Joan Ingpen, was on one of her regular scouting trips and liked what she saw. They were putting on La Bohème as part of their autumn season with Giuseppe di Stefano, the top tenor of the time, playing Rodolfo. Pavarotti was hired as understudy. He'd been promised an outing at the end of the London run, but di Stefano took ill after the opening night, and Pavarotti was on for the duration. That was his big break. A star was born.

It had been a relatively slow ascent towards the summit. Yes, he had perfect pitch. Yes, his singing could charm the birds out of the trees. But music wasn't his original career choice.

There was the football he loved - he was good enough to have trials as a goalkeeper at his hometown club Modena, then in the Italian second division, Serie B, but he got no further. He enrolled as a trainee teacher.

But then he got the bug for real as a member of the Corale Rossini, a choir from Modena. In 1955, he was in the line-up, along with his father, when they sang at the Welsh cultural festival, the Eisteddfod, and won the international competition for male voice choirs. It was that success, he would later say, that inspired him to try to make a go of the music. The extent to which he did is reflected in the fact that choirs at the Eisteddfod now compete for the Pavarotti Trophy.

He became the dominant tenor of the latter part of the 20th century, taking his talents into areas that operatic purists might not have appreciated.

But there can be no denying that his involvement with The Three Tenors, for instance, and the exposure their concerts gave to operatic classics expanded the appeal of this branch of music and reached audiences that might have passed it by.

The voice is unmistakable, with its lustrous, honeyed tones and the power and precision to hit and hold that holy grail of the tenor voice, the high C. It's hard to believe, but tomorrow it will be eight years since the passing of Luciano Pavarotti.

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