Since then the Three Tenors, as they are everywhere known, have become classical music's hottest act. The concert album of the Rome event sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S. alone, an opera milestone. By the time the Three Tenors held their second concert, at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium in 1994 (to a crowd of 60,000), the television audience exceeded 1 billion. A world tour followed, and last year the singing showmen performed at venues from Brazil's Morumbi Stadium to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. They sell records and they sell out arenas, for which the top tickets can cost as much as $385.
That night at the Baths of Caracalla started a revolution. Concertgoers have since been invited to worship trios of Irish tenors, Chinese tenors, countertenors, African-American tenors, plus triads of basses and sopranos. None has measured up to the originals.
Yet Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras are in or approaching their 60s and will soon need walking frames to reach those high Cs. So what happens when the fat lady finally sings? The world's major record companies have embarked on a mad, expensive scramble to locate and groom the musicians that could succeed the Titanic Trio. If the teams creation was the big music event of the 1990s, the search for the New Three Tenors is the story of the current decade.
First on the scene was the French-born Roberto Alagna, who had people talking about "the new Pavarotti" with his 1990 performance in La Traviata at Milan's La Scala. When, six years later, he married the sensational young Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, you could almost hear record company executives cheer. By Three Tenors standards, however, the couple's sales have disappointed. Alagna's label, EMI, is reluctant to disclose figures, but according to music retailer HMV, his best showingan album of duets with Gheorghiusold no more than 70,000 copies in Britain. Critically overshadowed by his wife, Alagna and his voice seem to be showing the pressure. Says Rupert Christiansen, opera critic of Britain's Daily Telegraph, "He greedily clings to every top note and may now have permanently damaged his voice."
Another candidateJosé Cura, a moodily good-looking Argentinian who is a Domingo protégé and Warner Music's great hopemay have taken himself out of contention. His is a warm, dramatic voice, but the New York Times castigated his "crude musicianship." Stunts like Cura's 1999 Royal Festival Hall recital, when he conducted his own arias, have led to a reputation for egotism and headlines like "the Ego Has Landed" (The Independent on his "posturing" London Otello). Cura now says he is "a serious artist, not interested in marketing clichés like who will succeed the Three Tenors." He has the voice to be a great singer, but at 38and dogged by accusations that he is more concerned with celebrity than with honing his vocal techniquehis time is running out.
The last year has seen the music world excited by two new voices, both snapped up by Sony: another Argentinian, Marcelo Alvarez, and the Italian Salvatore Licitra. Alvarez, however, has a voice too light for the supertenors' territory of arenas and stadiums, and Licitra is still unprovedalthough recent performances at La Scala have set music critics writing things like "Not since Pavarotti É"
Still, it is proving difficult to find one new voice, let alone three. So recording companies like Universal, which issued the first Three Tenors' concert album, are plotting a different tenor-marketing strategy. Andrea Bocelli, a true crossover artist, releases a pop album for every classical disc he issues. The blind Italian's pop recording debut Romanza sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. His recent disc of Verdi arias sold 75,000 during Christmas week alone. Yet it is difficult to shake the suspicion that his blindness has, in marketing terms, contributed to his success. Universal predictably denies it, but Bocelli is not taken seriously by the opera world: in a summer production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Montepulciano Festival in Italy, a comic tenor role was cruelly depicted as blind with a white stick. There were big laughs.
Universal's new star Russell Watson, a British soccer fan who was first noticed singing Nessun dorma before a Manchester United football match, has no significant professional operatic experience. As in the case of Bocelli, hardly anyone knows what his voice sounds like outside a recording studio or an amplified sports stadium. Yet Kevin Gore, president of Universal Classics, sees him as the latest key to the cash tills. "Russell is a phenomenal communicator," says Gore, "and that ability to communicate with an audience unfamiliar with your music is what makes stars of all of these big-selling artists." A major U.S. launch is set for Watson in April. Gore promises that "The Voice," as he is marketed, will be seen "everywhere in America. Basketball games, football games, unexpected places all over the country." Evidently not including opera houses.
Record company executives argue that the popular success of the Three Tenors, Bocelli and even Britain's child soprano Charlotte Church lead a new public to the classical mainstream. Many industry watchers disagree. "The real Three Tenors revolution is a new ethos of corporate thinking," says Christiansen. "It has become like Hollywood. There is massive pressure on the majors to replicate their success and so artists are not being allowed to develop their identities naturally. It's stifling talent."
It's a trend that worries mainstream classical performers. The star cellist Julian Lloyd Webber talks of a "vicious circle." Says he: "The way the record companies are working now is dangerous. When you go over and over the same Verdi and Puccini tunes, you shrink the repertoire and the industry constricts." In other words, by ignoring new classical music, by burying their budgets in the past, the record companies might be endangering their future.
A warning bell sounded last year when the giant BMG Classics began to offload several of its most famous artists, including the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. There was speculation that when company sales failed to justify inflated costs of pop-star-like promotions, which can exceed $500,000, the management cried, "Re-structure." BMG declines to comment.
The search for the next supertenors accents fears within the classical record industry that its efforts to ape the pop world might bring disasters of operatic proportions. For record bosses the result could be, as the famous aria from Puccini's Turandot has it, Nessun dorma: nobody sleeps.