In August 1990, I travelled to the city of romance – Verona, Italy – as part of the New Zealand contingent for the World Festival Choir. It was my first ever visit to Europe and the start of a long love affair with Italy, Europe, and Pavarotti.
Singers had been selected from around the world to sing Verdi’s Requiem at the Arena di Verona with Pavarotti, in a performance to raise funds for United Nations refugees.
More than fifty thousand dollars was raised from the concert, which was attended by Princess Diana and the King and Queen of Spain. The performance also marked the 45th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
There were 3000 singers from around the globe in the choir and we were accommodated in hotels in the nearby town of Padova and Abano. The smallest group in the choir (24) were us, the New Zealanders, a fact we were very proud of.
We stayed in a very European and quaint spa hotel in Abano with a very un-European name – Harry’s Hotel. Abano is one of the oldest European spa towns, famous for hot baths and mineral pools.
Coming from a clean, green environment like New Zealand where you could drink water from road puddles, I remember being stunned by how undrinkable and harsh the water in Italy was. I couldn’t get over the fact you had to buy bottles of water from the supermarket and that the hot Italian Summer sun would heat up the mineral pools until they were at boiling temperature.
One of the world’s most famous conductors, Lorin Maazel, was our ‘maestro’ and it was his job to conduct the 3000 singers and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, who were the ‘band’ for the concert. Maazel’s crisp white clothes reflected his cool manner.
Maazel had a refined American accent and spoke to the singers as though we were old friends and had met before. But he was also terribly meticulous and prone to outbursts.
During one of the daily rehearsals, he threatened to leave Italy and cancel the entire concert because we couldn’t get one section of the requiem 100% correct.
Maazel spoke several languages – important when only a quarter of the choir could speak English. In fact, it took Maazel and the concert organisers, who spoke Swedish and Norwegian, a lifetime just to get the 3000 singers to sit down – “asseyez vous!”; “sientese!”; “sett deg ned!”; “si prega di sedersi!”; “bitte setzen sie sich”. The only language they didn’t know was Japanese – so the Japanese contingent were always the last ones to realise what was going on.
|Rehearsals with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel
|Pavarotti’s blue turtle shirt
When Luciano Pavarotti first walked onto the stage during rehearsals, hundreds of singers surged forward down the stone stairs towards him to try and get an autograph or photograph.
Pavarotti was dressed in casual clothes – a garish blue shirt covered in tortoises, with a red and turquoise scarf draped around his neck. Before he could turn to wave at the singers, he disappeared in a cloud of hysterical people – half the choir had surged forward. The multi-lingual organisers were screaming at everyone to sit down, which took about ten minutes – the Japanese, of course, the last to return to their seats.
Pavarotti appeared to have lost weight since his celebrated performance with two of the world’s other famous tenors – Carreras and Placido Domingo, only a few weeks earlier.
Pavarotti’s warmth of personality came across during the rehearsals. Unlike some of the other soloists such as Dolora Zajick and Paul Plishka, Pavarotti greeted the singers and clapped to us whenever he was pleased.
He was a God in Italy – reaching audiences wider than just opera lovers. Like Maazel, however, if he wasn’t pleased, he would quickly and loudly voice his disapproval shouting at the thousands of singers who towered above him on the stone steps of the arena.
Arena di Verona
The Arena di Verona, which is the centrepiece of old Verona, is absolutely mind-boggling captivating. The ancient reddish/pale Colosseum which completely dominates the architecture in Verona, is the centre of activity.
The townspeople and hundreds of foreign visitors crowd beneath the arches of the huge structure – once the scene of death and violence where Christians were persecuted for their beliefs and lions killed for sport. It was so strange to be there in Verona as an ambassador for world peace singing in a place where people had once been persecuted for their beliefs.
Inside the arena, rows of stone terracing dotted with small square entrances like ant holes in the ground, dwarfed the singers as they poured through the entrances and into the ampitheatre. The ‘royal box’ where the King of Spain and Princess Diana sat, was prodigiously placed above the huge iron gates at the other end of the arena.
It felt strange to be inside a building but still outside in the open air. Beneath the arena were mazes and underground rooms with iron gates and tunnels leading from one place to the next. Most of the structure had been destroyed in an earthquake 500 years before with the arch like frame around the edge of the arena, virtually gone. All that remained was a small section behind where the audience sat.
From our seats behind the orchestra and soloists, we had a spectacular view of the tops of Verona’s historical buildings. In the distance, a huge castle sprawled down a lush, green hillside while statues adorned the tops of some buildings, reached out to us in their white stone splendour.
Spectular sunsets filled the arena with a colourful warmth and a gentle wind blew in from the surrounding hills. A full moon rose majestically behind us on both nights that we sang and I felt as though I’d died and gone to Heaven. The church bells and clock tower loomed above the arena and were so close you could see the pendulum swing whenever the clock struck on the hour.
The intense excitement, stifling heat and jetlag got the better of many singers. The first night of rehearsals, everyone started giggling, as singers fell asleep standing up, started swaying and slumped forwards onto the person in front. Others would curl into balls on the hard, stone terrace and sleep while the rest of us serenaded them with the beautiful Requiem. Rehearsals usually started late in the afternoon and continued through the night to avoid the heat of the day.
