Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Luciano Pavarotti, arguably one of the very last classical performers of whom it could be said was a household name. By the time of his death the man himself had already become a legend. Indeed, it could be argued that he was disfigured by this legend and that it had already buried him alive.
The names Caruso or Callas have endured in the public imagination long after the death of those artists who once bore those names. Even after classical music itself has been cast aside as a focus of popular interest and admiration, their names still evoke at least the reputation of vocal artistry the likes of which we likely will never see again. There is something sterling that their names intimate, something that draws awestruck wonder at the reach of human achievement and its ability to triumph over its own fallibility.
For the most part today Pavarotti’s name today survives in the general public’s memory—and perhaps a good deal of casual classical listeners as well—for its associations with some of the most abysmal kitsch the classical music industry had yet produced. His physical appearance also satisfied pop culture’s condescending expectations of what an opera singer ought to look like: Robustly well fed and appealingly (if somewhat unintelligibly) European. The male counterpart to the “fat lady sings.”
All the more important then to recall what propelled Pavarotti to super stardom in the first place: A seraphic, silvery voice which in its prime rivaled in beauty and strength those of his most illustrious predecessors. And though his waistline expanded along with his career, it is often forgotten that the man in his early days was a formidable athlete who decided early on to turn down a career as a soccer player in favor of the lyric stage. Not that his later weight gain posed any problems to his career as a singer. On the contrary, it may have improved his public image. But in our image-obsessed society, ever hungry for Instagram bait, could a Pavarotti today even dream of setting a toe at the stage of the Metropolitan Opera?
Variations of this question come to mind often when in concert or when looking at the cover art of new CDs. The face of classical music today—perhaps now more than ever—is young; not only young, but also impossibly attractive. In such an environment where not only youth, but physical beauty are increasingly important in order to be taken seriously, what hope can there be for a potential Pavarotti, let alone such unglamorous specimens as Bruckner or Klemperer?
A few months ago, the Spanish writer Rubén Amón opined in El País that “it could very well be that Pavarotti or Caballé would not have work in 2017.” In the same essay, where he decried the classical music industry’s prioritizing of the visual over the musical, he continued:
Extreme, too, is the attitude of a number of soloists of our time. Violinists sporting Lolita looks or plunging necklines. Adolescents mass-manufactured for fleeting careers. Albums whose covers seem to be flyers for escort services. Instrumentalists—men and women, and vice versa—who have lost the modesty of serving the work and have turned the stage into a space for musical pornography […].
Some have wrongheadedly praised this shift in priorities as not only to the good of classical music, but also as a necessary one in order to to keep it viable for potential new listeners. Yet it is important to ask: Does this new audience care that, sexy wrapping aside, the music being played is for the most part still the core Romantic repertoire? Once the hottie that has entranced their gaze exits the stage, will they bother to stick around at all for Schubert or Brahms? And what will become of the beauteous once the next generation of younger and more attractive performers take the stage? One wonders whether they are familiar with the famous words of Freidrich Schiller.
Kitsch aside, one thing that even Pavarotti’s detractors cannot take from him is that he built his career and reputation on his voice alone.
As the tenth anniversary of his death has come and gone, the fact that he may be among the last generation of classical musicians of whom such a thing can be said bears careful and sober reflection.