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Tenor Pavarotti Dies at Age 71

September 6, 2007 at 1:55 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And a few reflections on the life and music of Pavarotti now from Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for the Washington Post.

Tim, we were both smiling as we were watching every time he opened his mouth there. He said, “God kissed my vocal chords.” How do you explain what makes that voice so special?

TIM PAGE, Music Critic, Washington Post: It’s marvelous voice. I mean, I don’t think I ever heard such a beautiful sound come from a man’s voice. People can argue who was the greatest tenor, who is the most musical, who is the most venturesome, but I think if you asked anybody or most people in the opera world who had the most sheerly beautiful voice, sun-splashed and resonant and just something very tender and very beautiful about it.

I grew quite misty listening to those recordings, because, you know, I’ve been listening to this man for 30 years, and I’m in the lucky position of never having had to pay for it once.

JEFFREY BROWN: Extra special.

TIM PAGE: And I will really miss hearing him.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw several references to him today as the last of the — the last great voice of Italian opera, which suggests that this is part of a tradition. And he, of course, always cited the tradition with Caruso.

TIM PAGE: Yes, I would hesitate to go that far. I would say — and certainly Placido Domingo, even though he’s not Italian, sings a lot of Italian opera and sings it magnificently.

Every great artist is unique, and especially a singer. When a singer is out there, the singer is carrying around his or her instrument with himself. And so it’s not as though you can get another instrument such as Pavarotti has. You can’t go out and — if a cello goes bad or if a piano goes bad, you can go out and get a very good piano or cello. But if you carry it around with you, you can’t find another.

"Transcending the opera world"

JEFFREY BROWN: How did he then become larger than life, I mean, transcending the opera world? Because he had a reputation already in the '60s and '70s, but then something happened.

TIM PAGE: Well, I don't want to sound too cynical about this, but a part of it was he had a very smart and very aggressive manager, Herbert H. Breslin, who wanted to try out pushing a very charismatic, a very likable and terrific musician into fields where musicians had not gone.

So Pavarotti was already well-known in the opera world, but that's a relatively small world. And Breslin and Pavarotti decided to storm the gates and go out and try to win him an audience all the way around the world. And, you know, the fact of the matter is, the Three Tenors album is not only the best-selling classical record by a long shot, but it's one of the best-selling records of any kind ever made. It's over 15 million.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think I read today that, when they first performed, they did it for a flat fee.

TIM PAGE: Yes, they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then they realized, "That's a mistake," I guess?

TIM PAGE: I think when a record goes on to sell 15 million copies and you got paid a handsome fee, but not a grand fee, I think you want to go back and do it again. Believe me, they did not repeat the mistake when they did "Three Tenors II," "Three Tenors III," and so on.

The tenor's critics

JEFFREY BROWN: There was criticism in his later years of some of the commercialism, and there were problems with canceling concerts in later years. How much, if at all, did that affect his standing in the music world? And how much of that did the larger public pay attention to or care about?

TIM PAGE: Well, the larger public just loved him and loved him and loved him. And I think people in the music world maybe raised their eyebrows a little bit at some of the things he did. I mean, he actually lip-synced a concert once. And when he was called on it, he said, "Well, I was trying to preserve my voice." Well, if you're singing in concert, you don't preserve your voice. That's the whole point.

So I think people certainly raised their eyebrows a little bit at things like this. On the other hand, he was -- there was no voice like it. And when he was working hard, which was not always the case, but when he was working hard, he was one of the world's great musicians, as well as somebody who was just uniquely blessed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just flat-out musician, never mind singer?

TIM PAGE: Oh, no, he was a marvelous, marvelous musician, not always, not when he was singing "Those Were the Days" and some of the things he did on the Three Tenors thing, and certainly not when he was lip-syncing.

But when he was working hard, there was -- certainly nobody else had a voice like he did, and he was a magnificent Rudolf, he was magnificent in Puccini and Verdi. And actually one of my favorite recordings of his is a recording of Rossini's "William Tell," which is not that well-known, but it's extraordinary. I mean, they called him the "King of the High C's." Well, he actually sings two high c-sharps in this, as well as 28 high c's on this recording, and it's marvelous music. And he does it beautifully.

Pavarotti's best work

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there other individual performances or recordings you want to call our attention to?

TIM PAGE: You know, the one which I think I would call attention to, which sort of has a sad history, it was an album called "The Best." And it's a two-CD set issued by his long-time record company Decca, which used to be known as London, but it's now Decca. And it was basically a Pavarotti 101. It was all the hits put together. And it was called "The Best Farewell Tour," and the idea was it was going to help launch his farewell tour, which, of course, never really happened, because he got sick.

JEFFREY BROWN: Someone like this passes who's so well-known, and you want to say, "Do they make them like this anymore?" How do you -- we've got about 30 seconds here. How do you sum up that legacy?

TIM PAGE: Well, one can always hope that there'll be somebody who has some of the same qualities, but those of us who heard that voice, who heard that honeyed, lambent, never-to-be-forgotten, beautiful tenor voice, with all of the sun of Italy in it, will never forget it. And there will be over fine artists, but there won't be another Pavarotti.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Tim Page of the Washington Post, thanks very much.

TIM PAGE: Thank you.