SCMP Saturday, June 23, 2001

A word with the maestro


The historical Beijing Hotel, with its neo-classical design of Italian marble floors and exquisite chandeliers, is a fitting host for the many important dignitaries and heads of states visiting China's capital city. But for the past few days, the feather pillows have been plumped for a different kind of royalty. This is where the king of high Cs, superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, holds court.
He arrived on Tuesday, with his long-time performing partners, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, for tonight ''the Three Tenors'' perform one of the most anticipated concerts of all time.
''He is tired, but well,'' advises Thomas Reitz, artist relations and co-ordinator of the Rudas Organisation, owned by Tibor Rudas, the 76-year-old impresario credited with creating the most successful enterprise in the history of classical music. Like all Three Tenors concerts, including recent ones in Chicago and Las Vegas, Rudas' team arrives ahead of time to ensure nothing is overlooked.
''We need another orchestra rehearsal, who do I call to organise that?'' says one staff member. ''Thomas is in artist relations, but he is also there to make sure Mr Pavarotti is well taken care of,'' the same woman tells me later. Even before my 30-minute slot with Pavarotti, who also will perform a solo concert in Hong Kong on Wednesday, the maestro's power and mystique can be felt everywhere. Three waitresses stand patiently inside a conference room, where the interview is scheduled to take place. As I'm early for the interview I head off to grab a bite to eat when the shrill voice of a Cantonese-speaking food and beverage manager cuts through the silence of the lobby. ''He wants French bread!'' he yells, and charges into the kitchen with two other staff. ''Are the fruits ready?'' One minute later, a metal cart filled with fresh vegetables, fruits and a stack of plates is hurriedly wheeled inside the service elevator.
''Come with me, he wants to do the interview in his room,'' Reitz says. I ask if my time with him is actually 30 minutes. Reitz rolls his eyes. ''Well, about fifteen, give or take.''
The door of the suite swings open and sitting behind a small breakfast table is Pavarotti, a large formidable man who looks like a huge teddy bear dressed in his trademark billowing shirt, track pants and white sneakers.
His eyes are slightly red, probably suffering jetlag after the flight from Italy. He speaks softy. ''Hello, sit down here, please.'' Such a difference from the Pavarotti on stage, whose lucid, powerful voice will be heard not only by the 100,000 people at the Forbidden City tonight but another two billion more on live telecast.
Pavarotti takes immaculate care of his voice, the voice that has wowed critics and fans for the past 40 years. ''I am very careful of temperature changes,'' he says. ''Like now when I am inside the air-conditioned room and it's hot outside, and I try to avoid cold weather.''
He may be thousands of kilometres away from his home in Pesaro, Italy, where the weather is milder, but the Pavarotti in front of me is ready to work. ''Of course, we are ready for the concert,'' he says. ''The three of us know each other well, we don't need to rehearse for 15 days.''
Tonight's concert has more significance than just pure entertainment. It is an event the Chinese Government hopes will help it secure its bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. Is he supporting China? Pavarotti looks out the window. ''I was here 16 years ago,'' he says, recalling his first concert at the Great Hall of the People. ''I see a big change in China, I see progress and when it arrives we cannot go back. It's a welcoming sight.''
Pavarotti, 66, has faced many changes during the past few years. First there was his divorce last year from Adua Veroni, his wife of 35 years. Then came the drama of a family feud which ultimately involved the Italian tax authorities. Pavarotti's girlfriend Nicoletta Mantovani, his former assistant, now accompanies the tenor wherever he goes. She is a slim, fresh-faced girl with dark brown hair and freckled cheeks. Dressed casually in jeans and a knit top, she quietly places a box of tissues near Pavarotti and disappears into the bedroom.
Like the hero he portrayed at the beginning of his career in 1961, Rondolfo in Puccini's La Boheme, Pavarotti has persevered and is back at the top, feeling better than ever.
He dispels rumours he is cutting down performances. ''Suppose we [the Three Tenors] decide we don't want to sing any more, but cities like Beijing and Seoul ask us, and for us it's an easy thing to do,'' he says. ''We arrive today and we can sing in four days.''
When the Three Tenors made their debut in 1990 at Rome's World Cup Finals, they almost stole the limelight of the sporting event. ''From Rome we went to Los Angeles, then France, we began to enjoy ourselves,'' he says. ''I hope we will be invited to the next World Cup, but we have not been yet.''
