It used to be that the Lily McCormacks and Dorothy Carusos of the opera world would gather together the old concert programs, steamships ticket stubs and canceled checks of their illustrious husbands, put them in chronological order and issue the results as "biographies." They began at the unpromising beginnings and persevered to the funeral corteges, including along the way an album of costume shots. The end results fulfilled a need among fans and buffs to be initiated vicariously into the hagiographies of their operatic heroes.
"Pavarotti: My Own Story" is something else. In an age when Isaac Stern shares video space with Big Bird, when Judith Blegen can plug herself on "The Johnny Carson Show," when Perlman and Ashkenazy discuss the weather on a public stage before playing two hours of solid Beethoven, when a pianist and several string players can't just sit on a stage and play, but must be "friends" extending "invitations" to each other, it is, one may suppose, appropriate that so generally well-liked a performer as Luciano Pavarotti should dress up in dust jacket to masquerade as a book.
Necessarily, the form adopted for such an undertaking is novel (publicity machines invented novelty) and even pleasant. The Pavarotti/William Wright team, too, begins at the unpromising beginning: his mother, father, being a baby, being the first boy born in the community for some time, the war, fascism, his love of sports, his love for people. Unless you've looked ahead, you might expect the book to work its way on through the first teacher, first performance, first contract . . . but on page 19 begins a testimonial by Pavarotti's old friend, a Dr. Umberto Boeri, who practices medicine in New York but remembers when he was a student at the University of Modena (Pavarotti's home town in Italy) and would see the "strikingly handsome" young tenor during the spasseggiata " (the evening stroll) hanging out with the other young men in front of the Caffe Molinari, "the most animated, the one the others looked to, whose name you would hear most frequently."
From here on the book shifts from testimonial to recollection to remembrance. Some of the friends and colleagues whose interviews are interspersed among Pavarotti's own thoughts are honest to the point of betrayal, and help to make the entire undertaking more credible, somehow -- certainly more interesting than if there were only the dutiful bread-buttering. John Wustman, piano accompanist, for example:
"We were doing a group of Tostisongs. We had just finished a happy, lively song and I started the introduction to our next, which was also happy and lively. When I got to the point where Luciano was about to sing, I was horrified to hear him start off on, not the song he was supposed to, the one I was playing, but the song we had just finished."
Adua Pavarotti, the tenor's wife and author of the book's most telling chapter, confesses to having read all the opera librettos, "but I never cared very much for the music." Luciano himself, a devoted sportsman, dreamed as a boy of becoming a professional soccer player -- but things worked out differently; that, too, makes Pavarotti the superstar opera singer more likable, more triumphant over circumstances.
It would have been useful, perhaps, to student readers to learn some secrets of the Pavarotti sound, but he reveals little:
"We did elaboarate exercises with vowels for the purpose of opening up the jaws, making the voice bigger and, of course, making clear, exaggerated pronunciation of vowels automatic. Then we vocalized -- hour after hour, day after day -- not music, just scales and exercises. There are many things a 19-year-old Italian would rather do than stand endlessly singing scales and mouthing over and over A, E, I, O, U."
The conductor Tullio Serafin, who did so much to guide Maria Callas and redirect her career at just that point when she might have decided to be Brunnhilde forever, is remembered auditioning Pavarotti, early on, for a "Rigoletto" in Palermo. Just before the famous quartet is about to begin he stops the tenor: "Now you understand that Maddalena is a whore. The Duke knows she's a whore. When you come to Palermo I want you to sing 'Bella figlia dell' amore . . .' the way Caruso did, with exaggeration, irony, not sincere . . . " The anecdote is interesting for what it doesn't say, for supposing that Pavarotti didn't understand the cynical drama there to be played out. Joan Ingpen, who "discovered" him shortly afterward singing in Dublin and brought him to London's Covent Garden, sums things up: He was "inept on the stage, singing a bit to the gallery and hanging on to his top notes -- but, my God, what vocal material!"
It is an extraordinarily likable voice -- and fans will like the book, despite hyperbole, Johnny Carson-ism, and the "kissing ladies in record shops" regular-good-guy manner. But it is the voice that deserves praise. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, listen to the complete recording of Mascagni's "L'amico Fritz," in which he costars with childhood friend Mirella Freni; or the "Rigoletto" Act I duet (with Joan Sutherland) "E il sol dell 'anima"; or the first band of his "Pavarotti in Concert" album (Bononcini's "Per la gloria d'adorarvi"); or, most especially, if you want to hear his famous nine high Cs, listen to the scene in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" that begins, "Ah mes amis quel jour de fete . . ." The voice is supple. It flies. Pavarotti, despite all publicity, is a singer.