Luciano Pavarotti. The most noteworthy tenor since Caruso, a legend whose glorious voice and commanding performances thrilled millions. Before kings, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, popes, heads of state and other luminaries he appeared, gracing them with his titanic, larger than life presence. So imagine his surprise when instead of a person of extraordinary influence and notoriety, he encountered me.
I know precious little about opera. I’m a Hoosier. To me, opera is nothing more than the vocal meanderings of a sweaty, obese, tiramisu-swollen Italian guy in a too-tight tuxedo bellowing out mysterious syllables in loud, wavering, pinched-sphincter cries. Glorified wailing. I know this reveals me as being hopelessly uncouth, but opera just doesn’t do it for me. I appreciate it, yes. But I appreciate even more when it’s over.
So when my girlfriend Elaine mentioned that she had two tickets to see Pavarotti in Central Park, plus backstage passes allowing us to meet him after the show, I reacted with only slight enthusiasm. Elaine was a fashion babe who was the pinnacle of glamour and style. She was the promotions manager for a French jeans company and adored couture, and culture, in all of its many forms. And these free opera tickets were another chance to immerse me in her glitzy Manhattan world. We’d met through a mutual friend, and for some reason, Elaine found my easygoing Midwestern personality attractive. This did not stop her from taking steps to obliterate it altogether, through various “upgrades” like innumerable hairstyle reformations, culinary epiphanies, and endless wardrobe makeovers. She seemed on a mission to remove my every last normal habit or behavior, in favor of replacing it with a well-mannered sophistication, a tactic I never failed to chafe against.
Several weeks later, the big night was upon us. Since the concert was in Central Park, on the Great Lawn, and not in an ornate hall, there was no need for formal attire, much to my relief. Still, we were attending an opera, not a tractor pull, so I donned my customary trying-to-look-moderately-presentable ensemble of dark blue, non-pleated Ralph Lauren chinos, a slate-grey Agnis B cotton poplin button down shirt, and Tootsi Plohound half-boot lace ups. (All purchases recommended — no, commanded, might be a better way of putting it — by Elaine, who, as usual, looked as if she’d stepped right out of the pages of Vanity Fair, wearing a fuscia Alberta Ferretti drop sleeve miniskirt and a pair of matching Jimmy Choos that made her wobble on the grass like a fawn taking its first unsteady steps and were probably worth more than three months of mortgage payments back in Indiana.)
Over the palisade of buildings lining Central Park West, the sun gradually descended, and soon twilight fell upon the park. The Great lawn swarmed with people: families spread out on blankets, couples with coolers, and various semi-cultured-looking types milling about and getting settled as we arrived. As we strolled through the crowd en route to the V.I.P. area, I caught a whiff of brie and heard the crunch of Carr’s cracker, with corks popping and wine gurgling into long-stemmed glasses, every one of which was held forth in dainty digits by privileged bon vivants who were not only offering toasts to the legendary singer they were about to see, but to their own presence at this exclusive event as well. A moment later, we were led to the V.I.P. area, which was inhabited by an even sleeker version of personage, plus a complimentary bar serving white wine, champagne and other cocktails.
Immediately, Elaine and I nabbed a few lightly chilled Chardonnays and found our seats. Thrilled at how close we were to the stage, we sipped our drinks, feeling smug, pampered and oh-so privileged. After several episodes of frequent toasting and eyeballing the other exalted beings in this coveted inner sanctum, the sun faded further and the crowed hushed to near-silence, as everyone sensed the greatness that was about to appear.
A few minutes later, the curtains parted, and a shaft of light beamed down from above, illuminating a bearded, porcine figure clad in black formal wear and a ruffled white shirt blossoming from his lapels. All at once, there was a huge roar, and as the deafening applause rolled through the crowd, I settled my eyes on a large, orb-like man whose plump fingers seized the microphone and pressed it to his lips. The crowd was silent, totally enthralled. And then, with a casual determination, the creature known as Pavarotti erupted into song.
It began softly, like an incantation. At Pavarotti’s first utterance, the crowd gasped, awed by the raw emotion of his voice. The sounds that Pavarotti made were unlike anything I had ever heard, ranging from short staccato bursts that peppered my eardrums in repetitive quatrains to glorious, unrepentant yowls that rose up and up and up, until reaching one final, stupendously assaulting note that hung in the air for an eternity as Pavarotti squeezed every last shred of emotion out of it.
During these bowel-wringing notes, I feared for Pavarotti’s safety. Even standing fifty feet away, I could see the energy he was pouring into his performance, the sheer physicality of his lungs and diaphragm heaving like magnificent bellows, working quintuple time to create the booming stream of beautiful, totally meaningless syllables. As the note extended, sweat poured off of his meaty brow and rolled into his beard, while his face reddened into a swollen, pinkish ham. A network of veins bulged in wormy squiggles across his brow. On a sheer cardiovascular level, it seemed like the ultimate stress test, and I could only imagine how hard the best tenor of all time’s heart was trying to deal with the metabolic impact of it all.
Finally, the endless note ended, and Pavarotti paused, taking a momentary breather as he recovered from his outburst. The crowd remained fixated, awed, hushed, silenced into a few barely audible gasps. I raised my Chardonnay to my lips and took a sip, savoring it, while Elaine and I stood side by side, utterly enraptured.
For another hour and a half, Pavarotti held center stage. There was an ebb and flow to his cries, a rising and falling of his words, and while I appreciated his efforts — the supreme talent, effort, and remarkable poise it took to produce such an incredible volume of sound, and the obvious laryngeal afterburners that kicked in to produce those triumphant, blood-pressure increasing high notes, not to mention the simpering, weepy, piteous, almost whimpering cries of need, shame and vulnerability that slid out of his whiskered mouth that served as counterpoint to them — I gradually began to lose interest. I was appreciative, yes, but by that point I had gotten my fill of the whole situation and was starting to look at my watch, as the time, and my patience, slowly ebbed away.
Several Chardonnay’s later, Pavarotti’s moment of dominance and control over us ended. With a towering barrage of sound, his voice rose and rose, ever higher, skyrocketing, ballooning, increasing in volume and power, but also wavering somehow, bouncing back and forth between the scales, his well-trained glottis delicately adjusting each syllable, shifting them up and down the aural register. Then, with one final outpouring of emotion, the great man, sweaty, drained, and exhausted, concluded his performance. The applause was deafening and flowers and long-stemmed roses rained onto the stage.
The crowd milled about for several minutes, buzzing, as everyone marveled at the virtuoso performance, before queuing up near the exits and patiently awaiting their turn to join the throng of people all streaming off of the Great Lawn. Meanwhile, Elaine and I threaded our way through the crowd, towards an area adjacent to the bar, near a large hospitality tent, where members of the media were assembled. I caught glimpses of microphones, video cameras, and a few reporters, as well as officials from the Parks Department. A few moments later, Elaine found a small coterie of dashing young women — coworkers of hers, members of that same species of Cosmo-swilling “Sex In The City”-crazed women that now plagued the island. After a few kissy faced greetings and impromptu hugs, we ducked a velvet rope and joined another line, which streamed off between the hospitality tent, towards a large white trailer near the stage — the lair housing the legendary tenor, who, much to everyone’s delight, we would meet in a matter of minutes.
As we wound our way forth, a posse of armed policemen and security stood watching nearby. A few pressed walkie talkies to their lips and muttered commands, eyeing the line of agog, well-dressed people approaching Pavarotti’s trailer.
Each step took us nearer, until we finally ascended the steps. An air of reverential silence fell over us as we entered and began slowly filing forward, the pace of the line being expertly controlled by a burly security guard whose only words were the soft, but stern warning to “keep moving, keep moving.” Finally, we stood only a few feet away, with only one group of V.I.P.s blocking us from the legendary singer.
As we slid forward, Elaine and her friends were barely able to contain their exuberance. They quickly raced ahead, and I stepped aside, letting Elaine and the entire group of them pass in front of me. As we entered the room, I detected a slight tang of body odor, and no sooner had the smell tickled my nostrils, than the great singer appeared before me.
It was an inglorious sight. I had expected Pavarotti to be dressed in formal attire, like he had been on-stage, perhaps festooned with roses, or tended to by a staff of cuticle-polishing minions, or at least looking regal in some form, but much to my surprise, it was the complete opposite. Barefoot, and wearing nothing more than a long, flowing, cream-colored robe, the legendary singer was splayed back, Ferouk-like, sunken into an overstuffed leather couch, the creamy robe opened at mid-waist to display a towering expanse of belly marked by copious amounts of black body hair. Ridiculously, bringing every possible stereotypical image to life, Pavarotti clutched a bottle of Chianti in one hand, and a staff of plump, purple grapes in the other. As we gazed in wonder at him, he hoisted the bottle of vino up, taking a long, hearty swig and smacking his lips, before holding the bounty of grapes up to his face and nibbling off several of the lowest dangling fruits. The great man had satisfied a crowd of thousands, and we could only watch on, transfixed, as he now satisfied himself.
As he chewed, his jowls heaving and flexing, Pavarotti’s black, piggish eyes settled upon Elaine and the other women. He took another swig of wine, wiped his face with the back of his hand, and smiled, scanning the assortment of scantily clad young female flesh before him.
“Such a nest of beauties,” he uttered, his eyes flitting back and forth, surveying the group. His eyes lingered on them for a moment, then he turned to look at me. “And . . . you,” he said, his tone deflating into obvious disappointment.
For an otherworldly second, our eyes met. My mind whirled, as I wondered what to say. A second later, the whole room heard my reply.
“Hey, Pavarotti,” I said, offering a halfhearted wave. Elaine glared at me, while everyone in the room laughed nervously. Pavarotti did not respond to my greeting, opting for another swig of wine and nibble of grape, as more admirers pressed inside. We held our position for another thirty seconds, watching the great tenor guzzle down even more vino, before a security person motioned for us to keep moving.
As we left the room, I looked back at the world’s most famous opera singer, a performer whose vocal talents had enthralled people for so many decades. I longed to say something eloquent, something remarkable, something that would mark the moment for all time, something worthy of this man’s eminent position, but nothing came. Nothing except another set of words that were equally as underwhelming.
“Later, Pavarotti,” I said, strolling towards the door.
A half hour later, after we’d escaped Central Park and flagged down a taxi on Fifth Avenue and were heading back downtown, Elaine spun in her seat to confront me.
“That’s all you could say to him?”
“What?” I said.
“You know,” she said, shaking her head in dismay, “Hey, Pavarotti.”
“What was wrong with that?”
“It was disrespectful.”
“What was disrespectful about it?”
“It just sounded like you weren’t impressed.”
“I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I thought he was really impressive.”
“It didn’t sound like it,”Elaine continued, “Plus, you called him ‘Pavarotti.’”
“Isn’t that his name?”
“Yes, but . . .” she said.
“But what?” I said, “ What else should I have called him? ‘Dude? Bro? Homie?”
As the cab bumped and prodded its way into the Manhattan night, she looked away for a brief moment, staring at the non-stop blur of buildings and sidewalks whipping by.
“Oh, never mind,” she said.