Pavarotti and myth: voice, fame and riches

September 29, 1996|By Elizabeth Teachout | Elizabeth Teachout,special to the sun

"Luciano Pavarotti: The Myth of the Tenor," by Jurgen Kesting, translated by Susan H. Ray. Northeastern University Press. 237 pages. $24.95.

Missed out on Pavarotti this year? Probably not. Even if you weren't checking out his highly publicized high-C batting average at the Metropolitan Opera this past spring, you probably noticed him with his bikini-clad secretary/girlfriend in Newsweek, caught the "Seinfeld" episode with the Three Tenors story line. All these things prove true the starting point of Jurgen Kesting's "Luciano Pavarotti: The Myth of the Tenor": Pavarotti is "no longer famous because of the quality of his singing, but simply because he is so incredibly famous."

And the implications of that fame? Disastrous, of course. The first part of the book (written in 1991, during the first flush of the Three Tenors' success, and newly translated from German into English) deals with the morality of popularity. Kesting, who relies heavily on quotes from obscure Europeans, takes Rolv Heuer's pronouncement that "the idea that the genius takes money for his talent strikes us as obscene" and runs with it, calling Pavarotti "artist-courtesan" (while insisting with elephantine coyness that the term is "value-neutral") and referring to managers as those who "act as pimps to the stars."

The remainder of the book, ostensibly devoted to the myth of the tenor, in fact reads like the worst combination of doctoral thesis and Internet chat-room session, densely written and jammed with pseudo-academic jargon. Drowning us in hostile minutiae, Kesting not only takes us phrase by phrase through a less than perfect Donizetti aria performance in Berlin but on a lengthy tour of each of Pavarotti's important opera recordings, suggesting in every case a tenor of the past (if not several) who would have done a better job.

The punch lines, musical and cultural, are delivered with unabashed condescension. The audience for a Pavarotti recital of Italian songs and arias is dismissed as being "not one that wants to hear the 'Winterreise' or the 'Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,' even when they are to be sung by such luminaries as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Christa Ludwig." (As one who's heard all three, I humbly beg to differ.)

And as for Pavarotti's unprecedented vocal longevity? "The truly remarkable fact that, after 35 years on the stage, Pavarotti still possesses a healthy, intact, virile voice, and can still sing with a delicately held legato, with eloquent diction, and with his own special timbre - all of this is left to the connoisseurs alone to discern and appreciate." The connoisseurs? What elitist knowledge does it take to recognize amazingly beautiful sounds made by a man in the twilight of his career?

This is not to say there isn't a compelling book to be written about the marketing blitz that has lately taken opera by storm, particularly in the current decade. But Kesting's book treads on too many toes while offering no insights in return. Maybe it's a German thing - being rich and famous, after all, seems a perfectly all-American reward for talent.

As it happens, Pavarotti is singing in New York tomorrow night at the Met's season-opening performance of "Andrea Chenier," the same day "Luciano Pavarotti: The Myth of the Tenor" is published. I'll be there, too, happy to be among the ranks of those who trust exactly what they are hearing, for better or

worse, and who do not begrudge the Big Guy a penny.

Elizabeth Teachout is a pianist and opera coach from New Yor City. A student of Martin Katz, she has played for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists Program and Lincoln Center's New Directors Workshop.

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