There's no such thing as a natural tenor. The register – highest of the male voice classifications – is the product of rigorous training, hours spent learning to control breath and pitch. Unlike baritones and sopranos – who can, to an extent, sing from instinct – tenors do not have the luxury of singing in their natural range.
A tenor must always perform. The best tenors deliver their learned voice as if it was their own, blurring the lines between performance and personality. In doing so, they become luminaries of the opera house whose names – Pavarotti, Caruso, Gigli – carry weight the world over. In toeing the line between high (Soprano) and low (Baritone), the tenor becomes the keystone around which the entire operatic work is built: occupying a role as important as it is pressurised.
Luciano Pavarotti is perhaps the most famous of these tenors. For many, mere mention of the word 'Opera' calls his name to mind. The man’s charm, charisma, and impressive ability to hit the high-C earned him a level of renown on par with the biggest of pop stars. He brought opera to the masses.
If Pavarotti's voice was in any way unnatural, there was no way of knowing.
Ron Howard’s latest film pays homage to the late singer, employing a generous lens to cast a warm and informative light on the acclaimed tenor’s life and career. Howard’s take on Pavarotti is, much like the singer himself, light-hearted, doughy and largely uncontroversial. In the spirit of the tenor, it toes the line.
While more cynical filmmakers would have dug into the darkest corners of Pavarotti's life, Howard leaves these spaces largely untouched. If he includes any potentially degrading material, e.g. an account of Pavarotti’s diva-like antics, he does so only briefly, as means to humanise an otherwise superhuman figure.
For the bulk of the film, Howard shamelessly embraces the themes that earned his subject matter the adoration of millions (as well as the derision of a critical few). Mirroring Pavarotti's amiable personality and the earnest content of opera itself, Howard’s film deals in simple, broad-based emotions: joy, romance, sadness and hope.
The filmmaker’s limited yet brightly coloured emotional palette paints Pavarotti's picture as the world remembers him – an evidently likable fellow with the heart of a child, the smile of a movie star and a voice bright enough to blind the listener to its owner’s faults. The audience has no choice but to love the man.
Certainly Howard’s decision to avoid merciless realism in favour of a rounded tenderness sacrifices substantial facets of Pavarotti’s story, but the director’s approach is by no means disingenuous. If anything, Howard established a riveting tension between the natural – Pavarotti unfiltered – and the performed – Pavarotti in spotlight - by hiding unflattering realities of Pavarotti’s character beneath a glistening portrayal.
As a result, the film, with a tone both middling and pleasing to the ear, trembles with feeling. Like Pavarotti himself, it embraces the tenor’s unnatural register, tuning its own fiction until the performance sings true, rarely missing a note.