Inviting Luciano Pavarotti for Dinner – One of OperaWire’s Writers Remembers the Icon From a Unique PerspectiveBy Lois Silverstein
The voice fell on me like a firebrand. I was sitting in the second balcony of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I wore my beige sheath and piled my hair high on top of my head. Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” It was a first for me. “Aida, Rigoletto, La Traviata” I’d heard countless times, but not this. Not until now. And then that sound. From Stage Left it came, sweeping across to Center, the source draped in a colorful red and navy outfit, complete with sword and knee-high boots: a uniform, although I couldn’t tell for what.
I picked up my opera glasses and adjusted the knobs. I couldn’t focus. The sound kept stoking my heart. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t move. My hair somehow dislodged and fell in a cloud around me. That sound. I leaned to my partner but couldn’t speak. It went on and on, flames of it, and then: it was done. Thunderous applause, all around me. There was no bow. This wasn’t 1928, or even 1965, when in some opera houses singers could claim immediate applause; Naples, for instance, Teatro San Carlo. This was San Francisco, the War Memorial Opera House. This was San Francisco, “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Riccardo, Governor of Boston, Luciano Pavarotti, 1974.
I had grown up hearing the story of one grandfather–or both, I didn’t know–who was a Bronx tailor, and had bought himself a Stromberg-Carlsen phonograph with the first money he earned in the New World. He just had to hear Caruso on record. “Ridi, Pagliacci.” Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Ma said he’d blast the sound out the window even when she was trying to study her Spanish. But she didn’t mind. In fact, it was her swooning over “Madame Butterfly” years later that passed my grandfather’s passion down to me. Although in love with playing the piano, I knew it didn’t hold a candle to the ecstatic sound of Cio-Cio San in “Un bel di vedremo.” So, one year later, when I stood as a bright red lip-sticked Super in a black and white uniform–a maidservant in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”–and the sound almost literally pierced my side, I realized I was living out my family’s legacy. Here was music from the gods. Was I on the ground? I had to be. There was Jesus Lopez-Cobos in the orchestra pit, baton in hand. There was Katia Ricciarelli looking and singing like a dove. There was French-Canadian Huguette Tourangeau and Louis Quilico and Giorgio Tozzi singing with gusto. No way could I be standing in the middle of all that exaltation without breathing. Yet, all I wanted to do was rise into open sky, over the opera house and on over Downtown, across the Atlantic, over the boot called Italy and then coast down into a meadow of angelic voices that cushioned the glory surrounding me. But I had to clear dishes from a stage dinner table with my cohorts and keep that miraculous sound emanating two inches from me, and all the time knowing that what was golden was suddenly no longer dim, what was miraculous was notably plain.
Between 1973 and 1976 I appeared in almost every opera Pavarotti sang in San Francisco. In addition, between my teaching and writing, I listened to his recordings with Mirella Freni–his colleague from Modena–those with Dame Joan Sutherland, and, of course, Renata Scotto. I was living life in a swirl of ecstasy. There wasn’t a day I didn’t conjugate Italian verbs in “presente, passato, perfetto,” in case I was called upon to translate any sentence or phrase. There wasn’t a night I didn’t go to sleep without my well-worn copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” still open on my night stand, and a cassette of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry on the floor. Who said such language wasn’t heaven’s flowers?
Then–Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday: at 6 p.m. I took the downtown bus to stand backstage amid the coterie of men and women waiting for instructions from Beppe de Tomasi, Lotfi Mansouri, Gunter Rennert, or Gerald Freedman, about where to enter the stage action; Stage Right in a cluster, fanning out across the back; Stage Left via the upstairs door; Upstage Center, kneeling down while the conductor released the final note; Downstage Right, behind Rodolfo kneeling before his beloved. Rodolfo, id est, Pavarotti, Luciano, Lucio, the evening’s lyric songbird. I had spent years in the stacks of major university libraries, traveled across the ocean to hear “Aida” at the Baths of Caracalla, “The Marriage of Figaro” in Salzburg, but there was nothing quite like “Luciano” in San Francisco, even before he took the world by storm.
Pavarotti was a friendly tenor, no airs. He’d walk through the stage door at 6:00 p.m. beaming yet focused. He’d greet us all with flashing eyes, full of “joie de vivre” and a bouquet of smiles. He was here to please and that’s precisely what he did. He’d head to his dressing room without fuss, sweep in to be costumed, made up, warm up and wait for his call, and gave off no histrionics. He looked as if he couldn’t wait to meet that night’s leading lady, and follow her into the limelight. There, he’d cock his head, flutter his eyes, open his mouth and let the miracle emerge.
During all those operas in which Pavarotti performed, I was fascinated by how someone with such an abundance of gifts prepared himself for performance; from scene to scene, emotion to emotion, high note to low to high again, smile to frown, Downstage to Upstage, into someone’s arms or out, into and out of the realm of dreams as Edgardo did to his Lucia, or Rodolpho as he grieved for his Mimi. I studied his breath control and how he heightened his intensity. Always he remained focused and attentive to what was to come and how he was to appear. It was the era of Domingo as well as Pavarotti and everyone always compared the two. I had no doubts about my choice. Anyone with that much “elan vital” had to come out ahead, hands down. It was like comparing Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot in performance. Both had spectacular talents, but when the human dimension was added? There was no question. When you have good wine, you don’t need to order champagne.
