O Pavarotti

May 15, 2002

UNDOUBTEDLY, Luciano Pavarotti will sing again. But his last-minute withdrawal from Saturday's appearance at the Metropolitan Opera trumpets the inevitable: The long reign of the "King of the high C's" is over.

The Met's general manager, Joseph Volpe, certainly understood the significance of the moment. "This is a hell of a way to end a beautiful career," he reportedly told the tenor, who had flip-flopped for hours about whether to sing.

Was Mr. Pavarotti truly too ill to sing before 3,000 spectators, some of whom had paid $1,500 for their tickets? Or did he simply try to avoid the boos and derision that followed the great Enrico Caruso in the twilight of his career? These matters of speculation will now be part of the musical lore.

Opera lovers may don tuxedos and evening gowns for galas but they are very much like boxing fans - vocal, uncompromising and unforgiving. That's why a farewell like this is so painful. An opera ending in a no-show!

Let's be charitable. Without Luciano Pavarotti's amazing voice - and, yes, theatrics - opera never would have experienced the past three decades' popular revival.

Roll back to 1972, when the Pavarotti legend of effortless high C's was born in a single night at the Met. Three years later, a concert in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park introduced a series of worldwide events that were duplicated from New York's Central Park to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The next innovation came in Rome - in an unlikely gala coinciding with the soccer World Cup competition - where Mr. Pavarotti teamed with tenors Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo.

Was this art - or mere pandering to pop culture audiences, as some contended?

Did it really matter? Such programs became huge fund-raising hits on public television and helped kindle a new worldwide interest in opera. Ticket sales increased, new operas were written and premiered.

Little of this could have happened without the considerable hoopla associated with Mr. Pavarotti. That's why the ignominy at the Met is such a devastating blow to a great tenor - if not to the future popularity of opera.

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