Luciano Pavarotti had one of the most distinctive voices in the history of opera. It was such a natural instrument, and singing was clearly something that came to him as easily as breathing, making him the envy of many singers.
I was lucky enough to work with him in Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997. I knew his voice well, of course, from his many recordings, but to hear him live and up close was incredible. The sound, even at this later stage of his career, was free and beautiful. People had said that the top of his voice and the famous high C’s were not what they had been, but every C I heard him sing was incredible and secure. I can’t imagine they were ever better.
My family has come to opera through my involvement, and so, when they heard I was going to be singing with Pavarotti, they decided to come to New York to see a performance. My brother asked me to tell the story of Turandot, so they would be prepared. I briefly told them about the princess who asks possible suitors three riddles, which they must answer correctly or die.
My brother, keen on games, wanted to see if they could get the riddles, so roughly translating from the Italian, I came to the second: What is hot but also cold, can give you a fever but also a chill? Is it love? No. Is it passion? No. Then my mother, thinking carefully, said, “Is it mustard?” It took several minutes for us to stop falling around laughing, and in many ways it’s almost a better answer than the real one: blood.
This story became a bit of a legend in the family and beyond, as I told various conductors and singers about it when I sang the role. James Levine loved it so much he insisted that I tell Luciano in a music rehearsal. We had only been working together a couple of days, and I was a little unsure if he would find it funny, but I told the story, and he did indeed laugh heartily for a long time.
On opening night, some three weeks later, I was in my dressing room having my makeup done, when he came in with a huge wicker basket, filled with 12 beautifully wrapped little parcels, which he placed on my dressing table. I was amazed and thanked him profusely, saying it was far too lovely to unwrap there and then. He told me to wait until I got home, but said, “I wanted you to have this—it’s 12 different kinds of mustard!”
I never expected him to have such a sense of humor, nor to take the time to make this gesture, and I was really touched. He followed it up when, unbeknown to me, he was in the same restaurant where I was dining with my family. We had just been seated when the maitre d’ brought over a dish of mustard and put in front of me. Upon seeing my confusion, he couldn’t wait to tell me, “Maestro Pavarotti sent it.”
Pavarotti’s voice was such that it went far beyond the confines of opera and out into the world beyond. When a voice is that great, everyone who hears it responds in some way. It doesn’t become “crossover,” just music.
I doubt there will ever be another to equal Pavarotti. His voice will continue to inspire and move generations through his recordings, and I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him and to know him a little.