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Kai Ryssdal: Five of the top 25 compact discs on today feature Luciano Pavarotti. He died early this morning in Italy, as you probably heard by now.

Pavarotti was an opera star for 40 years. And later in his life, he helped changed the business of classical music.

Fred Child hosts public radio’s classical music program, “Performance Today.” Hi, Fred.

Child: Hello, Kai.

Ryssdal: Clearly, Pavarotti was a great talent. But he was also greatly criticized, especially I guess later in life, for having kind of commercialized opera to a great extent. Do you think that’s a fair charge? Does it stick?

Child: You know, there was a real tough balance there. And you’re right: in his prime, there was nobody better. That silky-smooth, rich sounding, incredible emotion that came through in his voice. But after about 1990, he became a mainstream superstar. And the fact is, he revelled in being a celebrity, and almost became a caricature of himself. And he sang with quite a few artists who were, frankly, below his artistic level. Now, I know that’s a subjective judgment, but should the greatest operatic voice of the last three or four generations have sung with the Spice Girls? You tell me, Kai.

Ryssdal: Is he the reason why we now have people like Andrea Bocelli and the three Irish Tenors in the record store?

Child: Yeah, he opened up this marketplace, or what was perceived to be a marketplace, for a lot of other folks. It’s almost impossible ever, in the history of classical music, to have a big classical hit. Only 25 classical recordings in the history of recordings have sold more than a million. But when The Three Tenors came along in 1990, Pavarotti, alongside Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, that recording turned out to be the best selling classical recording of all time — more than 10 million copies sold.

And that really changed the nature of the record business, Kai. It was like blockbuster mentality came in. Suddenly, everybody in the classical music business was saying, “Well, where’s the next Three Tenors?”

Ryssdal: Is there anybody, do you think Fred, who can take his place? Has opera lost something financially that it might never get back?

Child: Oh absolutely, yeah. He had a mass appeal that I don’t think will be matched for generations. There was a kind of directness in the emotion of his voice that came through. You didn’t have to see his acting, you just had to hear his voice. And there was such vulnerability and humanity simply in the sound of his voice. And people related to that. A lot of other singers in the world of classical music, and kind of on the borders of classical music, have tried to duplicate that. But not everybody has the God-given gift of the voice that Pavarotti had.

Ryssdal: Fred Child is the host of American Public Media’s classical music program, “Performance Today.” Fred, thanks a lot.

Child: Glad to join you, Kai.

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