I waited on the tarmac. It was Spring, 1972 in Memphis, Tennessee and I was awaiting the arrival of my girlfriend at the airport She was coming in from New York City; I had driven from the St. Louis area and we were to meet for an enjoyable weekend of performances by the Metropolitan Opera on its then-annual Spring Tour. This was during my Hippy days, and I looked the part. As I waited, I was surprised to see a man emerge, a man not yet nationally famous, but instantly recognizable to me. As our eyes met, I said in Italian, “Mr. Pavarotti, welcome to Memphis.”
The tenor descended laughing, then said “You are my welcoming committee?” We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Suddenly, a large group of people approached Pavarotti, apologizing for being late to welcome him. He summoned enough English to say “Here is my welcoming committee”, or words to that effect, indicating me. It should be noted that in later years his English improved considerably. The well-dressed opera patrons eyed the disgraceful Hippy with amazement, then swept their star away. My girlfriend came out and everything began to proceed according to plan. Such was my first meeting with the man who would become one of the three most famous opera singers of the 20th Century, along with Enrico Caruso and Maria Callas, both of whom lacked the mass media advantages that Pavarotti enjoyed. Future meetings proved equally unexpected.
The second one was several years later at the Kennedy Center. By then the Hippy appearance had been discarded and I was working my way up the ladder there; I was in the Box Office for the Opera House. Pavarotti’s name had by become a household word and he was to appear in four performances at the Opera House during the Met’s still-active tour. One day, during a very slow part of the day, those of us at the windows were astonished to see Pavarotti approaching us with a big, friendly smile. As if it were necessary, he introduced himself. He then told us he was singing the four performances and encouraged us to come to see him. He proceeded to go all around the entrance level of the building and did the same with the people at the souvenir stands, the ushers, with anyone he saw who worked there. In all my years at Kennedy Center, he was the only star to do such a thing and it made quite an impression. Several employees who had never seen an opera went to see him as a result of his efforts as goodwill ambassador. I of course needed no encouragement, having previously gotten tickets for his Un Ballo In Maschera and L’Elisir D’Amore performances. It was becoming clear that I was never to have what might be described as a normal meeting with this man. Little did I know how odd the next, and last one would be.
The vocal pinnacle of Pavarotti’s voice was from the late ’60’s through the mid-70’s. Nearing the end of the ’70’s, the easy lyrical brilliance of his tone had begun to harden slightly as he entered his ’40’s and took on heavier roles. In any case, Pavarotti’s voice type is often at its best in a tenor’s younger years. While the tenor continued to sing very well, those of us who had heard him at his absolute best noticed the difference. I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Pavarotti had decided to take on the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore, hardly a role he was born to sing. However, when he began to perform Manrico at the Met, I went to hear the result, not without trepidation. As far as Pavarotti was concerned, I got what I expected: a still fine tenor voice singing music not really appropriate to it. The rest of the experience could hardly have been predicted.
I found myself next to an elderly gentleman who, from the sound of his “Bravo!”, was Italian. During the first intermission, I spoke to him in Italian, asking him if he were from Italy. He responded as predicted and then asked me what I thought of the tenor. When I simply responded that Pavarotti was one of the best tenors in the world, he said “One of the best? He’s the best.” Such was the passion of his response that I felt it best to simply agree with him. I learned that he was from Modena, a town I had once spent a considerable amount of time in and we discussed that. He revealed that he had come from Modena particularly to hear his son’s Manrico and was staying for several performances. In those days, the Met had 3 intermissions for a 4-act opera and we spent each one in conversation. By chance I was on the list for admittance backstage after the performance, as was, of course, the elder Pavarotti.
At the end of the performance, we duly went backstage to the area near the star dressing rooms. The tenor saluted his father affectionately and Pavarotti, Sr. introduced me as “Gregorio”. I told Pavarotti of our first meeting and he told me he recalled it, though I was doubtful. I excused myself and said hello to a couple of singers and staff members I knew, then bade farewell to both Pavarotti’s, as it seemed best not to intrude. As I walked away, I reflected on the unusual nature of all three meetings with Pavarotti. Though I was to hear him sing many more times, our paths did not cross again. Through those years, I often thought of Caruso and Callas, wondering what level of fame they would have achieved in the media age. Had they been contemporaries, would Pavarotti’s fame have matched or even exceeded theirs? A provocative question to be forever unanswered. For his 21st Century fans, Pavarotti’s preeminence will likely remain undisputed.