It was philanthropy that brought together three of the world’s greatest operatic tenors of the time for a unique concert and also brought the world of classical music and sport together. It created a new genre of entertainment, bringing “opera to the masses” in an unprecedented manner and scale.
José Carreras was in the midst of a film version of Puccini’s La Bohème in Paris in 1987 when he was found to have acute lymphoblastic leukemia and given a 10% chance of survival. However, he fought the battle against it, and started a charity, the José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation. The concert was planned to raise money for it, and also for Carreras’ friends and tenor rivals Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti to welcome their “little brother” back to the operatic stage after his ordeal.
It attracted an audience of six thousand at the ancient Baths of Caracalla, Rome on 7 July 1990, the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final and was broadcast by television to 800 million people. Zubin Mehta conducted the combined orchestral forces of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The live recording of the performance, (Three Tenors in Concert) released on the Decca Classics label, won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance the following year. It holds the Guinness World Record for the best-selling classical album.
The Three Tenors rapidly became a World Cup fixture, performing at the 1994 finals in Los Angeles (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also conducted by Zubin Mehta, to 56,000 people at the Dodger stadium and 1.3 billion watching on television); at the Champ de Mar under the Eiffel Tower in 1998 (James Levine conducting the Orchestre de Paris); and in Yokohoma in 2002. They also toured the world, performing in stadiums and large arenas. Some concerts raised money for other philanthropic causes, such as the rebuilding of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and the Reina Sofia Foundation.
The repertoire at the concerts featured operatic arias, as well as Broadway classics, Neapolitan songs and pop hits. The aria ‘Nessun Dorma’(‘None shall sleep’) from Puccini’s opera Turandot quickly achieved pop status after Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the theme song of BBC TV’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup. The title certainly seemed apt for the multitudes around the world staying up to watch the matches live. Although he rarely ever sang the role of Calaf (the character who sings the aria in the opera) on stage, it became Pavarotti’s signature aria and went on to become a football anthem.
The Three Tenors phenomenon has had its share of fans and critics, and the classical music world is polarized about it. Opera purists felt that opera was not “music for the masses” and that the presentation of operatic arias in stadiums and large arenas with heavy amplification often out of the larger context of the plot distorts the appreciation and understanding of opera as a complete art form (Gesamtkunstwerk). Domingo in an interview in 1998 gave a fitting reply: “I understand the complaints of the purists. But I don’t want the purists to go to The Three Tenors”.
The concerts certainly awakened interest in opera and broadened its appeal. Brian Castle-Onion in his book ‘Losing the Plot in Opera” points out the paradox that “while price structures within opera houses increase opera’s elitism and make it less accessible to the masses, phenomena like The Three Tenors and Opera in the Park actually take it to a wider audience”.
The idea of outdoor performances is of course at least as old as ancient Greece. Much later, in 1717, King George I was serenaded while being rowed from Whitehall to Chelsea and back on the Thames by fifty musicians in barges playing George Frideric Handel’s Royal Water Music. And in 1749 the king and a crowd of twelve thousand listened to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
But the detractors do have a point, especially when it comes to operatic singing in the outdoors. One could argue that a major aspect of operatic singing is the ability to use one’s natural vocal abilities, devoid of amplification, to reach out to one’s audience. When one attempts it in the outdoors to an audience of tens of thousands, one inevitably has to amplify the voice, and thus necessarily loses subtle nuances, vocal colours and overtones of the notes being sung, and the immediacy and intimacy of the music. There is also the danger of creating a generation of young singers who may not think it necessary to learn to project their voice, or to give it greater ‘body’, because amplification can artificially achieve this for them anyway. One sees this already in Goa, with so many young men and women with really beautiful voices, but who have an overdependency on the mike and are unable to sing effectively when deprived of this crutch.
On the other hand, the wellbeing and very survival of classical music may depend upon making it more accessible to the public, and concerts like the Three Tenors are one way to do that. The Three Tenors phenomenon proved that a good tune sung and played well will always be appreciated, even if it is classical music. Leading opera houses like Covent Garden now annually broadcast their productions live onto large screens in Trafalgar Square and other wide open public places in the summer. Tens of thousands of people who would otherwise never have had a taste of opera are able to hear the opera classics sung by the world’s greatest singers, for free, with a picnic basket for company. Purists may carp but it proves that opera in particular, and classical music in general, are for everyone.
And the floodgates opened that July evening in 1990 in Rome when Bel Canto scored a winner at The Beautiful Game.
(An edited version of this article was published on 6 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)