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A life sung extra-large

india Updated: Sep 07, 2007 00:16 IST
Renuka Narayanan

People in Delhi have been calling each other mournfully all Thursday afternoon. “I say, Pavarotti’s dead!” “Oh no! Let’s have a wake and listen to him together.” “Weekend?” “Great. What shall we hear?"

As you see, Delhi does things thoroughly. But so I recall do the people of Modena in Italy, the hometown of the great opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, aged 71, who succumbed yesterday to his long fight with pancreatic cancer. Years ago when I hung out in Modena for a few days, the kindly north Italians took me on drives into the low Apennine hills around their ancient town. All I knew about it then was that it had supplied a 17th century Catholic queen to James II of England (the 15-year-old Mary of Modena). The enthusiastic people of Emilia Romagna, the region of which Modena was the capital, shrieked at my ignorance. Modena was car heaven. The factories of most famous Italian makes like Ferrari, Bugatti, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati were all here.

In the interests of education, they fed me great food (the salads dressed in local balsamic vinegar were spectacular) and plied me with more Lambrusco wine than I could really handle. And in that mood-enhanced state, they played Pavarotti for me, Modena’s best contribution to music. It was from the bel canto (‘beautiful singing’) of the 19th century Italian composers, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, that were to become Pavarotti’s core competence, though these were things I learned years later from Delhi’s best-known, hardcore opera buff, Sunit Tandon.

What I call my ‘pickled Pavarotti’ was the obvious one, La donna è mobile (‘Women are fickle’) from Verdi’s Rigoletto. I couldn’t explain why it upset me, so I cried. The (mistakenly delighted) Modenese rushed to mop my eyes with little cries of “Ah! Simpatica!” and poured more wine. They were so proud of Pavarotti. He was enormously fat, loved great food, cooked lavishly for guests, played a mean hand of poker, liked horses, football. And women. He was still married then to his wife Adua. His big messy divorce and new marriage with his long-time secretary Nicoletta came years later, in 2000. So did the mean, bitchy book by his manager of decades, saying he couldn’t sight-read music properly, he was lazy, he thought he was the world’s best tenor (so did most people). Deservedly, the book was disdained by most.

For who cared if he had a few petty ‘faults’, just like any human being? Could jealous little people give the world what Pavarotti gave? The uplift and delight that are gifted to us only by very great performers who are in tune with themselves, with the composer and with those elusive hidden harmonies that can only be caught with divine grace?

Pavarotti retired from opera in 2004. He was diagnosed with cancer last year and underwent surgery but was back in hospital this August. Life had begun so modestly in Modena for the son of Fernando, a baker and amateur singer, and Adele, who worked at the local tobacco factory. As a boy, he went to a music competition in Wales with his father’s church choir, which won. He kept up his voice lessons, though his first jobs were as a primary school teacher and as an insurance salesman. His musical career took off in 1961 and made him a multi-millionaire. He also raised millions for charity. People who were otherwise scared of opera were drawn to it because of him.

Pavarotti got global with the 1990 Football World Cup when his version of the Puccini aria ‘Nessum dorma’ from Turandot became the tournament’s theme song. His 1990 The Essential Pavarotti was the first western classical album to reach No.1 on Britain’s pop charts — and stay there for five weeks. His 1994 recording, Three Tenors in Concert with Placido Domingo and José Carreras, remains the best-selling western classical album of the entire slew.

I don’t know if people in Delhi will flourish large white handkerchiefs, an established Pavarotti stage ada, when they listen to him this weekend singing from Rigoletto, Aida, La Boheme or Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment or, perhaps, Otello. But chances are the hankies may be needed to mop many Indian eyes.