Pavarotti speaks of Carreras and Domingo affectionately, with great respect. ''It is only in the concerts we can come together, in the theatre we would never have the chance to perform together,'' he says. Both Domingo and Pavarotti make appearances at the Metro-politan Opera in New York, but their hectic work schedules have never placed them side by side.
Just how long this union will continue, he can't say. ''The three of us have always been very good when it comes to making a decision together,'' he says. ''If one day we decide we don't want to [perform] anymore, it will be between the three of us.''
Although Carreras and Domingo are outstanding artists in their own right, Pavarotti's charisma is unsurpassed. So is his unpredictability. When he suddenly cancelled his Hong Kong solo concert to be with his friend Rudas, many ticket holders were left high and dry. It was also a busy day for the Hong Kong concert's title sponsor, investment bank Salomon Smith Barney, which had to make many phone calls to its wealthy clients and guests. Does he care? Pavarotti raises his thick eyebrows and stares me straight in the eye. ''Are you joking? Very much I care.'' He pauses. ''Do you know the most important thing for me? It's the audience, it's always been the audience. Hong Kong is a sensational city, I am curious to see [it].''
Rudas suffered an ear infection and was unable to fly. Pavarotti was so distressed he decided to stay by his side until his friend recovered. ''Tibor tried to be better. We flew together and he is now okay, and here we are.''
Pavarotti has always been a generous friend and he is an even more generous mentor. When he is not performing, he travels the world in search of opera's next superstar by hosting the Pavarotti Competition. Since 1998, he has visited cities from the United States to as far as Peru and Budapest, hosting auditions and coaching young singers. For these talents, having the chance to sing for the maestro and get a few pointers is an experience of a lifetime.
''The only thing that matters in my profession is results,'' he says. ''When I put a singer on stage I can see their effect and I am good at picking out their mistakes.'' Is he hard to please? ''I am tough, but just. I think it's better to have a sad person today than to have someone singing at 50 and realise he is no good.''
Past winners of the Pavarotti Compet-ition, such as soprano Cynthia Lawrence and tenor Roberto Alagna, have become stars, something that Pavarotti feels is a different kind of concept today. ''It is absolutely different, when I began there was no television. It's much easier today to come out now because television has made opera popular,'' he says. ''Television goes into the house of everyone, publicity music uses opera arias.'' He adds that ''today you have to be good looking too''.
He isn't looking to groom an heir. ''It is not my decision to find my replacement, replacement is something very natural, when it comes along. When I performed in 1961 people were saying there were going to be no more big stars in opera.''
His own idol is Enrico Caruso. ''He tried to sing opera in a full voice, it was so sweet, so true,'' he says. Imitation, he feels, will get an artist nowhere. ''Each of us is different, we are unique, singers should try to be themselves. If you like someone's technique you can imitate that, but anything more it's no good, you can't copy someone's voice. You hear two million times about a new soprano being hailed as the new Maria Callas, but there is none.''
Pavarotti credits his father, Fernando, a baker and amateur tenor who performed regularly at the Corale Rossini in Modena, Italy, for his gift of a brilliant voice and his mentor, Arigo Paula, for making the best of his gift. ''My father is 89, and he recently sang solo in a church, he was singing on television,'' Pavarotti boasts. ''But my voice teacher, who passed away last year, was very good for me. Every time I told him I cannot sing a certain note because my voice is not able to do it, he would tell me to do it a thousand times until I get it right. Maybe I did not do it a thousand times, but a hundred times for sure.''
Tonight, world leaders and VIPs fork-ing out a cool US$2,000 (HK$15,600) for a seat will hear Pavarotti's finest, including his signature aria, Nessun Dorma from Turandot and Recondita Armonia from Tosca. And a possible bonus ?a Chinese song. ''I don't know about that one, who told you that?'' he says, visibly nervous about pronunciation in Putonghua.
For his solo concert on Wednesday, Pavarotti will sing with Cynthia Lawrence in a programme which includes L'amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni and Pourquoi Me Reveiller by Jules Massenet. After Hong Kong, Pavarotti is off to San Diego, Cali-fornia, and Hyde Park, London, for more solo concerts. It looks as if the maestro has many more years in him.
''I never prepare for tomorrow,'' he admits at the end of a generous 40-minute session. ''I am not used to making plans, and take day after day.'' Where does Pavarotti see his ultimate performance? ''In the theatre. Like a tenor should be. It's a place where we belong.''
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