It’s been 14 years since the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti died.
He moved on September 6, 2007– a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
He probably knew he was going because he embarked on an international farewell tour when the bad news came to him.
I was in the departure area of a Manila airport bound for Bacolod when I got the news.
I was with two singers and a pianist – Noel Azcona and Nenen Espina with pianist Mary Anne Espina – scheduled to sing at Bacolod’s L’Fisher Hotel September 7.
On the night of the Bacolod concert, I opened the program with a request for moment of silence for the demise of Pavarotti.
He wasn’t just a big name in opera.
He was an icon.
In 1979, the late conductor Redentor Romero gifted me with a cassette of a Pavarotti recital.
I listened to it every night until I could hum all arias by memory.
On the same year, Filipino tenor Noel Velasco was declared one of the winners of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition.
The Philadelphia-based competition was Velasco’s first encounter with Pavarotti whom the Filipino tenor found very amiable.
Said Velasco after winning the competition: “I admired him as an artist. He opens his whole heart to the people when he sings.”
It would be remembered that in the late 70s, opera fans in Philadelphia paid $8 to $15 for the opportunity to hear the finalists and probably to see Pavarotti in person. Pavarotti actually got the audience into the act by saying, “I trust my ears but I also trust a multitude of ears.”
As it turned out, the Filipino tenor won the most prolonged applause and a grin from Pavarotti. A music reporter wrote that Velasco was the only contestant who was able to crack Pavarotti’s mandarin reserve.
He was singing all my arias, Pavarotti explained later. “I couldn’t help smiling. I knew what he was going through.”
Velasco remarked there and then: “Don’t you think it was cruel of him asking me to sing Ah mes ami (an aria with nine demanding high Cs) right after Che gelida manina (the high C in this Boheme aria is also a monster)? By cruel, Velasco meant Pavarotti demanded an inordinate amount of high Cs from him during the brief audition.
I learned that Pavarotti would make his Manila debut and that the executive producer was philanthropist (now congresswoman from Pangasinan) Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, the daughter of my close friend, soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez.
In 1979, he was just a voice in a cassette given to me by conductor Romero.
In 1994, I was thrilled to finally have a chance to meet him personally.
It was the opera fan in me that made me exert all effort to contact the organizers.
Reaching out to Arenas was easy. We speak the same (opera) language as her mother.
I also have to deal with the other producers – Carol and her late husband Bert Nievera — who made contacts with the tenor’s impresario in Singapore.
The Singapore concert was sold out.
The Nievera couple realized there and then: why not an additional Manila concert as part of the Asian leg of the tour?
When the Manila part of the tour was finalized and the good news announced by no less than Manila impresario Arenas, no one believed it would happen.
The first announcement appeared in a newspaper’s movie page, the initial ticket outlet traced to a popular balladeer’s Paranaque residence.
The ticket prices: P3,000, P5000, P10,000, P15 thousand and P25,000!
In 1994, these was big money.
The lowest ticket price was equivalent to a government janitor’s salary and the highest equivalent to a Philippine president’s monthly pay minus allowances.
It didn’t help that the Manila co-producer, Carol Nievera, was a stranger to the opera scene. She was associated with the late balladeer Bert Nievera, and her track record was limited to producing her husband’s concerts.
Meanwhile, Pavarotti, who had been enjoying immense popularity in American since the early 80s, became a reality to Carol only in 1993.
She was asked to market the singer’s concert in Singapore for Manila audiences. She succeeded in selling the Singapore package to more than 50 Pavarotti fans.
Carol admitted she was no opera fan. But when she saw that wildly received Pavarotti concert in Singapore, she figured that the tenor was in fact the Michael Jackson of opera.
When she clinched the Pavarotti engagement from her Singapore contact – Lushington Entertainment, Inc.—she was at a loss as to how she would promote the concert. She didn’t even know an opera guild existed in Manila.
When she thought of asking help from Arenas, she didn’t know the prospective chairperson of the concert was the daughter of the Filipino diva who had sung with Pavarotti’s teacher, Arrigo Pola.
But plans for a Pavarotti concert were in the works since 1990 according to impresario Tibor Rudas. It was just a matter of getting the right Manila connection, which Carol would become.
But the P25 million needed to finance production and the job of putting up the money fell on Arenas.
Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s manager for 25 years, explained the Pavarotti phenomenon. “The thing with Luciano (Pavarotti) is that he has penetrated the world of classical music like no one else in the history of music. Who would have thought you could sell out arenas for an Italian tenor in all these exotic places? He may not be the greatest musician in the world, but his singing speaks to the soul. The Pavarotti sound gets you right in the center of your being.”
To be sure, Pavarotti’s Manila connections actually date back to the middle ‘50s when his teacher in his native Modena in Italy, Arrigo Pola, taught in Manila and starred in several opera productions staged at the FEU Auditorium.
Arenas’s mother sang with Pola in the mid-’50s in Il Trovatore and Cavalleria Rusticana. Pola was also Radames in the production of Aida sung by Celerina Pujante Cayabyab, now known as the mother of National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab.
I can never forget the drama of the Pavarotti Manila arrival.
The tenor was scheduled to arrive on a Wednesday afternoon and at the Philippine Plaza where he is billeted suddenly acquired a fiesta atmosphere.
No one knew exactly what time the tenor was arriving except Carol and Pavarotti’s tour manager, Matthias Schremmer (who would figure in an airport scuffle with Inquirer photographer Ernie Sarmiento when everybody scrambled to take photographs of opera’s most celebrated figure).
And since even concert chairperson Arenas didn’t even know what time the tenor was arriving, it seemed as though there was a conspiracy to isolate her.
On the night before Pavarotti’s arrival, I got a call from Baby A. She thanked me for all the pre-arrival publicity on Pavarotti.
