Just arriving home today, I heard “As It Happens,” the Canadian news magazine presented in the evenings on NPR, the third airing I’ve heard today about the death of Luciano Pavarotti. “I was on the N.Y. Subway listening to an aria on my iPod,” reported an interviewee, “and I just cried at the beauty of his voice. I looked up and saw the headline of the newspapers about Pavarotti’s death, and the woman reading the newspaper was crying too. He just touched so many people’s lives.”
Indeed he did.
As a young music student, not from a musical family, I struggled to understand why opera was such a big deal. Among the recordings I heard was Puccini’s “La Boheme,” sung by none other. I got it. I still cry at the beauty of those passages—and this as a jaded musician who’s heard a lot of music so many times that it’s practically aural wallpaper. Pavarotti’s singing stands out, and I not only learned to appreciate opera, but also learned that the performance mattered greatly I the appreciation of the work (probably no small part of my decision to pursue music as a performer, not primarily an educator or scholar (those would come later).
I started teaching college only because I was asked to take on an Intro to Music course at a local college—part Music Appreciation, part Music History, all for non-majors, so I strove to offer students quite a varied taste of the music world—including opera.
“We have to listen to an OPERA?” they’d complain.
“Have you ever heard an opera?” I would counter.
“No…we just hate it.”
They didn’t know.
So, each term we took two class periods to watch a video of an excellent performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” produced by the San Francisco Opera, staring Luciano Pavarotti. Students settled down into their most attitude-broadcasting postures, feet up on the chair in front, elbow on an adjacent chair, head leaning resignedly into the palm, fingers draped like a ledge to “shade” the eyes. I ignored the passive aggressive protests, started the video, and turned off the lights.
In retrospect, I should have been amazed that the class proceeded in silence (I was still new to teaching).
I DID notice that each term, the second day, almost all of the students returned. They assumed the same defiant postures, I again pretended not to notice, and picked up the opera from the previous class period.
The plot of La Boheme is not complicated. Mimi meets poor artists. Mimi falls in love with Pavarotti’s character. Mimi is sick. Gets sicker. Gets sicker and sicker. Then she dies.
Students sat in the darkened room, eyes covered. “Sniff,” I hear, as we enter the final scene. “Sniff, sniff!” comes another. Faster and faster—soon the whole room, still visually unmoved, is sniffling. At Mimi’s death—the end of the opera—a chorus of sniffles accompanies the applause as the cast takes its bows. I graciously wait to turn the lights back on.