By Joe Livernois
Call it the Great Slog Through the Bog for Pav in Pebble Beach. And, yeah, I know. Luciano Pavarotti didn’t do rock ‘n’ roll. But I challenge anyone to argue that Pavarotti was not a rock star. Bigger than life, Pavarotti was capable of commanding attention wherever he went. And that unmistakable voice, that great golden voice. He was a bigger rock star than most rock stars.
“He became a titan of pop culture,” wrote the New York Times following his death in 2007. “Millions saw him on television and found in his expansive personality, childlike charm and generous figure a link to an art form with which many had only a glancing familiarity.”
Pavarotti was “King of the High Cs.” He was the cornerstone of the Three Tenors. He shared the stage with Elton John, Sting and Bono during the ‘90s for performances billed as “Pavarotti and Friends.” Face it; he was a rock star.
So it was huge news when word spread in late 1990 that Pavarotti was coming to Pebble Beach on March 17, 1991. Pebble Beach is a world-class destination, sure, but it’s certainly not equipped to handle the sort of crowds the great tenor commanded. It’s a place for golf tournaments and car shows; it’s a playground for the elite. How was it that Pavarotti ended up there to deliver one of the most memorable performances ever staged on the Central Coast?
As it worked out, Tibor Rudas had earlier moved to Monterey County, setting up offices in Pacific Grove. Rudas was, among other things, the entrepreneurial mastermind behind the Three Tenors — the ultimate supergroup, comprised of Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo.
Rudas brought Pavarotti to Pebble Beach to perform a concert accompanied by a local orchestra on March 17, 1991. It all took place in one of those huge event tents erected on the football field at Robert Louis Stevenson School as a benefit for the school.
Perhaps it wasn’t the international star’s greatest performance. He was known to phone it in once in a while; there was always a cloud of critical harrumph among the snobs of classical music but they were mostly drowned out by his outsized personality and his fame. Also, did I mention he was accompanied by a local orchestra? (But at least he showed up. For all his stardom, he had also gained a reputation as the “King of Cancellations” due to various ailments.)
Also, it rained like a terror on March 17, 1991, and the proper Pebble Beach crowd had to tromp through the muck and mire to get to and from the tent. The pelting rain drummed down on the tent throughout the performance.
But Pavarotti didn’t disappoint. An estimated 6,000 tickets were sold for the performance and the rain didn’t keep ticketholders home. A lot of them had to improvise. Marilee Wandke, the wife of RLS headmaster at the time Joe Wandke, remembered that she ended up wearing mud boots and an old outfit to what should have been a fancy event.
“The music was heavenly and Pavarotti was singing and the rain was coming down and the football field was filled with people,” Wandke said in an interview for the RLS magazine. “It was amazing.”
Mac McDonald, the former music writer for the Monterey County Herald, is not an opera buff by any stretch of the imagination, but he was in Pebble Beach that day. “Everyone around me was ecstatic,” he said. “It was quite the ‘event.’ I mean, it was Pebble Beach, it was Pavarotti and it was like the Beatles were performing. I didn’t know opera could be so thrilling.”
Judie Marks, a former resident of Pacific Grove, called the performance “spectacular.” And she noted that “at times it was difficult to tell whether the roar was the rain or the applause.”
Barbara Rose Shuler was also there that day. Reminiscing about that day soon after Pavarotti died in 2007, the classical music writer for the Monterey Herald said that her ultimate Pavarotti moment came during the aria from Verdi’s “Othello.” And she believes it was the high “C” note that set her off.
“When he hit that note, in a scant moment I went from being in a state of passive enjoyment of the music to experiencing a gush of tears,” she wrote. “No emotional build-up or even expectation of emotion preceded this occurrence. Just, boom, tears. I was stunned. What had happened?”
She said she had heard Pavarotti live before and since without breaking down (with one exception, near the end of his life). But that note on that particular day in Pebble Beach did it. “You hear stories of singers vibrating glass until it shatters,” she wrote. “That is what it felt like, a sudden shattering of form.”
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.