One of the most ridiculous and persistent myths to dominate the opera world lately has been the concept that no opera company can truly be considered "great" unless Luciano Pavarotti's name appears on its roster. If one examines the number of opera companies currently in business, the number of days in any given year that Mr. Pavarotti can perform, and the cost of contracting Luciano's services, it becomes obvious that numerous opera companies are forced to survive without the superstar tenor.
While some people insist that Pavarotti's presence is worth any price, others are not so sure. Several years ago, when performing in concert for a regional opera company in the Midwest, the tenor's contract stipulated that the opera company contribute a horse to an Italian polo team and pay the costs of shipping the animal back to Italy. The San Francisco Opera (which, for Pavarotti's appearances in Ernani, plastered Luciano's picture all over its posters, brochures, and marketing materials) suffered a severe loss of credibility when the artist canceled his performances during its 1984 season.
In recent years, the only American opera companies contracting Pavarotti for fully-staged productions have been the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Greater Miami Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Company of Philadelphia (where the tenor's name is the driving force behind OCP's annual voice competition). In November 1988, when Pavarotti returned to the San Francisco Opera as Puccini's Rodolfo, his rudeness and rigidity during rehearsals became the talk of the town (one singer was embarrassed to call him a professional colleague). The tenor's withdrawal from several sold-out performances of Boheme (ostensibly so that he could make his directing debut in Italy) incurred the wrath of many ticket buyers including those impresarios and arts administrators who were in town for OPERA America's annual conference.
In May, the Pittsburgh Opera was forced to cancel its new production of Werther (Pavarotti's first outing in the role) and substitute a production of Tosca in order to accommodate the tenor. After the dates for the Tosca performances had been rescheduled (at great expense to the company) on opening night Pavarotti could not deliver the high note in Cavaradossi's final aria. After apologizing to the audience, he walked off the stage of the Benedum Center. When Luciano left town, Ermanno Mauro was called in as a substitute for the remaining four performances.
Every singer's biological clock keeps ticking and, to quote Shakespeare's Macbeth, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace from day to day." Pavarotti recently bowed out of a new production of Pagliacci promised to him for the opening night of the San Francisco Opera's 1990 season and, at 53, one can only assume that his prime time is running out.
In recent seasons, several general directors have had to acknowledge that their primary responsibility is to the community which supports their opera company rather than to a star performer's whims or the peculiar demands of his agent. Lately, several impresarios have begun to question whether it's still worth jumping through the hoops dangled in front of them by Pavarotti's management.
After cancelling his performance dates with the Lyric Opera of Chicago this fall, Luciano joined the ranks of popular celebrities who have fallen from public grace. Having canceled 26 out of 41 performances in the past decade at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the tenor was labeled as "a bad risk" by Lyric's General Director, Ardis Krainik, and informed that he was no longer welcome to perform with one of America's leading opera companies. We applaud Krainik -- who has withdrawn from any future negotiations with Pavarotti -- for having had the courage and good sense, when faced with yet another cancellation by this artist, to say "Basta!"
The bottom line is that no artist -- not even the great Pavarotti -- is indispensable. Several years ago, when the devaluation of the dollar spurred a rash of double bookings and domestic cancellations by opera singers, Columbia Artists management consultant Matthew Epstein (who serves as an artistic advisor to the Santa Fe Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) insisted, "This is immoral and has got to stop. If you look at the really big stars, you'll see that they have got to be operating on both sides of the Atlantic. They cannot have major international careers without America. If artists are going to play games, then we have got to say 'Sorry, but we really can't invite you back for two years. Do without us!' because, if we close down Artist X in this country for several years, you can be sure that every other artist will start to toe the line:'
An old adage claims that "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." As we ring down the curtain on a tumultuous decade, several public figures whose intense media visibility has fostered mind-boggling displays of arrogance and hypocrisy have been taken to task for their double standards.
People like Oliver North, Bess Myerson, Jim Bakker, Pete Rose, Samuel Pierce, Jimmy Swaggart, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Leona "only the little people pay taxes" Helmsley, have been subjected to intense media scrutiny with less-than-flattering results. Perhaps that's why, in reporting on Lyric Opera's rift with Pavarotti, one of San Francisco's daily newspapers ran a picture of the tenor with a caption that read: "The opera's over before the fat man sings."
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This article originally appeared in the December 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.