The tenor of all times

On July 16, 1994, the eve of the World Cup final, television stations broadcast The Three Tenors in concert at Los Angeles to 1.3 billion viewers across the globe. Soccer fans the world over listened with rapt attention as the triumvirate of Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras brewed great classical arias with timeless Hollywood classics. Most viewers, at least outside the Western hemisphere, were listening to the tenors for the first time. The music was unusual, but the powerful delivery of exquisite melodies made a compelling impression. One tenor stood out in superlative extremes. Fat and rotund, Pavarotti cut out the least handsome figure. But from deep within his massive chest emerged a distinctive, very rich timbre. The incomprehension of the lyrics was subsumed under the angelic nature of his voice. For intent listeners, Pavarotti was an otherworldly experience. Such talent occurs once in decades. It must have been god-sent. Even atheists generally bow to this incredible assertion when it comes to Pavarotti.

One realises the import of the assertion when one considers that Pavarotti's main rival, the fastidious Domingo, is among the greatest of tenors himself, outmatching Pavarotti in acting prowess, theory, rigour and repertoire. But just one aspect makes Pavarotti, Pavarotti. The voice. Even someone listening to an operatic aria for the first time can distinguish between Pavarotti's voice and that of other tenors. This cannot be said of any other tenor.

Leading the tributes to Pavarotti, who passed away on Thursday, Domingo said: "I always admired his divine voice, with its unmistakable timbre and complete vocal range." The vocal range of a tenor - the highest male voice naturally possible without the employment of falsetto - generally starts from a pitch or two below C3, covers C4 (known as middle C after its positioning roughly in the middle of a piano keyboard) and ends two octaves above in C5, called tenor C or the 'high C'. (For a soprano, the highest female singing voice, the 'high C' is two octaves above C4 at C6.)

Hitting the high C is supremely demanding. Even the best of tenors avoid venturing into such a high register without assiduous preparation. But Pavarotti glided through easily. At New York's Metropolitan Opera on February 17, 1972, in the defining moment of his career, he effortlessly and in quick succession hit nine high Cs in 'Ah! Mes Amis', the signature aria of Donizetti's 'La fille du régiment'. The challenging aria is often called the 'Mount Everest' for tenors. The Met's audience was in raptures and gave Pavarotti a 15-minute standing ovation and 10 curtain calls. A curtain call is the courteous reappearance of a performer on stage following the prolonged applause of the audience. (Incidentally, Pavarotti holds the record of most curtain calls for any artist, at 165). After the Met performance he came to be called the 'King of the High Cs'.

Pavarotti, a huge fan of Juventus football club, stormed into popular consciousness at the 1990 football World Cup final in Rome, when The Three Tenors sang the aria 'Nessun Dorma' (No One Sleeps) - the 1990 Cup anthem - from Puccini's 'Turandot'. With a delivery laden with heightened emotion, he sustained a top B through the last word 'vincero' (I will win) for 11 seconds. This, at a time when the critics had started carping and were writing him off.

For critics, Pavarotti had ceased being a great tenor by the turn of the 80s. They said he was descending into diva tantrums rather than reaching high registers. Among such tantrums was the demand he once made for a kitchen to be built into his hotel suite. More serious were his frequent last minute cancellations of appearances at sold-out venues with tickets priced as high as $1,800. Once he got into a scandal when he was caught lip-syncing at a performance.

For the rest of the world, Pavarotti the phenomenon had just begun. The Three Tenors went on to give several high voltage performances with a repertoire that included pop hits. From being an ivory tower pursuit, operatic arias were rivalling rock acts at stadiums and big open-air venues. Pavarotti went a step further, collaborating with pop star friends for charity concerts at Modena, his hometown in Italy. Such forays were not to the liking of high-minded purists, who heaped scorn and poured disdain on Pavarotti for belittling classical music. But the tenor couldn't care less. "Some say the word 'pop' is derogatory and means 'not important'- I do not accept that," Pavarotti told a British newspaper three years ago. "If the word 'classical' is the word to mean 'boring', I do not accept that either. There is (just) good and bad music," he said.