Opera Greats, Part 1: “The Three Tenors” Plus Two

In this two-part series, former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner shares histories, backgrounds and quirks of some of the world’s greatest opera stars.

Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI Luciano Pavarotti’s impact on the music world has been enormous. Born outside Modena in 1935, as a youth he sang in choruses with his father, and entered competitions while training as a teacher. A win in the Concorso Internazionale in 1961 changed Luciano’s life forever;  debut in Reggio Emilia shot him to stardom. Aside from an unparalleled opera career, he has drawn thousands to venues worldwide, filling stadiums, attracting crowds of three hundred thousand to the Eiffel Tower, and half a million to New York’s Central Park. Pavarotti gave his first concert in China’s Hall of People in 1986 and sang Nessun Dorma at the 1990 World Cup. His album Essential Pavarotti topped the UK pop charts for five weeks. He wowed crowds at the Athens Olympics in 2004, the year of his final performance at the Met. He collaborated with top performers such as Elton John and MeatLoaf in his Pavarotti and Friends charity concerts, to raise money for humanitarian causes in Bosnia, Zambia, and Iraq, and later in life committed himself to helping young singers. Every time he came on stage Pavarotti claimed to have felt discomfited by the spirit of Caruso looking over his shoulder. He was once quoted as saying, ‘Sex tunes the body like vocalizing tunes the voice. I vocalize everyday.’ The world has not been the same since Luciano’s passing in 2007.

Tenor, Placido Domingo
Tenor, Placido Domingo

Plácido Domingo, given name José, was born in Madrid in 1941 but at age eight moved to Mexico with his family. The young Domingo made his opera debut in a baritone role in his family’s zarzuela (Spanish lyric theater) company, working his way up as a comprimario in the National Opera and providing backup vocals for a Spanish rock-and-roll band. After a debut in Guadalajara in 1959, he gradually moved up to Israeli National Opera, New York City Opera, and in 1968 debuted at the Met, co-starring with Tebaldi. He has opened Met seasons over twenty times, more than any artist including Caruso, and has performed over one hundred-twenty operatic roles. Like Pavarotti, Domingo has sung with popular music stars, including Julie Andrews, John Denver, and Whitney Houston, and has appeared in six opera films. He has given concerts to benefit, among others, the victims of the 1985 Mexican earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Now General Director of the Los Angeles Opera, Domingo has returned to his baritone roots in roles such as Simon Boccanegra, and will sing the title role in a revival of director Woody Allen’s Gianni Schicchi.

Born in Barcelona in 1946, José Carreras grew up in dire post-Spanish Civil War conditions. The family moved to Argentina but returned to Spain because of even worse deprivation. Starting at age six, ‘Josep’ began to sing at every opportunity: from the ship home from Argentina, to the customers in his mother’s hair salon in Barcelona, finally locking himself in the bathroom to sing to avoid driving his family crazy. Wisely, they sent him to the Conservatory at age eight to study piano. He sang his first public performance on Spanish National Radio, then at age eleven performed on stage at Teatro Barcelona. Montserrat Caballé ‘discovered’ Carreras, now a full-fledged tenor at eighteen, and arranged for him to debut with her in London. His career then skyrocketed, first to San Francisco Opera, then with Karajan, and ultimately the Met. Director Lotfi Mansouri called him “one of the most complete operatic stars I have ever worked with… a total artist.” Against all odds, Carreras survived leukemia and showed his gratitude by creating the International Leukemia Foundation. In 1990, his two celebrated tenor colleagues welcomed his return to the stage with the first Three Tenors concert in Rome.

Jan Peerce
Tenor, Jan Peerce

The multitalented Joshua Pincus Perelmuth, a.k.a. Jan Peerce, earned his first greenbacks playing violin with dance bands in his native New York, but when he leapt to fame in his breakout appearance at Radio City Music Hall in 1932, it became clear that he was destined for a career as a tenor. His recordings and broadcasts with Toscanini are among the greatest musical legacies of the mid-twentieth century. The celebrated maestro was so impressed with Peerce’s operatic voice and uncannily authentic Italian that he repeatedly asked the tenor if he was of Italian ancestry. Peerce debuted at the Met in 1941 in La Traviata, and along with Richard Tucker helped create the Met era of the “Jewish Tenors.” His appearance as the first American to sing at the Bolshoi in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, created a sensation. In 1971, at the age of sixty-seven, Peerce made a belated but beloved debut on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof.

The artistic father of them all, Enrico Caruso, born in 1873, was the third of seven children in his Neapolitan family of singers. Caruso’s mother, who recognized his unique vocal gifts, encouraged his singing. After her death he sang in cafes to help his cash-strapped family. His career in the Italian army was cut short when his Commanding Officer brought Caruso’s talent to the attention of a wealthy Baron, who taught Caruso voice. It was soon recognized that Caruso was not destined to languish in an army barracks. After debuts at La Scala and Convent Garden, Caruso debuted at the Met in Rigoletto in 1903. Six hundred of his eight hundred career performances were at the Met. His public adored him, and he adored them in return – to his detriment. Refusing to cancel out of loyalty to them, he hid a downward spiral in his health until it was too late. He died in 1921 at the age of forty-eight. The outpouring of grief from his thousands of fans surging into the Royal Basilica for his funeral proved to the world that he was the ultimate operatic tenor legend of all time.

Photos: Pavarotti – attribute www.kremlin.ru, Domingo – Sheila Rock