More than a decade has passed since he set the opera world agog with a series of high C’s so glorious as to confer instant stardom. In his reign as the tenor of his times, he exhibited a personal blend of warmth with please-love-me vulnerability that transcended even the appeal of his art and brought him millions of fans worldwide. And yet of late the triumphal course of Luciano Pavarotti has begun to zig and zag with sudden cancellations and spicy rumors of a romantic liaison with a beautiful protégée—all amid mounting speculations that, at 47, his matchless voice has started to fail him.
Since September he has bowed out of performances in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, pleading a growing allergy to stage dust. Last month he marked up his latest no-show when, barely a week before opening night, he wired London’s Royal Opera House to cancel five sold-out performances of Tosca. “I know if I sing anymore, I run the risk of being unable to sing again,” he explained somewhat melodramatically, noting that his Tosca role as Cavaradossi obliged him to face a firing squad. “I don’t want to push the voice on the stage in winter in an opera where I must die on the floor.”
Understandably, London was annoyed, then enraged when, less than 24 hours after he canceled, Pavarotti went onstage in Sydney with Australia’s Dame Joan Sutherland, singing for two hours plus encores. Growled the Royal Opera’s administrator, Sir John Tooley, “I think I now want to know why.”
Pavarotti announced that he would hie off to Hawaii for a needed rest, presumably in the company of his American protégée-cum-secretary. She is Madelyn Renee, 27, from Newton, Mass., a bright, perky soprano he met five years ago while teaching a master class at Juilliard in New York. Though still unproven in the full rigors of operatic performance, Renee has been put on a fast track through Pavarotti’s employment and sponsorship, and she sang a role in his Sydney performances. Then, in his concluding concert in Melbourne, he surprised everyone by calling her onstage to share his encores.
He didn’t take the Hawaiian vacation after Australia but, despite his distinctive profile, dropped out of sight for 10 days before going home to Italy. Meanwhile his wife, Adua, 45, was left to field the questions of inquisitive reporters. “Yes,” she conceded, “Luciano likes to joke around and tease his colleagues, give them a hearty spank on the bottom and even an innocent pinch.” But, she insisted, “He’s not the type for a romantic vacation.” Besides, she added, Madelyn is “just a pupil of Luciano’s.”
Far more worrisome is the perception by opera insiders that Pavarotti’s voice may have been damaged by being pushed too far in heavy dramatic roles. One cruel whisper has it that “for the king of the High C’s, it’s now a matter of High B’s.” He is also said to have been badly demoralized last year when Yes, Giorgio, his first foray into Hollywood, was panned. Some speculate that he may abandon opera for the less demanding concert circuit. But it takes more than tattle and tantrums to unseat a man of Pavarotti’s stature, and he is booked solid through the next four seasons. It remains to be seen where the tempestuous course will lead—and whether or not opera’s king will be forced to abdicate.