I looked at his legs when he sang that aria on opening night and they didn’t tremble. His voice was strong, the audience gave him a huge ovation, and the rest of the performance went off without a hitch. A few days later we spent the day together in San Francisco. We took a taxi to the Bank of America building where Gordon Getty was giving a recital. The Gettys are big patrons of the opera, and Pavarotti was acknowledging their contributions by attending the recital. When he went to pay the taxi driver he was rebuffed. “No, no, maestro,” the driver said. “You cannot pay me. It is an honor to drive you.” Then once inside the building, we didn’t know where to go, so Pavarotti asked the first person he saw where the recital was. The person recognized him and said, without hesitation, “Anywhere you want it.” After listening to Getty’s baritone voice, we were hungry, so we went to Chinatown for a meal, and then hopped on a cable car back to the hotel. Everyone on the cable car became giddy over their good luck to share the ride with so great a star; even the conductor couldn’t get over it. He came to a stop at an intersection, got out, and insisted on having his picture taken with the famous tenor.
It was that way wherever he went. Businessmen asked him to sign their copies of The Wall Street Journal, women in fur coats stood next to teenagers in shredded jeans, waiting for their programs to be signed. When he wanted to play tennis I accompanied him to a private club where six TV cameras and a dozen reporters waited for him. He loved the adulation. Of all the celebrities I have been with, he seemed the most comfortable in the public eye.
“My purpose is to make a good service to the world,” he said. “I consider myself a pioneer in my profession. I have this plan inside myself. I want to do something always new for the world of the opera. When I began to sing, we opera artists were the dummies of the entertainment world. Now they ask me to be in Blackglama ads, to do American Express commercials. Thank God we reached this level.
“I don’t always know if I am going to gain by exposing myself. But I give myself with great pleasure to the audience, to the camera, the newspapers, to journalists. I would miss these things if I didn’t have them. Certainly, if I bring 100 more people to the opera, I don’t see what is wrong. And I really love people. Loving people, you cannot stay away; you have to reach them—through the newspaper, through television. When you have established a certain rapport and you are in this kind of demand, you realize this is exactly what you want.
“I was the first to do a live television recital from the Met. That’s the difference between me and other tenors, who are asking themselves, ‘Oh, God, why is Luciano Pavarotti getting on the cover of that magazine? Why is he going to sell all those records?’ Well, somebody has to be the first. And it’s not just for the voice but also for a personality on and off the stage. And yet, every time that I come out with a big story or on the cover of Newsweek or Time, you hear somebody complain. If I see somebody else on a magazine cover, the first thing I will do is telephone and congratulate him, because I know how difficult our profession is. I will have envy, of course—but inside me.”
Pavarotti had a long list of firsts as an opera singer. He was the first tenor to receive an unprecedented seventeen curtain calls in the 1972 production of La Fille du Regiment at the Met. He was the first opera star to perform solo in Las Vegas, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and at the Academy Awards. He was the only opera singer to have appeared on Saturday Night Live. He was the first opera singer to perform duets with Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Jon Bovi, Bono, Eric Clapton, Brian Eno, B.B. King, the Spice Girls and Sting.
After our interview appeared I returned to New York to interview him again for a cable TV show. When he saw me he flashed that huge smile of his and said, “You have caused me a big trouble.”
“You mean what you said about Placido Domingo and the Met?” I asked.
“The newspapers, they pick that up, they like the controversy.”