Divas die, but opera must go on

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The Independent Online
'MR ZABAGLIONE, you are without doubt the greatest living opera tenor in the world today,' began Roderick Hands, editor of Living Opera. It was the way he began every interview with any living opera tenor. It seemed to give them a childish pleasure. Sometimes it was nearly true. In the case of Zabaglione, the 17st miracle man from Milan, it was, actually, very nearly true. Or had been once.

'It is kind of you to say so, and it may even have been true once,' twinkled Zabaglione. It was what he said to everyone who called him the world's greatest living tenor, which he truly thought he still was.

'And yet you often hear it said,' said Roderick Hands, 'that we no longer have great opera, only great opera stars. What do you think of that?'

Zabaglione, who had heard it said often, and indeed had often said it himself, spread his hands wide. There was no other way he could spread his hands but wide, given his shape.

'Opera is bigger than its stars,' he said. 'However big we are, we are only the servants of opera. We are stars, yes, but the light comes from opera. One day we wll all be gone, we opera stars, but opera will live on, shining like the sun.'

Roderick yawned discreetly. He had heard all this before. All big opera stars used the word 'we' as if they were just one of a big regiment of stars. How odd, then, that they never referred to the other stars by name. Other stars seemed to exist en masse, but never singly. It was a convention among interviewers that they never asked one great opera star about another, individ

ual, opera star. But for once Roderick felt inclined to ignore the convention.

'When you say 'we', when you are talking about all your fellow stars, who do you think of as being your nearest rivals? You are, of course, the greatest. But who are your heirs?'

'I have no rivals,' said the man they call Zab, who had often been asked this question before. He liked the idea that people out there called him Zab. You could not be the world's greatest living tenor, not even in the world's top 20 living tenors, without a familiar nickname. Conductors who had nicknames were, of course, also a threat. But they were two a penny. Danny Barenboim. Lenny Bernstein. But an opera singer with a nickname. That was class.

'I have no rivals, only colleagues and friends. We all work together for opera. Rifiuti. Farfalle. Me. We all work together.'

This was not quite true. He, Rif and Farf had all worked together, yes. But only once. On one television programme. They had all put their arms round each other, rather in the way that boxers do after a fight. Then they had separated and gone their different ways.

'Rifiuti, Farfalle and me, we are like that,' said Zabaglione, holding up his hands wide, his fingers spread wide. Roderick did not know what that meant. Nor did he dare ask him. But it did not look like a symbol of togetherness. 'Together we fight for opera, to bring it to the people, to those who have not heard opera before, who are now for the first time discovering it. These are my people.'

It was at this point that Roderick felt he should ask about Zab's notorious habit of not turning up. If these were his people, why did he let them down so often? Oh, well, he thought, it's been such a boring interview so far - let's go for it.

'If they are your people, why does it so often happen that you fail to turn up?'

This did not shock Zabaglione. It was a question he had often been asked. He opened his eyes wide, spread his hands, looked instinctively for the camera to smile at before remembering that this was a magazine interview and there was no camera, and said: 'They are my people. They know how hard I work. They expect only my best. They also know that if I cannot give of my best, I will not offer them anything less. I owe this to opera. And now, I must go. My concert is in two hours' time. Thank you. You have been wonderful.'

Two hours later the concert was cancelled. This was not, as usual, because Zabaglione had failed to show up. This time, for the first time, it was because Zabaglione's audience had failed to turn up. Later the audience issued a statement, in which it said it did not feel on good form that evening, and that it did not think it would give of its best, so it had decided to cancel its appearance. It was all for the sake of opera. What Zab had to say about the cancellation is not known.