(HOST) The recent death of Luciano Pavarotti reminded commentator Howard Coffin that – despite popular stereotypes – Northern New Englanders have long had quite sophisticated cultural tastes.
(COFFIN) My father loved fine singing. Thus my Woodstock childhood home echoed with the voice of Ezio Pinza, or Enrico Caruso, coming from the radio, or scratchy records. Pinza’s Some Enchanted Evening I heard over and over, as I did Caruso’s La Donna e Mobile. And then came the Mario Lanza records. We saw the Mario Lanza Story at least five times. Often we attended local concerts, particularly when a local girl with a promising soprano voice sang. I would see tears in my father’s eyes. He had seldom experienced great singing live, save for the winter he went to school in Boston. We simply did not have the means.
Then I went to work for the Rutland Herald, in an era when reporters got free tickets. At nearby Dartmouth College my father and I heard Marian Anderson, Grace Bumbry, George Shirley, Anna Moffo. A particular favorite of father’s was Robert Merrill and, lo and behold, he came to sing at Dartmouth’s Webster Hall. At the ticket booth we were told, "So sorry, all we have are seats on the stage." So we sat right beside the great baritone.
Also, we journeyed to the Lake George Opera Festival for Traviata, Carmen, Merry Wives of Windsor.
Then came a night in Dartmouth’s new Spaulding Auditorium when a tenor we had scarce heard of was to sing, some rising star named Luciano Pavarotti. So there we sat, seven rows from the stage, for two hours of glory. The concert was mainly of arias from Italian operas, Puccini, Verdi; Donizetti, with piano accompaniment. From the first notes, it was clear that this was a remarkable singer.
I recall the beauty and power of the voice, the personality that instantly linked singer to audience. He would seem to stumble forward a step or two at the close of a particularly demanding piece, as if the effort, like the voice, had been almost superhuman. He closed with the soaring Nessun Dorma, from Turandot, which became his signature piece. The applause went on and on.
As we walked out into the night, I said, "Poppa, I think we heard the great voice."
He turned to me with tears in his eyes and, smiling, said, "Don’t forget, I heard Caruso."
But Pavarotti had been admitted into the category of the great tenors in the wonderfully appreciative mind of Wallace Coffin. And down the years Poppa came to believe that Pavarotti was the finest of them all.
The day after Luciano Pavarotti died I drove back roads through the hills and valleys of Orange and Windsor counties, listening to he radio as the great voice once again sang Bellini, Puccini, Verdi, and the soaring songs of Naples, all echoing in my memory.
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.