When Pavarotti beckons, young people sing Contest: Tenor's competition changes and charges many lives.

September 15, 1996|By Lesley Valdes | Lesley Valdes,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Imagine. You're a singer in Argentina and Luciano Pavarotti wants to hear you. Only you don't know many opera arias, you sing in musicals, and you don't know the role of Tosca, which is what the Great One insists on hearing.

So, of course, you try it, says Fabiana Bravo, and when the world-famous tenor throws up his arms in exasperation and tells you, "Vocalize! Just vocalize!" you do that, too.

And, then -- surprise -- he's pleased and tells you to let yourself go, "Let the tiger out!"

Luciano Pavarotti tells you to enter his voice contest and be sure to learn this aria and another and another because they are the repertoire your soprano voice should be singing.

Oh, and by the way, get to Italy to study, and hurry. In a few months he expects to hear you singing Lucia and Tosca at his European finals.

But all your life you've known big troubles, and there's not now -- nor has there ever been -- money for music or any other kind of lessons. When you were 14, your father died and the shock sent your mother into a coma that lasted five years. You had to be a cashier in a grocery, you had to learn to nurse her during the coma and after when she woke up and then had cancer. There were five other siblings but they weren't at home; you and your brother were left to care for her.

But at 22 you put your foot down and get a sister to take over; you leave your hometown and break into musicals in Buenos Aires. You still have money troubles, even though Valeria Lynch, South America's answer to Madonna, sings with you and tells her friend Luciano about it.

World winners

And now, Fabiana Bravo, you're 25, and a world winner in this weekend's International Luciano Pavarotti Voice Competition. This afternoon you'll sing in the Opera Extravaganza at the Academy of Music along with the famous tenor and many of his competition's world winners. (Twenty-five singers of the contest's 34 world winners are in Philadelphia rehearsing the opera-scenes program.)

And some reporter is asking what effect has this contest had on your career?

Fabiana Bravo's dark eyes are welling up, remembering. "You tell the story. I can't, I'll cry," she tells her husband and translator.

"You'll cry anyway," says Luis Simon, who says this patiently even though he has been telling the life and hard times of Fabiana Bravo 50, 60, maybe 100 times since she caught the ear of Pavarotti.

"Can you imagine our situation?" says Simon, who married Bravo three months ago. "We had no money at all and Pavarotti wanted to hear her and Fabiana had never studied opera. She didn't understand Tosca."

But Pavarotti wanted to help. And where Pavarotti is, there is the news media. When Argentines hear her story, money is found to finance Bravo's Italian studies, Simon relates.

"And Maestro Pavarotti has an incredible memory," Simon continues. "Months later, when he sees Fabiana, he wants to hear everything exactly as he told her to prepare before."

Months later, when Bravo is declared one of the world winners in the competition in Philadelphia, jubilant Argentines at the embassy in New York and Washington's Organization of American States arrange for a full scholarship to Catholic University. The couple leaves for D.C. next week so that Bravo can begin studying with Regine Crespin.

What effect has the competition had, you ask? "Fue muy increible," says Fabiana. Says Luis: "It has been a miracle."

Touched by the star

Few winners in the '96 contest have a story as compelling as Fabiana Bravo -- or a name so ripely suited for opera -- but each one likes to tell how the famous tenor has touched them.

"The competition changed my life in five minutes," says Melissa Parks, 27, a mezzo-soprano.

Well, 24 hours. One afternoon, the mezzo is the last to sing her semifinals audition for Pavarotti in New York's Beacon Theater. "The next day, the Met calls and asks when can I come in for an audition!" The audition, for which Pavarotti pulled strings, leads to two contracts for Parks to understudy, or "cover," minor roles in such productions as "The Daughter of the Regiment." The lucrative jobs didn't allow her a chance to sing for the public but she gained invaluable experience singing rehearsals with the Met artists. Parks later landed singing roles with Chautauqua Opera in New York state and with her hometown El Paso Opera.

Parks is one of several '96 winners who have studied or are studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. The postgraduate academy emphasizes staged productions. Other winners have come to the Opera Extravaganza without such extensive stage training.

Gabriella Colecchia, 22, a mezzo-soprano from Naples, says that in Italy "I make many, many auditions but taking a young singer in the theater there is considered a big risk. Italy is very important for opera but not for the first experience."

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