The night of the first concert was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was on August 4 and even before the concert began, people were shouting ‘Pavarottiiii, Pavarottiiii”. They called him ‘super-luciano’ in Italy and he was the closest thing to Italian royalty. Just mentioning his name nearly started a stampede.
The arena filled with 15,000 people who began screaming hysterically when Pavarotti came on stage; he recieved a standing ovation and you could actually hear people outside the arena chanting his name “luciano, luciano”. They were even hanging over the iron railings above the lions’ entrance trying to grab at him; Pavarotti’s bodyguards slapping their hands and pushing them away. It was like being at a rock concert.
|The audience with the Royal Box (centre)
There was also lots of murmuring, shuffling and head turning as Princess Diana sat down in the Royal Box, but as soon as Maazel tapped his conductor’s stick, the entire audience went completely silent – you could have heard a pin drop. We sang our heart out, the orchestra played beautifully and the full moon rose majestically behind us while the lights of the castle in the distance shone brightly.
When the concert ended, the crowd were screaming ‘bravo, bravo, bravo’ and the clapping sounded like rain. We were all crying with emotion and hugging each other. Pavarotti, the soloists and the whole orchestra also turned to clap us which made us cry even more.
And then the weirdest thing happened, the audience started throwing their cushions at us. We had to duck as thousands of small red square cushions, like an arsenal of arrows, came flying in our direction. We hoped heaving cushions was a good sign that the audience loved us, and not the other way around.
Meeting ‘super luciano’
After the first concert, myself and another young Kiwi girl, decided to run backstage to see if we could actually meet Pavarotti. It was a stab in the dark as the arena was like a rabbit warren and the great singer was surrounded by an army of bodyguards. It seemed that the entire audience had the same idea as we rounded a corner along one of the stone corridors to find a huge crowd had gathered outside Pavarotti’s dressing room – people pushing, gesturing and some even weeping.
We managed to squeeze through the crowd, partly because we were still in our singers’ outfits of black and white, and found ourselves standing next to a smallish man with wavy slicked back hair and a white shirt, grey pants who proudly proclaimed that he was Pavarotti’s father, Fernando. We didn’t believe him of course and so he began to sing with this incredible mesmerising tenor voice. We still didn’t believe him until one of the guards at the entrance to the tunnel of Pavarotti’s dressing room, came over, said hello Fernando in Italian.
Our mouths dropped open. Pavarotti’s father seemed amused that all these people were making a fuss over his son and told he us he had taught Luciano everything about singing as he had once been a famous tenor himself. “You must meet him”, he suddenly said and spoke Italian to the guard.
By then, the shoving and shouting of the dressing room crowd was getting more intense with some of the guards getting very nasty and irate and we began to fear that we would get crushed in the surging throng. However, this lovely rotund, friendly guard with Pavarotti’s father grabbed us and suddenly we were being whisked up the tunnel to meet the world’s most famous tenor.
Finding the dressing room took quite some time as there were so many corridors, but after several twists and turns, we came across another line of people getting ready to greet Pavarotti as though he was the Pope. His father disappeared to the front of the line and we were left waiting our turn at the back. The other bodyguards seemed amused to see us clutching our scores and dressed in our black and white uniforms, and apparently walked into Pavarotti’s dressing room to tell him that ‘two pretty ladies from the other side of the world here to see you.’
The guard then coaxed us forward past the line and into a dark dressing room with a low stone ceiling and low and behold, there was Pavarotti himself sitting on a chair in the corner looking very post-concert red in the face, sweating profusely and dabbing himself with towels. He was grinning from ear to ear like a Cheshire cat and greeted us with open arms and a big hug. We kissed him on both cheeks and smiled and told him how much we loved the concert. “Bellissimo,” he bellowed. “You were wonderful, wonderful.”
He told us how much he’d loved the concert and kept pushing his bodyguards out of the way so that we could get closer to him. He signed our score for us, let us kiss him on his sweaty cheeks again and we were then escorted outside, blinking in the harsh sunlight, and taken through a police blockade lined with screaming fans on either side waiting to see Pavarotti. We felt like movie stars as people reached out to us. The police had their arms linked as they tried to hold everyone back.
We were so late getting back to the bus that the driver and one of the organisers told us off in front of everyone which was incredibly embarrassing. But, it was so worth it seeing the look on everyone’s face when we told them we’d met Pavarotti and showed them our signed scores. Except we missed one vital piece of evidence – the whole time we were in Pavarotti’s dressing room, we were both clutching cameras but were so star-struck that we forgot to ask for a photograph! The best I have are of him in his tortoise shirt (seen above) and, of course, I have his once-in-a-lifetime signature in my score to cherish.
After the Verdi concert, Pavarotti said this to an Italian journalist.
“As an idea it (the concert) certainly frightened me, but an outdoor spectacle is always something exceptional. For an artist, Verdi’s Mass is the ultimate – one of the highest attainments – something between life and death. And this message is also the ultimate meaning of the evening that is dedicated to Hiroshima, to the victorious wounded in body and mind by the bomb that exploded 45 years ago. I was a child then but I wanted to say that however much warfare there has been in the world, another war has never broken out. It is as if men have said ‘never again’. This is the message from Hiroshima and for this, we should be grateful to those who have died. For them, we want to give a message of life.”