On the morning of September 6, when headlines on the radio included the report that Luciano Pavarotti had succumbed to cancer at the age of 71, I was devastated. Perhaps it was because my spirits had already been damaged this summer by the deaths of Régine Crespin, Jerry Hadley, and, most of all, Beverly Sills. Or maybe what upset me so was my understanding that an era of opera history—and, in fact, entertainment history—was fast drawing to a close.
Voices and personalities such as these do not come along very often. I am proud to be an opera fanatic, and when I was young and starting my career as a music historian, the voices of Pavarotti, Crespin, and Sills were in full bloom, mesmerizing audiences with their beauty, accuracy, and uniqueness. My wife and I were lucky enough to attend live performances of Sills as Handel’s Cleopatra and Mozart’s Constanze, of Pavarotti as Puccini’s Cavaradossi and Verdi’s Duke of Mantua, and of Crespin as Poulenc’s Madame de Croissy and Strauss’s Marschallin. And who could ever forget the excitement of watching the first-ever Live From the Met performance on PBS in 1977: Pavarotti and Renata Scotto in La Bohème; or Sills as Massenet’s Manon coming to us live from the New York State Theater in a City Opera production. In fact, that night we had to choose between Sills’s Manon and a Yankees-Royals playoff game, a decision that was tough for us diehard fans—we had only one television set and no remote or recorder. We opted for Sills (yes, we peeked at the score during intermissions), and she rewarded us with her beauty and radiance as the fetching and vulnerable Manon. (The Yankees won that night and went on to capture their first World Series in 15 years, and so we felt doubly blessed!)
Indeed, just as previous eras had had their Farinelli, Giuditta Pasta, Enrico Caruso, and Lotte Lehmann, in the 1970s and ’80s we enjoyed our own opera superstars. It was a magical time, as television brought opera into millions of homes; then, in fairly quick succession, videotapes, DVDs, and the Internet began carrying these spectacular voices to more and more people around the world. In the United States, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti became iconic celebrities in the world of opera, inviting the general population to put aside its fear of this highbrow entertainment and become part of the opera audience. Both of these stars also had the good sense and daring to link up with giants of other areas of the entertainment world. Sills partnered with Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, and the Muppets, and she even got to host The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era. Pavarotti became an ongoing presence on television with his larger-than-life Pavarotti and Friends series and his “Three Tenors” concerts with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. His many “friends” included Elton John, Bono, Mariah Carey, and Sting; and when he sang “Nessun dorma,” handkerchief in hand, even in the largest stadiums on earth, the audience listened in rapt silence, breaking out into frenzied applause and cheering when he finished. Opera was “shaking hands” with soccer as an event watched by hordes.
Like Sills, Jerry Hadley was an American-born singer, and it was Sills who discovered him and brought him to the New York City Opera. His lyrical tenor made many a bel canto or French Romantic opera performance memorable. At the Met, my wife and I were privileged to hear him in such roles as Stravinsky’s Tom Rakewell, Floyd’s Sam, and Harbison’s Jay Gatsby. Hadley also was stellar in music for the Broadway and operetta stages.
Beverly Sills, brought up in Brooklyn as “Bubbles” Silverman, was surely the most famous American opera singer in the 1960s and ’70s. Her Baby Doe and Cleopatra were legendary, as were her Manon and three Donizetti queens. She was smart enough to know when to retire as a singer, and soon thereafter she became the general manager of the City Opera. Before her career was done, she served as chair of Lincoln Center and of the Metropolitan Opera, and she hosted many Live from Lincoln Center events on PBS, her appealing personality keeping viewers engaged year after year, right through this past spring.
Now these greats are gone. I suppose that every age says, “It will never be the same.” But I would like to hope and believe that, even if that is true, the future will still have wonderful performers. What we are doing at Juilliard, in fact, is preparing new voices to touch and inspire future audiences, just as Pavarotti, Sills, Crespin, and Hadley touched and inspired us these last decades.