The Three Tenors

Three-tenor mania has proved that some people just can't get too much of a bad thing. Back in 1990, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Big Daddy Luciano Pavarotti teamed up at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome for a concert that featured war-horse arias, creaky Neapolitan songs and bad renditions of American pop music. Who anointed them the three tenors (as if there are no other tenors in the world) is a mystery, but as a marketing and publicity ploy, it worked. A little too well, as it turned out. There was a video and a CD from that concert (the best-selling classical disc ever). The trio assembled again in 1994 at L.A.'s Dodger Stadium. Naturally, there was another CD and a video. In 1996, the triumvirate got together for their biggest extravaganza yet: a four-continent tour that began in Tokyo last June and wraps up March 16 at Houston's Astrodome.Each singer will pocket about $10 million from the tour. The conductor, James Levine, will take home about $500,000 for each performance.So what's wrong with this picture? The money? Not really. When entertainers with microscopic talent rake in millions, and churlish, sweaty athletes haul in obscene salaries, I can't begrudge opera singers a few million. After all, they work their tails off training their voices, and they're entitled to some recompense. What is wrong, though, is that these singers have an artistic responsibility to their fans, and they're shirking it. Shamelessly. Artists are supposed to expand the horizons of their listeners. Singing "O Sole Mio," "Nessun Dorma" or "My Way" over and over just doesn't cut it.At their televised Giants Stadium concert last July, the tenors repeated several of the tunes they sang at the first program in Rome. Is their repertoire really that puny? True, audiences love to hear familiar works, but they like to be challenged with fresh material too. Furthermore, they should be challenged. Some have argued that the tenors have won over converts to classical music. Maybe so, but they've also disillusioned many of their fans. People know exactly what to expect from them: predictable songs and arias, predictably sung. They've lowered listeners' expectations by churning out the same old same old.And how can the tenors do justice to their art by performing in stadiums? The music is miked to the max, and most spectators can't even see the singers, who have to be magnified on big screens. It's true that Enrico Caruso performed in the bullring in Mexico City, but that was a dinky venue compared with this tour's, which includes stadiums seating tens of thousands.The tenors claim they're bringing art to the masses (the first two televised concerts collectively were watched by 2 billion viewers), but the fact is that most ordinary folks can't afford a decent ticket to hear them. At the New Year's Eve concert in Vancouver, tickets ranged from $45 to $650, with "premier seating" going for $1,700 and $2,000. Where were the $45 tickets, in Edmonton? You don't need binoculars for these shows, you need a telescope. I like pop music, but it's best performed by pop singers. Most opera singers put too much into romantic ballads, and the effect is like bringing in the National Guard to nab a shoplifter. Not one of these tenors can put across a pop song convincingly. I'd much rather listen to Mabel Mercer, Rosemary Clooney or Nat King Cole caress a song's lyrics than hear the Big Three destroy "Maria" from West Side Story with their bombastic blaring.And if they're going to sing pop music, why don't these well-heeled warblers hire a coach to correct their atrocious English diction? Singing "moon reever" and "I deed it my way" is patently absurd. American singers who butchered Italian or Spanish would never get away with this.Pavarotti has said several times that he doesn't apologize for singing popular music. He ought to, because he can't do it. He's destroyed many a song both by himself and with the dubious help of such crooners as Bryan Adams, Sting and Liza Minnelli. Not to detract from the veritable talents of each of the three tenors. I've heard them individually, and they were far better alone than together (although they are stretching their careers far past their prime).Even at 61, Pavarotti's instrument is bright and sumptuous, but his voice isn't as reliable as it used to be, and it's showing signs of strain. Domingo, who turns 56 this month, has a velvety voice that can be downright thrilling, but his career as a conductor is gaining steam, and he's singing less. Carreras, the youngest at 50, is in the worst shape vocally. He pushed his once-golden voice beyond its capacity by taking on roles that were too demanding, and developed an irritating wobble at the top of his register. In short, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. What is most insidious about this three-tenor phenom is that it has spawned other "threes," most notably the Three Sopranos concert, which was recorded last September in L.A. and aired recently on PBS. And just who are these three canaries? Nobody you've likely heard of: Cynthia Lawrence, Kathleen Cassello and Kallen Esperian. They're up-and-coming singers with beautiful instruments, but they have no business passing themselves off as the three sopranos. I couldn't help thinking as I watched this trio (with necklines that were lower than a whale's belly) that they looked like the three tenors in drag.They even stole their moldy material. After sleepwalking through a few chestnut arias, they trespassed on tenor territory, including "Grenada," then launched into a few tepid renditions from Broadway musicals. Of course there's a CD of the concert. Can you detect a pattern here? What's next-- two altos and one baritone? One mezzo and two basses? Don't laugh; the CD bins are filled with takeoffs on the three tenors theme: Three Tenors from the Golden Age, even The Three Countertenors. CBC Radio even aired a spot called "The Three Canadian Tenors." When will the madness end?Perhaps soon. This tour hasn't been a huge hit. In Vancouver, squabbles between the producer and promoter almost canceled the show. But many say anemic ticket sales were the real reason for the near cancellation.According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, tickets were discounted as much as 80 percent in an effort to perk up sales. Tickets went like cold hotcakes in some other towns. It sounds like an ideal time for the Big Three to sing their collective swan song and hang up their ancient act. After all, younger tenors like Ben Heppner and Marcello Giordani deserve a few rays of the spotlight.But alas, no such luck. The unholy trinity say they'll reunite in 1998 for a concert at soccer's World Cup in Paris. Kick me when it's over.

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