An Spailpín Fánach loves opera, even though he seldom listens to it and certainly doesn’t fully understand it. After having a good whine for myself recently about a certain cynicism existing in modern popular music, your constant quillsman has to tip his hat to the opera boys and girls. They might diva and divo left, right and centre, but once they get up on stage they don’t mail it in. It’s a very thrilling art form, and we are correct to mourn the passing of its most famous exponent in our times.
Luciano Pavarotti told a story about his father that sums up the remarkable power of opera. Luciano’s father, who could be counted on for a few bars of a song himself, loved Beniamino Gigli, the tenor who succeeded Caruso as the greatest singer in the world. Father and son would listen to the radio, listening to Gigli singing Puccini.
And then one day, Luciano had a revelation. He was at home from school and he heard Giuseppe Di Stefano singing. Luciano was totally bowled over by Di Stefano and, when his father came home, Luciano told the old man that he had heard a new voice, Di Stefano’s, which was even better than Maestro Gigli’s.
The old man belted him. “Never say again that there is anyone greater than Gigli!” he said. Luciano said it was the only time his father hit him.
Over a singer singing a song. Go figure.
An Spailpín’s ear is far too tin to say whether Pavarotti was the best and, to be honest, if you played me Pavarotti and Domingo back to back I wouldn’t know one from another. I find the discussions fascinating, however, such as this explanation from Tom Sutcliffe’s obituary in yesterday’s Guardian as to just why Pavarotti was the King of the High C’s:
"The point was that he sang the high Cs in full voice, though Donizetti had expected them to be sung in head voice. Full voice means without any adjustment towards falsetto or even modified falsetto, the sound when the soft palette is pressed down. Head voice would have meant not going into the passagio and sustaining that sort of modified shout, which is how tenors make their top notes exciting. But Pavarotti had a relaxed natural vibrato right through, so there was no need for him to mix in any kind of lightness or lack of body at the very top: his singing was all of a piece. This ability was a sort of piratical feat, and Decca (Pavarotti's recording company) used the title King of the High Cs on a record he made. The success and fame of this achievement for a time helpfully focused his work on the bel canto repertoire in which Bonynge and Sutherland were contemporary pioneers, with roles like Arturo in Bellini's I Puritani and Fernando in Donizetti's La Favorita."
Isn’t that marvellous? Any art that displays that breadth of insight and learning has to be taken seriously.
It is true, of course, that Pavarotti was a terrible man for playing to the galley. The more srón-in-airde set of the operatic world didn’t care for the Big Man, thinking him a hopeless and irredeemable ham with the hankie-waving and the constant recitals instead of appearing on stage in actual, you know, operas. But An Spailpín won’t hold that against him. The Big Man made a lot of people happy and, while duetting with the Spice Girls or Liza with a Z might be below the salt as far as certain folks are concerned, if it brought culture to the masses it’s alright with An Spailpín Fánach. And your correspondent has to confess that, while carefully researching this as I do all my little contributions, I laughed out loud when I discovered that not only did he sing with the the likes of the Spice Girls, the Big Man also teamed up with the one group of musicians almost as eager as himself to perform anything, anywhere at any time, as long as the money is right. Singing perhaps the only song every written about a tremendous feat of civil engineering, here’s Luciano and the Chieftains, by dad, none other, giving it socks on Funiculì, Funiculà. Maestri, take it away!
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