I know I'm far from the only one who felt a special connection to Luciano Pavarotti, who just died at his home in Modena from a long bout with pancreatic cancer. But he gave me so much pleasure over so many years -- in addition to all the opera I love an album of Neopolitan songs he did, though I only heard him once in person -- that I long ago forgave him for having the voice I didn't have. It's probably just as well -- maybe God doesn't make mistakes in such matters. I have a decent voice and I'm an accomplished choral musician -- I've been in choirs or choruses since I was 8 and I directed our church choir for 8 years -- who can take a solo now and then. But an operatic-quality voice is not just a gift, it's a responsibility, and my interests are so wide-ranging I don't know if I would have concentrated on music to the extent required to make the most of it.
Luciano did. He had that beautiful, lyric voice, of course, and an abundance of natural talent and charisma. But it took more than natural talent to become Pavarotti. He loved to sing as a youngster, of course, but when he was 19 he decided to try for a career and began taking serious lessons, which meant vocalizing for hours, day after day. You have to do that to be able to make it sound easy and effortless.
As Pavarotti put it in his 1981 book "Pavarotti: My Own Story:" "While studying with Pola, I became fascinated by the voice and the way it responded to different vocval techniques. Many singers find studying voice -- the solfeggio, the endless vocalizing, the exercises -- very boring. I didn't. I became intrigued with the entire process. I was interested from the detached point of view of an experimenter as well as from the point of view of one who stood to profit from the lessons' progress." His teacher discovered that he had perfect pitch -- I've met a few people over the years who do, and it's also a gift, not something you can acquire, though you can have a good ear without it -- which was a help.
When he started taking lessons, in 1954, he had to teach school and sell insurance to pay for them. He didn't start getting concert engagements until almost seven years later, and then he sang in the provincial opera circuit for several years before starting to get big-time engagements. He seemed like all natural talent, a singer who burst onto the international scene as an instant phenomenon. But he sang a lot of exercises and paid a lot of dues before that.
Pavarotti lived life to the full like a proper Italian -- I married into an Italian family and think I know a little about them -- and probably didn't take care of his health as well as he should have. He was only 71 when he died. Some people are still able to sing quite well at that age.
Placido Domingo (whom I heard in person last year at the opening of the new Segerstrom music hall in Orange County) is probably a more accomplished and complete musician than Pavarotti ever was, and Giuseppe Di Stefano (I especially love an old vinyl Otello I still have) and Jussi Bjoerling might have had finer voices. But there was a sweetness and charisma about Pavarotti that was simply irresistible. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.