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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Outsized talents

By Norman Lebrecht / March 10, 2004

‘We shall never see his like again,’ they have been murmuring all week in New York as Big Lucy galumphed through his farewell run of Toscas at the Met. Shot by firing squad in the finale, Luciano Pavarotti (as Cavaradossi) creaked ponderously to his knees onto what appeared to be a fortuitously positioned pile of beanbags before executing an arm-assisted sideways flop to expire in graceless comfort.

Pavarotti, at 68, may claim sympathy for geriatric infirmity but the slow-mo act of elephantine death is an operatic abomination that he has practised and pefected over three decades of tenorial gigantism. A supple soccer player when he arrived at Covent Garden in1963, the former Modena centre-forward assumed imperious physical dimensions soon after conquering America with nine top Cs in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment at the Metropolitan Opera in February 1972.

Size became as much a part of his universal trademark as the beatific smile with which he unloosed string after string of near-unreachable pearls. The liquid delivery, the seemingly effortless transcendence, was all-too-readily ascribed to his mountainous girth. He cooked regimental tureens of pasta for press photographers and consumed most of the pot himself. Fatness was the source of his cult, his howitzer in a long-running war with the merely-plump Placido Domingo who could act him off any stage on earth but came distantly second in public affection and perception. When the pair joined arms with Jose Carreras as the miilionaire Three Tenors of the 1990 World Cup (and every tournament since), Pavarotti outgleamed his rivals in corpulent magnitude.

New York is not wrong: we shall never see his like again. The age of big singers is over, a transition confirmed this week by Covent Garden’s sacking of a prime soprano, Deborah Voigt, because she could not fit into a microfrock. Where Pavarotti once gave permission for singers to overspill, opera in the new century is skimpy and severe.

In retrospect, Pavarotti was an emblem of an excess-driven era. In the last quarter of the 20th century, an increasingly competitive and intrusive media industry demanded that stars be, in some way or other, larger than life. Conspicuous consumption was a fast track to fame and fatness an acceptable ticket, whether in such soul icons as Barry White and Solomon Burke, or in opera singers who slipstreamed into Pavarotti’s media channels.

Size had never before been much of an operatic issue. Opera, an evocation of the unreal, conventionally cast an overweight matron as consumptive Mimi or a skinnyshanks ingenue as earth-motherly Brunnhilde. It did not matter much to the fans. Luisa Tetrazzini, one of the most celebrated Golden Age divas, could barely fit into most dressing rooms (once inside, it was rumoured, she liked to be closeted for a few minutes with a choice young stagehand). But when she stepped out, it was how she sang that counted, not how she looked. The waist measurements of Jussi Bjorling and Tito Gobbi were immaterial to their wondrous voices and never discussed.

The relation of physical substance to sound production arose with Maria Callas, who started out in 1941 as a podgy Tosca and sylphed down in the mid-50s into a searingly dramatic bel canto heroine. Purists, who complained that she sometimes shrieked, linked her variable tone control to excessive weight loss, to which they also ascribed her early retirement in 1965, at an age, 41, when most sopranos have yet to peak. Their cavils stand unproven. After Callas, opera singers continued to appear in all shapes and sizes until Pavarotti blew up the mould.

Into his outsized shadow stepped the likes of Jessye Norman, who entered opera in the 1980s consumer boom. At Covent Garden she statuesquely sang the title role of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. At the close, she embraced the stick-thin tenor James King into the folds of her majestic tent-like garment, from which he was never seen to emerge.

Norman once sued a music magazine for calling her fat. Compared to the next wave of American divas, she seems almost malnourished. Sopranos like Deborah Voigt and Alessandra Marc weighed in at up to twenty stone and found work without difficulty. The conductor Georg Solti once asked Voigt, in a private audition, ‘why are you so fat? Is it the food?’ His criticism, the soprano recalled, ‘just pushed me over’. She went on diet drugs and lost 50 pounds, but not for long.

Marc, too, shed 48 pounds when she felt too big for roles, but there was never very much peer pressure on big singers to stay slim until the protective silhouette of Pavarotti began to wane and a new stream of verite directors demanded prima donnas in pencil skirts. Voigt’s sacking by the ROH from a role she has commanded internationally since 1990 is an indefensible act by a casting director who knew what he was getting when he booked her four years back. A Voigt aria album, out soon from EMI, reveals her to be in splendid Straussian voice. Shut your eyes in Ariadne’s great soliloquy, ‘Es gibt ein Reich’, and the magic is immediate.

But the new century is more visually oriented than the old, and twice as judgemental. Today’s divas are slinky young things, some kitted out like Kylie. The dominant American soprano, Renee Fleming, has squeezed into a leather body-suit for a record cover. The up and coming tenors - Cura, Licittra, Flores, Verazzon – could fit collectively into one pair of Fat Lucy’s pants with no diminution of volume. Big singers are dropping fast, out of fashion and out of sight.

Pavarotti himself is about to be assailed by a tell-all memoir written by his long-term US publicist and manager, Herbert Breslin. It is a rise and fall story of ‘a beautiful, simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar’. As he extends his wearisome farewells into a series of British concerts this summer, the big man may pause to wonder how he will be remembered by posterity. Will it be as the most exquisite lyrical voice of his epoch, or as an artist who outgrew his art by craving wealth and celebrity and conforming more to Oprah expectations than to the sensibilities of grand opera? Pavarotti grew famous by growing fat. That was both his triumph and his tragedy.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001