“No, not like that!” yelled Pavarotti as I fumbled through the Traviata aria. The maestro was in a bad mood. He had sung poorly the night before at the national soccerstadium. At almost nine thousand feet, Bogotá is one of the highest capitals in the world, and the altitude had affected his flawless technique. He wasn’t happy. He hated mediocrity in himself and others.
It didn’t help that I was terrified. I had entered the local edition of the Pavarotti International Voice Competition with the belief that I was not going to make it past the qualifying rounds. I never expected the Colombian judges to put me in front of the maestro himself. I didn’t even see myself as a singer then. I was twenty-eight years old, but I had only been studying voice formally for two years. My childhood and adolescence were spent on a tennis court. My early twenties were devoted to electrical engineering. What was I doing singing in front of one of the best singers of the twentieth century?
After butchering the aria, with the maestro yelling at me every other line, I began to walk off the stage. “Where do you think you are going? I want to hear the Faust aria,” he said. I looked at the accompanist. She almost fainted. During the rehearsals, we couldn’t get through that piece. There was a high C at the end which I could never hit.
At first, the accompanist refused to play, but she was eventually persuaded to start playing the intro. I began singing. The aria is slow and builds up to the high C at the end, but halfway through the piece, my voice began to falter. My face turned red from the lack of oxygen and technique. There was no way I was going to get through it. The accompanist knew it and tried to help by picking up the tempo shamelessly.
The maestro screamed, “Lady, what are you doing?” She panicked and mistakenly turned two pages a few measures before the high C, and then she managed to drop the book on the floor. The maestro unleashed his fury on her. It took her several minutes to gather herself.
Those few minutes made a big difference to me. Somehow, I relaxed my breathing and composed myself. Oxygen is a good thing at that altitude. After plenty of complaining in Italian, the maestro asked the accompanist to pick it up where she left off.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and sang a flawless high C. Nobody, including myself, saw that coming. The crowd went crazy. The accompanist stopped in disbelief. In the midst of all that noise, the maestro threw his hands up in the air as if to say “I give up.” Then he clapped and gave me one of those warm Pavarotti smiles.
“Bravo, tenor!” he said. There was plenty of kindness in him, even on a bad day. That day I became a tenor.
Thank you, Maestro.
* Visit Juan’s site
* Read more about Luciano Pavarotti
* Learn about “Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias”