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Opera's Incredible Hulk, Luciano Pavarotti, Rides High from the Met to Movies

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Luciano Pavarotti’s tenor voice, with all its range and luster, has been a treasure to music lovers since Joan Sutherland signed him to tour Australia with her in 1963. Onstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the 45-year-old Italian projects a brio and emotive power that have been likened to those of Caruso. In any given month Pavarotti has at least four LPs on the classical charts, and his O Sole Mio and O Holy Night are currently on the pop charts. As these sales suggest, Pavarotti is more than a longhair legend. Indeed, his TV commercials for American Express and tireless talk show appearances, cooking demonstrations and autograph sessions have made him perhaps the ultimate crossover artist—pop idol as well as classical star. Pavarotti spends one vacation month a year in Italy with his wife of 19 years, Adua, and their three teenage daughters. The rest of the time he is traveling and singing around the world. In his small apartment in a New York residential hotel, where he and fellow singers often gather late at night to play poker, Pavarotti discussed his life and golden gift with Sarah Moore-Hall of PEOPLE.

How does it feel to be known as the leading tenor of your time?

I am not sure that I am, but it pleases me very much. If you tell me I am first, I like it. If you tell me I am fifth, I like that too. The important thing is the love and warmth I give to the public and the public gives back to me.

Why do you spend so much time cultivating your audience?

It is an obligation of my profession. When you have 4,000 people fill an auditorium, they deserve a lot of attention. It is one way to make people like you. Recently in San Francisco there was a mob waiting for me at a store, and I signed autographs from 6 p.m. to midnight. I do it gladly.

How do you choose your roles?

There is no excitement, no high, in doing easy things. So I continually take on roles that require great concentration. In my recitals I start with early Baroque and finish with popular songs. The range is very demanding, but that is what the public wants and what I want.

How do you care for your voice?

I never try to push it, and I try not to follow a heavy role with another one right away. For instance, I have recently canceled my scheduled appearances in Turandot in Miami and Chicago—and I am still trying to cancel in Paris—because it follows too closely on Aida in San Francisco next month.

Can you anticipate when your voice is going to crack?

No. The risk is there every night, and it gets bigger along with your reputation. When the high notes go, there isn’t even a sound, really. Those high notes are but a scream with control. They aren’t even what’s hardest. The middle range is. To be a great singer you must work on the middle.

How often do you practice?

Every day. Once a famous tenor, Aureliano Petile, said, “If I go one day without singing, I realize it; if I go two days, my friends realize it; if I go three days, the audience realizes it.” Some of my friends—great singers—think they can go up to three days without practicing, but when the sound comes out it is not the same.

What makes a great singer?

Concentration. Not the voice. If a mirror was held up to anybody’s vocal cords, they would probably look the same. You must learn to concentrate on sound, language, inspiration. Some have fantastic voices and never make it.

Do you often listen to other tenors?

That is how I learn a new role. I listen to records, and friends send me tapes. If I need a new aria for a recital, I listen to perhaps 35 different performances. From those I choose two or three and play them for several days, listening for the interpretation and certain kinds of technical passages. Then I put them away and go by myself to think and reflect.

Solitude is important to you?

Everyone knows I love people. I enjoy playing cards, cooking, drinking wine, but each day I need time to be alone, to study and reflect. I must think about my work; that is most important of all.

Do you hold to the adage that a tenor should not speak or make love before performing?

Speaking isn’t really good for the voice, and there is a certain kind of dramatic singer who needs to conserve his strength to open with maximum impact. But the younger generation tends to work more during the day than their predecessors did and are less self-protective. As for making love, I am of the younger generation. What is good for the body is good for the voice—and that includes everything!

What about the old notion that tenors are dumb but make great lovers ?

It’s true, they are not very smart. No, seriously, to be a great singer today—to make a voice range that is unnatural sound controlled—you must consult your brain. As for being great lovers, I am not so sure. The wife of one famous tenor says her husband does not make love for two days before a performance and for two days after it. And he gives a performance every four days. She wasn’t joking, either. That is taking singing too seriously.

Why do women find you so attractive?

I think it is my extravagant body. Actually, a woman recently wrote me a letter saying just that.

How did you respond?

I wrote back, “Send me a picture; I hope you don’t have a body like mine.” My attitude is: Let them touch.

What are your faults?

I am very demanding, of myself and others around me. Artistically, I think everything can be done better. Also, I get very nervous, and that is bad for everybody. My daughters think I am a dictator, but that really isn’t true.

How do your long absences affect your marriage?

Well, Adua always complains. It seems to me that women have a maternal instinct for complaining. Not that I don’t like it. I have a mother, a sister, three daughters, and my wife has three sisters. It’s music to my ears. Actually, Adua and I spend a great deal of time together whenever possible, and we talk on the telephone daily. We are very, very close—for the moment.

Last year in San Francisco you had a tiff with one of your leading ladies, Renata Scotto, when she objected to a solo bow of yours.

Well, I get into these things. But I didn’t have a fight with Renata—she had one with me. We are old friends. We’ve spent a lot of time around this table playing poker. But in that particular performance she thought she had become God, even if God is a man. But Renata and I will be singing together again in A Masked Ball next month in Chicago.

Some critics contend you do not act as well as you sing. Do you agree?

No, I try to take every advantage of every aspect of mind and body onstage. When people talk about acting in opera, they are often unaware of the constraints the music and the stage setting require. I am not acting Hamlet, after all.

How do your peers react to your appearances on commercial TV?

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t take me seriously because I make commercials or cook spaghetti on a talk show. But these are things that will bring this little world of opera to a larger audience, and I don’t care how we do it. We have to go to the people, and if someone doesn’t understand, it is too bad.

Why did you set up an international voice competition in your name?

Because we must nourish the opera with young people. This week I auditioned eight young singers at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, which is co-sponsoring the competition. From these we will choose four who will spend 1981 getting invaluable training with directors and conductors. Then in 1982 they will appear onstage for the first time singing with me. I am certain they will go on to do something important.

How do you rate American singers?

I think America now produces the best young singers in both quality and quantity. There is lots of opportunity here as well for the ones who are really good.

You will be making your first movie soon. What is it about?

It’s about an Italian opera star and a young American woman and the love affair they have. It’s called Yes, Giorgio, and we start production in June. It’s everybody’s dream to do a movie, and I hope I make many more. But I will never forsake singing.

How did you enjoy your TV duet with Loretta Lynn last year?

So much of the music of my country is songs of the earth that I felt very comfortable. The idea was to show different musical worlds meeting: She’s the queen of country music and I’m a man from the Italian countryside. I don’t have enough time to keep up with pop music, but I know about rock ‘n’ roll from my daughters. I don’t understand it very much, however; it is the expression of another generation, not mine.

Are there other pop singers you enjoy?

I had always admired Frank Sinatra’s records, but I never heard him in concert until last June at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was one of the great thrills of my life. I am totally amazed at his vocal ability, his incredible phrasing and the perfection of his style and technique. I went backstage afterward and we embraced. It was a wonderful encounter.

Are you satisfied with your life?

Once, when I was a kid, I almost died from a blood infection. I was in a coma for 20 hours. Years later, in 1975, I survived a plane crash at a Milan airport. These tragedies leave you sensitive to the beauties of the world. For a man to have a family, health and a wonderful career like mine—what more is there?