83. Opera Buff

I can’t say I’m a big fan of opera, but I was eager to see Ron Howard’s new documentary about Luciano Pavarotti. I remember the tenor for his spirit, his charisma, his charm.


And sure enough, it was on full display in this film, which played to a packed house of mostly ladies who sat motionless, rapt, through the whole movie. Luciano’s talent was recognized early, so Ron Howard had lots of performance footage dating back to his youth to work with. And perhaps because he was Ron Howard (Happy Days, with its character Arthur Fonzarelli, was very popular with my cousins in Italy) he was able to score interviews with Pavarotti’s first and second wives, one of his girlfriends, and the adult daughters of his first marriage, who were none too pleased with how he conducted his messy personal life.

Modena, birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti and balsamic vinegar. Note man on crutches in lower right,

What I hadn’t been aware of though, was that he was deeply involved in humanitarian work, working with the likes of Bono and Princess Diana to organize blockbuster concerts of superstars and raising millions for children and refugees.

I have had two opera experiences myself, both in Italy. In 2016, the year I dragged Ben there on crutches, we saw Carmen at the Roman Arena in Verona.


If Verona’s Roman theater looks like the coliseum, it’s because they were both built in 100 AD.

We sat in the cheap seats, which were perfect because you could bring a picnic supper and enjoy pretending to be one of the locals. One could imagine sitting in that very same spot two thousand years previously, watching the gladiators go at it on the field below.

The post-opera cafe scene.

My other opera experience was on our one family trip to Italy in 1965, age 12, when my parents brought me to see Aida at the Baths of Caracalla in their desperate and unsuccessful attempt to cram some culture into my Beatles-besotted brain. I was reminded of that the other day, as the emotional high point of the film was seeing the Three Tenors–Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras–perform “O Sole Mio” at the Baths during a 1990 benefit concert for Carreras’ Leukemia Foundation; he had recently recovered from the disease.

My father had some tapes of Luciano singing Neapolitan songs, filled with emigrants’ poignant longing for the sea, home and Mama. He couldn’t listen to them because they made him cry. Judging from the naked emotion of this performance, and the response of the Roman crowd, one can see why.

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