Non piangere, Liu

Luciano Pavarotti was big in Sarajevo.

Not, perhaps, the first thing that should come to mind when thinking of one of the greatest voices in history on the day of his death, but then I happen, at this very moment, to be sitting next to my assistant, Djenno Bacvic, who hails from Bosnia. And as Djenno tells it, when the war in Bosnia was at its worst, and Sarajevo was cut off from the world, Pavarotti was always there, hosting "Pavarotti and Friends" concerts in his hometown of Modena, Italy; helping to jump start the relief agency War Child; and eventually joining up, years later, with Bono and U2 on the anthem Miss Sarajevo. "They really love him there" says Djenno, who now just told me he had goose bumps as I started playing the recording of U2's 1997 Sarajevo performance of that song, with Pavarotti piped in to the stadium.

You learn something every day, right?

I didn't know anything about Miss Sarajevo until tonight, but I certainly know a thing or two about opera. And it's not because one of our dearest friends is the world's most celebrated Carmen. I'll get to that in a minute. No, my love of opera, like many, started with Luciano Pavarotti.

When I started working at United Press International in 1988, I was first stuck on the overnight photo desk in Washington. In those pre-digital days, a photo editor would manage the network flow, part traffic cop, part Lily Tomlin switchboard operator. The photo desk had these wires and cables running in an out of it, like some bad prop from an Ed Wood movie, and we would talk into this ancient intercom and say things like, "Cranford, take the South. NXP, you're split for three. San Fran, come ahead." I know, gibberish to you guys, but there was a whole wire service lingo that you had to learn.

For many months I worked the overnight shift. After 3 a.m., when all the west coast papers were wrapping things up, I would look for ways to stay awake. One had to stay awake, like in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because failure to do so might mean missing a news alert. (Like the night of the Exxon Valdez spill. Thank God the news feeds had these little alarm bells on them-- I was just starting to doze off and might have missed the whole thing.) The obvious way to stay awake was to watch television, with your feet propped up on the desk like you owned the joint. The problem, of course, was that there was nothing on at 4:00 a.m. in those days, just mostly static. Except, that is, for Sid and Nancy.

Sid and Nancy was a truly terrible movie about the life of Sid Vicious, starring Gary Oldman as the Sex Pisols bassist. For some bizarre reason, there was one channel on the UPI cable hookup that only played this movie, over and over and over. And over. It kept me awake, alright, but I used to get really excited when I could find anything else at that absurd hour. And that's how my love of opera began.

There was a commercial that would play during those overnight months, again and again, just like like Sid and Nancy, but far more pleasing on the ears. It was a a commercial for one of those Time-Life collections, Opera for Dummies, basically. At that point in my life I knew a lot about classical music--it's hard to avoid when one's last name is Mendelsohn--but little about opera. And each night, when this commercial would appear at three, four, five a.m., I would prick up my ears. The commercial featured Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma and I couldn't believe that a) something could be that beautiful; and b) that any composer could write himself, musically speaking, out of that kind of building climax. The orchestral release which follows Calaf's final "Vincero!" was fascinating to me, like the steam release on a boiling pot of water. I was hooked.

Almost twenty years later, it's funny admitting that it was Nessun Dorma that got me hooked--kind of like telling an art critic that Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party is your favorite painting. They're both beautiful, of course, if not a tad overexposed.

But it was the foot in the door. Nessun Dorma led me to the rest of Turandot, with it's haunting opening crowd scenes (O testa mozza!; O severed head!), not to mention the frantic conclusion of the great aria "Non piangere, Liu" (Don't cry, Liu), where father, prince and slave girl all sing on top of one another, pleading with Calaf not to bang the gong. It was Puccini's last opera--unfinished, technically speaking--but it was my first. I remember playing it to all my friends at the time, like Anne Dimmette (now Anne Bell), a fellow UPI colleague, pleading, "You have to read the words! You have to read the words!" She probably thought I was nuts.

Turandot led to La Boheme, La Boheme to Tosca, and Tosca to Verdi, Delibes, Bizet, Carlisle Floyd and Gershwin. I still want to cry every time I hear the climax of "O suave fanciulla," or when Porgy sings "Bess, you is my woman now," or when Tosca sings "vissi d'arte." And as a sign of just how much I've come from that first exposure to Pavarotti, my favorite opera these days is the John Adam's masterpiece "Nixon in China," an opera that always sends my wife Maya running for the doors. But title aside, it as musically complex and lyrically gorgeous as anything else I've heard. All these things I owe to Luciano Pavarotti and a Time-Life record commercial.

In a way, it even led to my dear friend, Denyce. I don't have to tell anyone that Denyce Graves is one of the greatest voices on the planet. And I'm proud to say that she is a good friend. A few years back she left a voice message at the studio, having seen my photographs of children at the Georgetown boutique Piccolo Piggies. Had all the things I've just described to you never happened, I probably wouldn't have thought twice about the deep voice on my answering machine. But it did all happen, and I remember thinking "the Denyce Graves??" We met and I took photos of her daughter, Ella, and a great friendship has ensued.

Once, while in Chicago to shoot Shawn Valassis and T.K. Gore's wedding, Denyce left me tickets at the Lyric Opera box office. My aunt Karen and I were mesmerized as she performed Carmen before a sold-out house. Another time, Denyce invited Maya and me to sit in Joseph Volpe's box at the Met and watch a matinee performance, while Alexandra and Ella played with the horses and costumes backstage. (Though perhaps not as cute as Ella and Alexandra sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower, their faces both covered in chocolate crepe.) Denyce makes a mean lasagna and she's one of the most generous and loving people I know.

So, all told, I guess I have a lot to thank Luciano Pavarotti for tonight: good friends, great music and fond memories of the overnight shift at 1400 Eye Street.



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