But there is one thing you should know Baby, I told her. The tenor’s exact time of arrival is known only to Carol and the singer’s manager. I added if you have inside airport contact, be sure to know his exact time of arrival. I think you are being isolated, I added.
She arrived on time to welcome Pavarotti.
That I tipped the executive producer of the plan to isolate her in the arrival plans circulated among media friends to the chagrin of the co-producer.
Bullit Marquez of AP told me, “Pablo, you better get your Pavarotti ticket from your direct contact. Your ticket issued by Carol was already cancelled.”
On top of that, the co-producer also cancelled my invitation to the presscon.
Baby told me: “No problem Pablo. You will get your seat. And you will be in that presscon. Just stay with me.”
When Pavarotti’s car pulled into the hotel driveway, the tenor emerged, his body shaking as he sneezed intermittently.
It was the first serious hint that something would go wrong Friday night.
Meanwhile, Carol arranged for a presscon good only for 30 persons – minus me in the official list.
But close to a hundred came, most of them certified Pavarotti fans like the late singer-actor Subas Herrero who came for the singer’s autograph.
The first signs of bad cold notwithstanding, Pavarotti remained charming and witty.
It became apparent — as the tenor gave his opening remarks — that in visiting Manila for the first time, he was just retracing the footsteps of his teacher, tenor Pola, who he said interrupted the young Pavarotti’s voice lessons in Modena just to go to Philippines. Pola’s good words about Manila audiences — in the ‘50s — reached him.
Of that 1994 Pavarotti presscon graced by impresario Arenas, the Pavarotti I would remember was a gracious person and a surprisingly self-effacing one.
When Jullie Yap Daza asked if he agreed with the common observation that he was the world’s greatest living tenor, Pavarotti promptly said no.
And right there and then dropped the names of Alfredo Kraus, Placido Domingo, Jon Vickers, Jose Carreras, among others.
And then delivered his punch line: “But if you insist, what can I do?”
When I told him that two other great Italian tenors had sung in Manila before him –Ferruccio Tagliavini and Franco Corelli – Pavarotti humbled himself at once.
“Tagliavini and Corelli are the greatest tenors of all time and if I am able to do at least half of what they were able to achieve in their time I would be happy.”
The 1994 Manila engagement was, of course, full of drama fit for a teleserye.
After the presscon, Pavarotti rehearsed until late in the afternoon of Friday.
But there was no way he could sing.
Rudas called a hasty news conference before 8 – the time concert would commence.
He announced: “Mr. Pavarotti said he could not afford to give only 50 per cent of his best for Manila audience. He will sing only if he can give 100 per cent of his best.”
The concert was reset two days later, on a Monday, March 21.
Syn Colin of Lushington Entertainment told me that the tenor probably got the virus on a jet ride from Zurich to Bali, Indonesia.
For the first time in the history of Philippine journalism, a cancellation of an operatic concert made headlines.
I was with Arenas at the Philippine Plaza (now Sofitel) suite with her Hong Kong guests on the night of the cancelled concert. In the dead of night, someone asked to see the executive producer and she came with Mrs. Marcos.
The co-producer needed a million or so to cope with reimbursements. If Arenas could help.
The opening night was on a Friday night but he cancelled and the performance was reset on a Monday, two days later.
And then the big night two days later.
The best dressed (more like overdressed) filled the Philippine International Convention Center plenary hall.
Those who couldn’t afford it scrambled for space in the grassy outdoors where they could still see and hear Pavarotti on a giant video wall.
Just right after the Luisa Miller overture by the Philippine Symphony Orchestra, Pavarotti appeared on stage to a resounding applause.
The singer started with the most popular Act II aria from Luisa Miller.
For the first time in Manila’s music history, both the affluent and the less privileged were glued on the same artist and enjoying an evening of operatic arias and Neapolitan songs and applauding with the same gusto.
Pavarotti was still obviously still nursing cold and the flutist Andrea Griminelli’s rendition of a Mozart piece gave the tenor enough time to consolidate his voice.
On the second aria, O Paradiso (from L’Africaine by Meyerbeer, the singer was straining to deliver relatively undemanding high notes.
But in the Lombardi aria, Pavarotti was in control of the lively allegro passage but decided to go an octave lower in the finale. Not a few were disappointed.
At this point. Pavarotti was contemplating another cancellation to his attending physician, Dr. Roberto Tan who tried acupuncture, some herbs and antibiotics before the concert.
When Pavarotti consulted with Tan while the orchestra was playing the Vespri Siciliano overture, Pavarotti confessed to his Filipino doctor he could no longer go on. The doctor gently told him to go on and finish the concert. Or else he would lose his job.
By the time he was singing the last aria in the first part of the program, Pourquoi me reveiller, Pavarotti was regaining his self-confidence and it showed in his impeccable sense of line.
The audience gave him a resounding applause.
From the intense Tosca and Pagliacci arias, Pavarotti recovered from a lackluster showing in the first part of the program.
After the more popular Neapolitan songs, the audience of more than 4000 were on their feet cheering the fighter who regained his operatic title in what could be the toughest performance of his life.
“I never thought it possible to arrive to this last song,” he told a cheering crowd.
In gratitude, he dedicated his last encore piece, Granada, to his Filipino doctor.
Then he added, “You are an incredible audience” as he basked in the warm affection of his first Filipino audience in Manila.
Backstage after the triple standing ovation, I joined Ms. Arenas in greeting the tenor backstage.
For the tenor’s parting shot, he said: “Madam Arenas, if you invite me again, I’ll do better than this concert.”
I got what I bargained for.
The voice from the cassette I listened to almost everyday in late 70s I finally saw in person in 1994.