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Classical 101

Luciano Pavarotti at 80

Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland in I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976.
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Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland in I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976.

Luciano Pavarotti would have turned 80 on October 12 of this year. He died in 2007.

It was March of 1976. I took the bus from Boston down to Port Authority in New Yawk. Boston University classes could wait. Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti were appearing together at the Metropolitan Opera, in the first performances of Bellni'sI Puritani in seventy years.

Maybe the story was a stretch even for opera. A feast of great music and singing with everyone dressed up as British pilgrims or royalists circa 1650. Curled hair, big skirts, black robes, sets the British countryside and everyone singing away in Italian, reliving the glorious revolution.

Who cared? A Sutherland performance was always an event. She was one of the few guaranteed to give the audience a frisson in the moments before she entered any stage in the world. At 50,  she was no less a splendid artist with her huge voice, brilliant high notes and flexibility. Everyone knew Sutherland would be magnificent, and she was.

Pavarotti was on his way to 'household name' status. The era of talk shows was beginning, but we were still far removed from the stadium concerts and Vegas glitz of his later career.  More to the point, his Italianate voice was warm, round and fresh.

It better have been. Lord Arthur in I Puritani was a bitch to sing. High, long sustained lines required power, sweetness of tone and wind. Pavarotti, dressed carefully in dark green, complete with beard and expensive wig looked great. Completely out of period, but great.

The voice? He had told the New York Times "Ah, Puritani is terrifying! I no sleep! I have the diarrhea!"

Whatever got him onstage, be it Kaopectate, coffee or whatever, he entered and sang A te, o cara, To you my beloved, to Joan Sutherland. Take a listen.

What about me getting off the bus? There were no tickets for I Purtiani. The production broke box office records. People slept on Lincoln Center Plaza for three days before the first night. Then here comes Christopher, the kid off the bus from Boston, who presents himself at the Met box office and says, "One for tonight please. "

The man laughed in my face. He was like the door keeper in The Wizard of Oz."The wizzid? NOBODY SEES THE WIZZID!" But then...but then...wait a minute. One ticket had been turned in. Best seat in the house and it cost $17.50. In 1976 that was two weeks groceries. I bought the ticket. I could walk back to Boston.

In the days before electronic media, you had to go to the theater to hear great opera singers. Yes they made recordings, and voices are well represented in two dimensions. Live you heard three: space, light and warmth. The "you are there" sensation was present in ways impossible to imagine today. The excitement was incomparable. Nobody was ever bored even waiting for a performance to begin.

Also the sheer size of these voices. Don't confuse size with loudness. Anybody can sing loud. What did I hear? A kiss of Italian sunshine, blending with Joan Sutherland.

Two large people playing Restoration-era teenagers and singing like gods. I will tell my grandchildren and yours. Pavarotti's voice bounced off the walls of the Metropolitan Opera house like breams of light. Being a thespian out of the Actors Studio is no use to you in I Puritani. It's sing, sing, sing better than anyone else.

They did. Oh, my God, they did!

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.