Pavarotti? So what
Judy Meewezen fears no warm welcome awaits the tenor on his return to Wales
Wednesday 05 July 1995
Gethin Davies, chairman of the 49th Eisteddfod, has completed negotiations for the great tenor's return to Llangollen this week. "We didn't go into too much detail about his last visit, but Pavarotti's enthusiasm for Llangollen is undeniable," says Mr Davies, whose involvement with the Eisteddfod began in 1953.
Pavarotti will find the small town very much as it was 40 years ago, snuggling up to the River Dee, its population of 3,000 now heavily dependent on tourists attracted by the picturesque scenery, steam trains and canal boats and the legendary second-hand bookshop on Castle Street. But if he emerges from the vast machinery that surrounds him, he might be saddened to find that his visit is not uniformly welcome. It's nothing personal, they whisper, he's probably very nice, but the enormity of it all is at odds with the heart and purpose of the Eisteddfod.
Founded in 1947 to develop new relationships with Europe, the International Musical Eisteddfod has developed into a masterpiece of community effort, planned by an army of committees and boards drawn from Llangollen and environs. Though still dependent on the goodwill of local people, the festival has changed since the days when any sight of a foreigner sent a thrill through the valley and the floral committee sought high and low for ammunition boxes to hold its posies of foxgloves and cypress.
The white marquee where Pavarotti first sang has been replaced by a pounds 3.5m pavilion, a white elephant of steel and canvas that can hold 4,500 people, but does so only once or twice a year. Around the pavilion, blue and white tents appear during Eisteddfod week with facilities and craft shops that help visitors, but make town shopkeepers bristle. Down on Castle Street, Gwyn Davies, quality butcher, scarcely notices Eisteddfod week apart from the bunting and extra traffic.
"We used to have a window at the front and people couldn't get enough of our pies," his wife, Heather, says, "but visitors to the Eisteddfod don't come into town like they used to, so we don't bother these days." And Pavarotti? "His visit is bound to be good for Llangollen. I've heard that he and his entourage are taking over three hotels in the valley. But I don't know what he's like as a singer. There's a guy who delivers meat here in a van; now he's got a voice on him!"
The official voice of Llangollen is one of gracious welcome to its famous visitors but there is scepticism at large about Pavarotti's visit, and a sadness in committees that run the Eisteddfod. Mary Evans, church organist and director of the Llangollen Chorale, would rather hear a good Welsh tenor any day: "I've got a season ticket, but I shan't go to see him."
The trouble is that a season ticket isn't enough. You need pounds 85 extra, plus booking fee, to see Pavarotti. "My guest house is full for the week, as usual," says Mrs Evans, "but nobody will have any money left to spend in the shops".
In part, the discontent is connected with the quality of local music. Three of the country's best male choirs are within a few miles of the town. Here, a good voice is treated as a valued gift, but with all the modesty of the Methodist tradition, nobody makes a fuss about it. A leading tenor in the Froncysllte choir is John Haddy, keeper of sheep and horses and owner of a guest house. Mr Haddy is on the musical committee of the Eisteddfod and his responsibility is to record every choir in every session so cassettes can be on sale three hours after the applause has died down. With 61 groups from all over the world performing non-stop from Tuesday to Saturday, things can get hectic. Tapes will be rushed to the gymnasium, where digital editing facilities have been installed. Mr Haddy, who has access to a port-hole in the side of the pavilion, may be the only person to see every event. Will he record Pavarotti?
"Oh, no. The promoters will bring their own engineers, and I believe tapes will be available for our archive. We are trying for 90 seconds for our video round-up. We'd like to film him doing a walkabout among volunteers, but I'm not overly optimistic."
If there is a conflict in Llangollen this week, it has nothing to do with Pavarotti the individual, nor even Pavarotti the star. It's the collision between the machinery that accompanies a star and the goodwill and endeavour that create the event. Even Gethin Davies says it's not the music that's important. "What matters to people, what keeps them going," he says, "is their devotion to the idea of a community working together."
Apart from some marketing people, nobody at the Eisteddfod is paid. Visitors pay for their fares and receive free accommodation. Mr Haddy will play host to the choir from Pavarotti's home town. Such is the international music business these days, however, that few of them will see the concert by their former member.
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