Pavarotti in the Land of Song

How a slim Italian trainee teacher became convinced he had a voice to enchant the world
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The Independent Online

Never again was he to be so self-effacing. In the old black-and-white photograph of Modena's amateur male voice choir, Luciano Pavarotti is dead centre but right at the back. He seems no larger than anyone else in the Societa Corale Gioachino Rossini, and the only familiar features are the bushy black eyebrows. The man whose great belly dominates the picture is his father, Fernando, scowling out at the camera from the front row.

The picture was Pavarotti's souvenir from the event that gave him a first inkling that life might hold more than primary school teaching, door-to-door insurance selling or accounting – the respectable jobs into which his factory worker mother was determined to cram her ungainly son.

The year was 1955, and Pavarotti padre e figlio had ventured far from Modena to the Welsh town of Llangollen to compete in its international eisteddfod. Pavarotti was 19 and training to be a teacher. His father, a baker and a keen amateur tenor all his life, was a mainstay of the choir. For both men, singing was no more than an exhilarating hobby.

But the lads from north Italy came first – to general astonishment, as Pavarotti told the tale later. In 1995, he went back to Llangollen to share his memories of the event. "Forty years ago," he said, "my God it seems to be just yesterday for me. I have done so many things ... When the journalists ask me what was the most memorable day in my life, I always say that it is when I won this competition because it was with all my friends." Then Pavarotti brought his father Fernando on stage. "He is stronger than me and has a voice more brilliant than mine," he went on. "At least that's what he thinks." Fernando died only five years ago.

Back in 1955, young Pavarotti and three other singers boarded with Alice Griffiths in the village of Froncysyllte, not far from Llangollen, in North Wales

"I remember well the house I stayed in," he said. "All the way from Italy I was exercising my English. But when we were brought to the house to meet the family, I understand not a word. I did not know there was such a language as Welsh."

The chief executive of the Llangollen eisteddfod, Gwyn Williams, confirmed that the Modena choir's success had inspired Pavarotti to turn professional. "He once said that if he could win the first prize with a small choir from Modena, he could do anything," said Mr Williams. "And that was his attitude to singing all his life."

The Llangollen organisers hoped that Big Luciano would return for one last concert during his farewell tour but it was not to be. During his illness Mr Williams contacted the singer's agent and asked her to tell Pavarotti that he was in their thoughts. "Someone once said he had the sun in his voice and they were right," he said. "This is a very sad day."