IT IS not everyone who can say they met the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. It is fewer again who can tell of meeting him twice, and fewer still can boast of having received career guidance from the master.
Irish tenor Finbar Wright can boast of all three of the above mentioned, and those encounters with Pavarotti have inspired the Corkonian’s new multi-media show - Finbar Wright Celebrates Pavarotti - which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Friday February 21 at 8pm.
Pavarotti & I
Although his introduction to the world of classical music came via piano lessons, Finbar Wright admits to having “fallen into singing naturally from a very young age”. “I suppose somebody decided I had a voice and it was a voice people didn’t find unpleasant,” he laughs during our Tuesday morning interview.
It was at university though, where he became involved in choral groups, that his passion for singing started to become more serious. “I was studying in Maynooth and ended up being the senior cantor in the college in charge of liturgical music,” he says. “I also got the chance to study in Spain, where they have a very rich musical culture, and from all that I started to think about being a solo tenor.”
The die was ultimately cast when Finbar attended a recital to be given by Luciano Pavarotti. “That was 1979,” Finbar recalls. “It was at The Gaiety Theatre. A friend of mine got tickets and afterwards he took me around to meet Pavarotti. We were just chatting generally and I told him how interested I was in singing.”
Upon hearing this, Pavarotti told the aspiring young singer that he should learn to sing Italian songs.
“He said the Italian language is a good way to train the voice,” says Finbar, “as the vowels sound pure and open and lend themselves very easily to singing. He said singing Italian songs will ‘automatically improve your voice’. He was absolutely right. From once I started solo training I was singing Italian song from the beginning. They are a standard part of the repertoire.”
What kind of impression did Pavarotti make on Finbar during that first meeting? “He was very charming, very warm,” he recalls, “and he was beginning to put on weight. He was very affable, very big hearted. And he was the real performer in everything he did, even off stage.
“I think that came from his childhood. He was born in Modena and in his childhood grew up in a block of flats. He was the darling of all the mothers there, as he would stand up on tables and sing for them. That stayed with him. He loved to have people around him, and loved to be adored.”
Fast forward to 1989 and Pavarotti is a major international star, about to ascend even further with the ‘Nessun Dorma’ hit single and the Three Tenors concert with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras for the Italia 90 World Cup, on the horizon. Finbar is also on the cusp of his tenor career, the release of his debut album Because just months away. It was at this point that the two men’s paths crossed again.
“I met him briefly that second time,” Finbar says. “He came back to the RDS. He was a huge worldwide star at this stage. He rehearsed in the National Concert Hall and I got to meet him there. I reminded him of the advice he had given me 10 years before, and he said, sort of joking, ‘Now when you sing the Italian songs you will always think of Luciano.’”
It was Finbar’s experiences with Pavarotti that gave him the idea for this current tour. Given the show is a multi-media presentation, what can audiences expect to see, as well as hear, on the night?
“We take people through Pavarotti’s life,” he says. “There will be visuals and narration and images and video clips from his life from when he was born, and a lot of the songs will come out of that - I’ve always loved that repertoire - and we’ll look at the collaborations he did as well. He recorded two wonderful albums with Henry Mancini [‘Pink Panther’ and ‘Moon River’ composer] that brought out the very funny side of Pavarotti. Those albums are full of colourful arrangements and lushness as only Mancini could do.”
While Pavarotti’s greatness is beyond doubt, how would Finbar assess just where he should be placed in the pantheon of great opera singers?
“Once I started to study opera, listening to Pavarotti was one of the natural things you did,” he says. “He is the ideal singer/tenor of the modern age. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Pavarotti is the focus of study for opera singers. He had incredible technique. He developed his own particular sound with his voice with the line he established from top to bottom being a continuous strong and clear one.”
The Arsenal connection
Like Pavarotti, Finbar is no stranger to collaborations himself, enjoying great success in the USA as part of the The Irish Tenors with Ronan Tynan and Anthony Kearns. However his most unusual collaboration came in 1998, when he met Ian Wright - one of the great Arsenal players of the 1990s and one of the club’s most colourful characters - to record ‘Our Goal’, an official anthem for the Gunners.
“I was recording in London at the time when somebody turned up with the song and asked me to record it!” Finbar laughs. “I was with Ritz Music at the time and they had some kind of connection to Arsenal and they got Ian Wright in to do the narration. I don’t think it’s a great song but it’s a nice piece and was fun to do. But I got a lot of flack from Man United fans for it!”
And what were Finbar’s impressions of Ian Wright? “Ian was very suave and relaxed with a cup of coffee,” he replies. “All footballers are gentlemen when you get them in the right setting.”
Would Finbar still be a keen supporter of Arsenal? “At the time and at secondary school,” he says. “Today I’ve too many distractions to keep a firm hold on all that’s going on, but I do keep an eye on Hull City as [former Cork City midfielder] David Meyler is playing for them and I know his father John very well.”
Finbar is not exaggerating when he talks of “too many distractions”. Once the Finbar Wright Celebrates Pavarotti tour is concluded he returns to the USA to perform with The Irish Tenors, with whom he already concluded “a long tour” in the run up to Christmas.
“I enjoy both the solo and trio formats,” he says, “as both have different repertoire. In America we do a lot of Irish music, which we always perform with an orchestra. When I come to do my own shows, it’s very different as I sing Italian and Spanish opera, and Leonard Cohen. It’s good for my head to do that.”
Tickets for Finbar Wright Celebrates Pavarotti are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie