OPERA / For a small fee in America: Three Tenors, one ex-President and half of Hollywood: Giles Smith was at Dodger Stadium, too, to watch Saturday night's pre-match warm-up take shape

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The Independent Culture
Five minutes before showtime, the golf cart bringing the conductor Zubin Mehta from his dressing-room to the stage hums softly down the slope at the back of the stadium where, in an incident which may well be unprecedented at a classical recital, it gets stopped by a policeman. The officer steps into the cart's path and growls, in a don't-mess- with-me voice, 'You just wait there.'

Time freezes for an instant on the LAPD cop, in his navy blue uniform, with his grey moustache and scowl, and the groomed and made-up director of the Israel Philharmonic, in white tie and tails, perched straight-backed on a battery-operated buggy. The cop's outstretched palm is inches from the Maestro's nose.

Right in front of them, a six-car convoy swings in and halts in an arc. There's a rapid click and clunk of doors, and the path is suddenly busy with large men in suits, some of them talking into their sleeves, others coming round the cars backwards, eyes scanning. There are two figures at the centre of this whirl - a slight man and a woman with radiant white hair - and the entourage sucks them almost at jogging pace into the auditorium. At which point, the cop backs off and Maestro Mehta is free to proceed. It's his show - but after you, ex-President Bush and Barbara.

At the Three Tenors Concert 1994, the singers were from Spain and Italy, the conductor from India, the music from around the world, but only America could have done the security. Advance publicity implied that there were going to be so many former Presidents of the United States present that the front rows would look like a school wall-chart. And every one of them a sitting target down there on the outfield in Dodger Stadium.

In the last days before the concert, the set constructors were rivalled in number only by the Secret Service representatives. The two fans who had stowed themselves in the stadium's bowels with sleeping bags and food were flushed out late last Wednesday. They were hoping to make it through to Saturday and free admission, but who were they kidding? Even the plastic binoculars, zipped into the special pouch in the special 'Three Tenors' plastic cushion strapped to the special dollars 1,000 seats, came in a bag sealed with a label marked 'Inspected'.

In the event, from Washington it was only George and Barbara - plus Tipper Gore and the Kissingers. But Hollywood was here: Dustin Hoffman, Charlton Heston, Walter Matthau, Gene Kelly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Frank Sinatra, Desmond Lynam. (Des was with Terry Venables, whose summer shirt threatened to drown out some of the quieter passages.) They and everyone else sat and looked into that extraordinary set, with its pillars and its tropical jungle (part painted backdrop, part transported foliage) and its fake rocks and its pair of 60ft waterfalls, and wondered if it would be like last time.

Among all the possible incentives for attempting to re-stage the unprecedented 1990 Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti get-together, it is hard to escape the financial one. The record and video of that eve-of-final show at the Baths of Caracalla in Italy are the most successful classical recordings ever (10 million albums, 1.5 million videos). Yet the tenors themselves saw comparatively little of the money. The initial recital was for charity and they are said to have received a flat fee (dollars 500,000) for the Decca recording.

This time the deal has been put together by Tibor Rudas, a former boy soprano with the Budapest State Opera, later a show producer. Rudas has the interesting distinction of being the first person to promote a classical concert in a casino (the New York Philharmonic under Mehta in Atlantic City, 1979). He also produced Pavarotti's shows in Central Park and Hyde Park and so may be said to be unpersuaded by the belief that classical music is a minority interest. The new record and video deal is with Warner Music's Ahmet Ertegun, a man whose prime expertise is in the pop and rock market.

Rudas is said to have made his first approach to the Three Tenors backstage after that first show. And they are said to have resisted until it became clear that the concert would be held in Los Angeles and they would get to see some football. (Both Domingo and Pavarotti used to play; Carreras is keen; and Mehta spent the first afternoon of orchestra rehearsals watching Brazil vs Sweden.)

Before their co-operation was even guaranteed, Rudas had started spending money. He booked a production manager who had worked on Olympic ceremonies and Papal blessings; he took on Rene Lagler, an Emmy-winning designer; he found a top sound company who could make an airy, concrete baseball stadium take on the acoustic properties of a concert hall (stunningly, as heard from the floor, they managed it); he employed the people who worked on Jurassic Park to paint the backdrops. And when he had finished, the bill was dollars 10m - but that will have been recouped in ticket sales alone, before the record, the video, the TV rights, the book . . . As a headline in the Los Angeles Times last week put it: 'Dough Re Mi'.

But it is clear that money is not the only thing the Three Tenors get out of singing together. At a practice in the stadium last Thursday evening, you sensed the pleasure they take in each other's company, their unaffected friendliness, their ease. Even their rehearsals are a performance: not a vocal one (they were resting their voices, shying away from the big notes, dropping an octave sometimes), but a comedy run-through, with Carreras complaining in a hurt voice about the height of his music stand ('I'm short, but not that short') and all of them indulging in some extended slapstick involving a chair. Meanwhile, behind them, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the LA Music Center Opera Chorus had perfected, just for the hell of it, a Mexican wave. Whatever rivalry there is between them is sublimated as humour. The Three Tenors are opera as pop concert and comedy buddy movie, all in one.

Their status as pop stars is confirmed by the arrangements backstage. Around a rectangle of spongy Astroturf, cordoned off by plants and trellis fencing, sat the tenors' dressing-rooms - not so much Portakabins as Portavillas, beautiful constructions in blue and white with steps up to recessed French windows, lanterns beside the doors. On Saturday afternoon at 4.30, two women were - somewhat incongruously - at an ironing board working on white shirts. Caterers flowed in and out with pots of coffee and trays of extraordinary cake. Also cans of Coke and a rather unpleasant- looking vat of chilli con carne.

Carreras was first to arrive, in a fairly inconspicuous red Lincoln, but accompanied by a considerably less inconspicuous police outrider. True to form, at the entrance to the villas, a security man asked to see his pass. Carreras lowered his shades on to his nose, put his hands palm-outwards and said 'Hey]'. Then he laughed, gave the now utterly baffled security man a two-hand shake and walked by. Minutes later, in bomber jacket and silk scarf, he was driven by golf cart to the stage for rehearsal, followed directly by Placido Domingo, who drove his own cart, slapping his music down on the seat beside him. Pavarotti, who was late, was delivered directly to the stage in his car, easing himself out, huge and stooping in a red flowery shirt, making slowly for the stage, hitching up his baggy black jeans.

As the Tenors rehearsed, the stadium was already filling. At the front, it was evening-dress gridlock. In the bleachers, there were couples in baseball caps holding cardboard trays stacked with foil- wrapped hot dogs and cartons of Coke. Pavarotti sang 'Ave Maria' while a light aircraft circled the stadium, towing a giant airborne Snickers bar. (For the actual concert, Los Angeles airport had agreed to re-route traffic to avoid disturbance.)

Pavarotti headed back to the villas, a white towel wrapped across his face leaving just his round eyes, his mad hair. Carreras was chauffeured back. Domingo once again drove himself, scattering a bunch of policemen with a loud, rounded and rather beautifully projected 'Beep Beep'. When they returned at showtime, Pavarotti and Carreras disappeared into the small tented holding- room at the rear of the stage, while Mehta and Domingo stood under the scenery and Mehta told Domingo how he had passed someone earlier in the day and heard them say: 'There goes Carreras.' They both laughed loudly.

In the show, the audience seemed to start cold but kindled rapidly. Generally the tunes went down better than the arias: Carreras' 'With a Song in my Heart', Domingo's 'Granada'. But Pavarotti's 'Nessun Dorma' and Domingo's 'Amor; vida de mi vida' called on something extra. The bigger responses seemed to go to Pavarotti, who, unlike the other two, shifts his personality up a gear for the stage, opening his arms, using his size, flinging kisses off the palm of his hand. But it was clear that, for a large section of the audience, the individual pieces are just a preamble to the team stuff - 'Brazil' and 'America' and 'My Way'. And by extension, the whole show is a preamble to the encores, when the team stuff cuts up fast and loose. They came back three times, repeating 'Nessun Dorma', and their entire Hollywood medley from the first half, by which time the audience was exultant. The Beatles too played Dodger Stadium; their reception was probably slightly more mixed.

Behind the stage afterwards, there was evident joy and relief. Carreras sped off beaming. Pavarotti found his golf cart stuck behind Ahmet Ertegun, who was moving slowly on crutches. 'Keel heem]' he shouted to his driver. Domingo was in conversation with Henry Kissinger; as he turned from him, the tenor was saying, 'Well, it's going to be a great Final whatever.'

There was no one to impede them on the ride back. The ex-President had already left the building.

(Photographs omitted)