No question that Pavarotti might not have voluntarily put himself through the ordeal of creating an opera career if he hadn’t admired his own father’s tenor voice, which he called far sweeter than his own. He hadn’t apparently aimed to live his life on the opera stage. Could he have been a teacher? Perhaps. He did play soccer in his youth.
But as way leads to way he wound up on the stage and over the years, long after my first exposure to his voice, he had established a place there from which history could never dislodge him. The bounty of his sound allowed us to touch that beauty beyond the daily and the occasional. We even got spoiled, what with “Nessun Dorma”, “Una Furtiva Lagrima” and “Mes Amis,” from Donizetti ‘s “La Fille de Regiment,” where he was crowned “King of the High C’s.”
What a gift. We said he brought opera to the people and that’s surely what we got. From the Stage Door to the Sunday before the San Francisco Opera Season opened–when the company invited stars of the season to sing in Golden Gate Park–many of us stood through those cold and foggy Septembers to see him bound onto the stage with a yellow scarf furled around his neck and sing out “Che Gelida Manina” or “O Patria Mia” for the sheer joy of it.
There was a cast party, one opening night, after the loud applause, the flowers, and the kudos. We were downstairs at the opera house and there was a gorgeous buffet spread across the L-shaped tables and lots of champagne. The “divo,” I believe, provided it. We were all giddy. I wore the pink dress which I had made specifically for the occasion: plain and simple, yet sophisticated. My hair was down, my earrings long. I didn’t know where to stand, given the last thing I wanted was to stand out. To watch, admire, gaze: that was my real delight. A magic carpet ride with no exposure. When the maestro came down, his presence satisfied us all. Granted, when he raised his glass for a minute we expected “Libiam, Libiamo”, but nada. We laughed and clinked our glasses in response, no song from our end either. When he passed me he pinched my cheek and smiled. I thought for sure I had died and gone to heaven, although the imagery didn’t fit my usual theodicy.
When he came back the other way, spontaneously I uttered a mad invitation to join my family for spaghetti that Sunday night, having heard he was never averse to an invitation from even a no-name like me.
“He said YES!” I exclaimed when I walked through the door of my house that night.
Over the next few days, reality sank in. All I could think about was how he would fit down the narrow stairway in my funny old rented home, in one of the most-removed parts of San Francisco. It was small even for me, and I was 5 foot 2, 120 pounds. The final night of the run he said, “Mi dispiace.” “I am sorry.” He could not come. His family were arriving from Modena and he had myriad obligations. “La prossima volta.” I smiled and said “Capisco.” My self-made Italian lessons were coming in handy after all. On the bus, I could hardly believe that I’d been that close.
When I got home, I asked myself how I had actually invited the world’s greatest tenor to eat spaghetti Bolognese at my house. I realized that it was inspiration which prompted me. Ecstatic song dissolves usual boundaries, and I had jumped right up to invent reality myself. Why wait and hope for it to be come upon? Magic and mystery: this is Grand Opera. Go on, drink from your dream.
Dream does not always cave into the every day, it’s true, but it is what you can live by if you want. It can be the bowl you could eat from and the sky into which you can climb. Who said the sound of majesty that emerges from an opera stage, a magnificat of mighty notes that arise from the imagination of a Verdi or a Puccini or a Wagner, can’t live among all of us, one way or the other? Wasn’t it my very grandfather–or grandfathers–who came across the ocean with $10 in his pocket, who let Caruso sing out over the Grand Concourse on a Shabbos morning and he only a tailor? “A man [or woman’s] reach must exceed [their] grasp or what’s a heaven for?” as Browning reminds us.
I still grin today as I imagine Pavarotti turning sideways on my stairwell and sucking in his breath just to reach the dining room downstairs. I imagine him walking around the side of our old house, climbing down the outdoor stairs, and through the back door, past the trash cans, into the lovely deep green dining room where “spaghtetti a la Bolognese” waits in a large tureen on the table. And I picture him flying over the veranda-lined garden and coming down through a lower back door, past the washing machine and sidling through the swinging door, where the plates and myriad faces of my family await his arrival.
No soap. He had to meet his wife. He had to meet his daughters. He had to meet his other commitments, his life as it actually was, without a black velvet cape, sword, and knee-high boots. I, a mere grace-note on a song that many could sing and which needed not one more voice to add in chorus, had to wait until la prossima volta: the next time, the next life, who knew if ever. I still continue to stretch my life and my heart wherever I go and in whatever I do: Pavarotti’s song inspired me in that over and over again, and for that I am forever grateful. That touch of paradise that I could carry with me wherever I went, evoking the infinite, and, for however long, that leads every one of us to live out our fullest note each single day.