A love affair with Italy starts with opera
Pavarotti’s gift of Italian opera to the world
What is it about Italian arias that make us weep even when we don’t necessarily know why?
As I sat watching the Ron Howard documentary, ‘Pavarotti’ recently, the tears streamed down my cheeks in perfect symphony with the maestro’s majestic voice.
Was it the palpable emotion exuded through his vocals? The perfect ‘high C’ of arguably the best tenor the world has ever heard? A breathing technique, learned from Dame Joan Sutherland, that meant he could hold then release the emphasis of every note with acute timing?
Or was it the story that enfolded around him, the knowledge that he had such a passion, no, a mission, to bring Italian opera and a love of his country, its music, food, language and culture to the masses, that resonated with me?
There he was, as a young man growing up in Modena, encouraged by his parents who recognised his prodigious talent, to pursue a career that in the beginning was a labour of love with little financial reward.
Then taking his first steps into the great opera houses of the world, and into the concert halls and stadia where no other opera singer had ventured.
In his later years, on stage with his operatic compatriots, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, as the newly formed Three Tenors, paying tribute to the joy of opera and raising money for the José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation, as a way of welcoming his friend back into the world of opera after his battle with cancer. The concert was performed in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, on the eve of the 1990 FIFA Wold Cup. The comaraderie between the three friends was palpable. Pavarotti had been phoning Carreras in hospital, telling him to hurry up and get well, otherwise he would have no competition. Both wondered if maybe there was an opportunity to perform together when he got better.
What a concert that must have been! The recording of that concert became the best-selling classical music album of all time and changed the way in which the world consumed classical music forever.
What I learned while watching this seminal documentary was that Pavarotti wasn’t just an opera star, he was an enigma – a hugely talented and successful artist, who also had an insatiable love of life and people. Despite his sometimes ‘diva’ tendencies, ultimately, he believed that he had a gift that he was obligated to share with the world. Like all successful people, his work schedule was relentless, and he was prepared to do the ‘hard yards’ – singing in concert halls around the world, bringing opera to people who had never experienced anything like it before. He was the first opera singer to perform with ‘rock stars’, to demonstrate that classical music wasn’t just for the privileged few.
While success brought with it sacrifices, privileges and riches, he never forgot his roots in war-torn Italy, and spent his latter years raising money to build schools in countries savaged by conflict. He also spent a lifetime supporting aspiring opera singers, a legacy that continues today through the Luciano Pavarotti Foundation.
The documentary is a poignant and respectful journey through the life of this great man. He had his faults, of course, and these are eluded to by his former wife Adua, and daughters, who admit that they didn’t get enough time from the husband and father they adored. They admit that his love for his craft and for sharing it with the masses meant they often had to watch from the sidelines and ultimately lose him to a new wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, 34 years his junior, and new daughter, Alice. There doesn’t seem to be any malice – just a recognition that sometimes great people make sacrifices for a higher purpose and their loved ones’ loss is the world’s gain.
Having been brought up in a household immersed in Italian opera, my father being Italian and a founding member and occasional President of the Giuseppe Verdi Chorale in Brisbane, as well as a tireless committee member of the Italo-Australian Centre, I can understand a bit of their bittersweet pain. My father, too, was often absent, committed as he was to bringing the music of Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti, peppered with countless regional folk songs, to Italians far from home and to Australians hankering for a bit of Italy in their Aussie lives.
But my siblings and I also got to experience a life unlike our Australian friends, filled with Italian music, food, language and culture. When I was 18 years old, I was persuaded by my father to enter the Miss Italo Australia Quest – an annual fundraiser for the Italian Club in Brisbane. The choir was a sponsor, so my father begged me to be their ‘entrant’. My role involved hosting events to raise money for the quest and compete against other contestants for the prize of top fundraiser and the ultimate crown of ‘Miss Italo-Australia’. Up until that time, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time with my father. Suddenly, I was spending hours selling raffle tickets in the bar at the Italian club and working side-by-side with my dad, organising concerts, barbecues, cabarets and other fundraising events. What I witnessed was a passion so deep – no, a mission – to keep the culture of his homeland alive and to share it with the world of Brisbane and beyond. For the first time in my life I understood my father’s enduring love for his country and his culture and that love transpired to me and took root in my heart.
So, as I sat watching Pavarotti, I realised why I was crying. It wasn’t just for this grand maestro of opera. I was weeping for my father, and the enormous gift he gave me – an enduring love of Italy – its opera, food, art, wine, language – and an eternal ability to delve into the depths of my emotions and let them spill forth in torrents of both joy and grief. My life would be so devoid without that and I am forever grateful. Despite my father not being ‘present’, just as Pavarotti wasn’t always there for his family, his legacy goes so much further and deeper. I would be a lesser person had I not had a father like my papà, and no doubt those who knew and loved Pavarotti feel the same. For many others, a love affair with Italy may have started with a love of opera, or if not, it will now!
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