Desperately seeking the next Pavarotti

Opera’s obsession with finding a new star tenor can end up ruining a singer’s career
Desperately seeking the next Pavarotti
Mary Altaffer/AP

On Oct. 17, Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo made his Metropolitan Opera debut in La Bohème, and you’d have thought it was the opera event of the year instead of a 30-year-old production. The New York Times ran a long story calling him “the great tenor hope.” Sony, which is releasing Grigolo’s first album (unimaginatively titled The Italian Tenor), put out many press releases touting his good looks and his background—he used to be a “popera” singer and briefly was part of Simon Cowell’s group Il Divo. But Grigolo is only the latest in a long line of recent tenors who have received the same kind of publicity build-up, and it rarely works. “It’s always ‘the next Pavarotti,’ ” says Zachary Woolfe, music critic for the New York Observer. “The expectations are a bit unfair.”

The tenor voice, the high yet masculine sound that usually sings the hero’s music, has been the currency of operatic stardom since the 19th century. But since Pavarotti’s death and Placido Domingo’s shift into baritone parts, the music business hasn’t found anyone who can cross over into full-fledged popular stardom the way those tenors did. Most successful tenors today are relatively small-voiced lyric tenors who can sing Mozart or Rossini, but not the heavy parts (in Verdi, Puccini and Wagner) that feature the things that make big stars: loud singing and, above all, high Cs like the big one in the tenor aria from La Bohème.

That’s why the main story of classical music for the last decade, at least when it comes to marketing and promotion, is the attempt to find a new big-voiced tenor who, as opera blogger James Jorden puts it, “transcends strictly ‘operatic’ fame and crosses over into the mainstream.” Female singers have had an easier time finding crossover success: Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli have made themselves fairly well-known even to people who aren’t opera buffs. But the opera business needs star tenors, and they’re not forthcoming. Instead, Jorden told Maclean’s, “a lot of the potential tenor fans are still devoted” to the “elder statesmen”; they’d rather be followers of a dead Pavarotti than a living tenor.

Part of the problem is that today’s tenors tend not to have the kind of outgoing, showbiz-friendly personality that Pavarotti or Caruso had. Jorden says that the obese Pavarotti “was in no way a conventionally romantic or attractive figure,” but “he just had a personality people responded to.” The same goes for Fleming, with her down-home, friendly persona, or Angela Gheorghiu, who has marketed herself as a temperamental diva of the old school. When new tenors come along, they usually turn out to be much less interesting personalities: Canadian tenor Ben Heppner was once considered a potential superstar, but though he became genuinely successful, he didn’t always have the kind of stage charisma that superstars need to have (“He’s a bit of a lummox,” wrote music critic Conrad L. Osborne).

And when a tenor does come along who has genuine star quality, he often runs into another problem: early burnout. The cautionary tale on everyone’s tongue is Rolando Villazón, the handsome Mexican tenor who seemed to be on his way to matinee-idol status. Since 2007, health and vocal problems have caused him to cancel most of his performances. Critics speculated that like many other potential star tenors of the past, he might have taken on heavy parts that his voice wasn’t suited for: “He moved into a repertory that was too much, too soon, and sang too much,” Woolfe speculates. The pressure to become the new Pavarotti, in other words, is one of the things that makes potential Pavarottis burn out early.

There’s a potential financial upside, though. Jorden says that even though Villazón is now “generally in mediocre form,” he “still has a strong and loyal public” that will pay to see his concerts—including a recent one that ended seven minutes after it started. Grigolo, who got what Jorden describes as “a very warm reception” for his Met debut, might never fulfill his promise of being a superstar—but even if he becomes a washed-up tenor, it’s still worth it.