When Luciano Pavarotti lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on September 6, 2007 at the age of 71 the world lost one of the most remarkable voices since voices began being recorded. I had the privilege—and I do mean privilege—to have interviewed the great tenor in depth at the height of his career. It was back in 1982, when he was so popular that MGM decided to star him in a movie called Yes, Giorgio, a light romantic comedy that served one purpose: it captured his signature song—Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from Turnadot–on film from different angles. Whenever Pavrotti sang in concert, he ended with that aria, because it was a true show stopper. There was no need for an encore after he belted out that one.
My memories of being with Pavarotti are vivid because I had the opportunity to follow him around the country. Not only did I go to the MGM lot in Culver City at six A.M. to sit in his dressing room and talk to him as he was being made up, but I also got to follow him to New York, where he performed Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera House; to Chicago, where he appeared in Donizetti’s L’Eisir d’Amore at the Lyric Opera, and to San Francisco, where he did Verdi’s Aida at the San Francisco Opera House. In each city outside Los Angeles I stayed on the same floor of the same hotel as Pavarotti, so that I would be close by if he decided he’d like to talk after he finished performing, usually sometime after midnight. An unexpected bonus of that strategy was that I got to hear him rehearse before each performance, as a piano had been installed in his room and all I had to do was open my door to hear him loud and clear. I even remember putting a chair in the doorway to sit and listen to his magical, mellifluous voice.
On the movie set, our conversation was often interrupted by famous visitors who had come to shake his hand and tell him how wonderful they thought he was. The great violinist Itzakh Perlman came, as did actors Charlton Heston and Jacqueline Bisset. You could see in their eyes and their demeanor what an honor they felt it was to be in the presence of one of the most gifted creatures in all of God’s kingdom.
I brought my young nephew Zachary to meet him in New York. Zach arrived with a plastic suit of armor and a couple of swords, just purchased at the FAO Schwarz toy store across the street. Pavarotti’s eyes lit up when he saw them, and he immediately encouraged Zach to suit up. Then he grabbed the other sword and they were off, engaged in playful battle, to the delight of all, including my sister, a photographer, who shot them crossing swords in a scene reminiscent of many a great operatic battle. I would later give Pavarotti two copies of the pictures, and he graciously signed one in his sprawling hand, which my nephew now has framed in his law office.
I created another photo op in Chicago when I convinced Playboy to send over two bunnies from their club with a birthday cake and balloons, in honor of Pavarotti’s 46th birthday. When they came knocking on his hotel door, he beamed as he welcomed them to join him as he blew out a candle, opened a bottle of wine and shared the cake.
Also in Chicago I remember a 21-year-old tenor who came to his hotel room to sing for him. After Pavarotti listened, he told the young singer, “Your problem is you don’t sweat enough. If you do not sweat, you aren’t working hard.”
Pavarotti, of course, sweat plenty. He always had a big white handkerchief which he used to mop the sweat from his brow. He was especially nervous debuting Aida in San Francisco. “Aida is a big and heavy storm for everybody,” he told me. “Twenty years I’m trying to sing Aida and it still is not coming out like I want. I am scared like a kitten….The opera begins with the tenor—after one minute, when the voice is not warmed up, you have the aria [‘Celese Aida’]. It is written in a way that you can’t breathe. Your diaphragm really needs to come down. It’s the terror of all the tenors. You will see my legs tremble.”