"Arrivederci" to Pavarotti, Opera's Ambassador

Arrivederci to a Divo Larger Than Life


Here's a test for the hard of heart: Sit in front of a television, watch James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti performing Brown's "It's a Man's World," and try not to be moved by at least one of these two giants of modern music.

Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer last week at 71, is rightfully memorialized as the greatest tenor of his generation and Italian opera's foremost evangelist. By the end of his career, his popularity had outgrown the style itself, winning him upturned noses from those who don't consider James Brown to be part of the operatic canon.

His many collaborations with pop stars later in his career, often as part of his "Pavarotti and Friends" benefit series, ranged from U2 to Barry White to the Spice Girls. But Pavarotti didn't try to match the style of his collaborators. He was, after all, a divo, and a divo's job is not to blend in with everyone else.

And yet, watching Pavarotti perform with pop legends, even decades after his prime, one finds clues to his phenomenal appeal in the United States, which has never had much of an appetite for opera. The timbre of their voices may be different, but the intensity they bring to the stage is familiar—the sort of force of personality that can elevate a genre.

Beyond his vocal credentials, Pavarotti was a brilliant marketer. On top of his famous performances with Placido Domingo and José Carreras in the Three Tenors, he rounded out his humanitarian image with charity concerts and outreach to young singers. "He's sort of like Kleenex," says Richard Lalli, an adjunct professor of music at Yale University. "The brand name becomes the genre."

In one of the most watched clips on the Internet last week, Brown, the Godfather of Soul, returns backstage after his performance with Pavarotti. "Thank you. Grazie, grazie," says Brown. And then a reporter asks him a question usually posed to much less famous musicians. "How does it feel, singing with Pavarotti?" she wants to know. Brown leans forward, flashing his huge grin: "I feel gooood."