Dowtcha, boy! It’s Pavarotti in Cork...

The world's most famous opera singer gave his first Irish performance in 1957 at the Cork International Choral Festival. THOMAS LONG revisits the occasion
Dowtcha, boy! It’s Pavarotti in Cork...

Pavarotti.

IN the photograph, the handsome young man is standing proudly among his fellow choir singers, taking centre stage among a sea of faces.

For 21-year-old Luciano Pavarotti, centre stage would be a place he would remain for the remainder of his glittering career as perhaps the most famous opera singer who ever lived.

But when this photo was taken, all that lay ahead of the young Italian, as he gave his first performance in Ireland, at the Cork lnternational Choral Festival in 1957.

Tho Holly Bough unearthed the picture from the Echo archives this year and can now tell the story for the first time of when the legendary Pavarotti thrilled the audiences of Cork.

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The Choral Festival had been founded three years earlier, in 1954, and suffered a blow a year later when the Cork Opera House burned down. However, the show went on in the ensuing years, as Cork City Hall accommodated the annual visit by singers from around the world.

In 1957, organisers invited a male voice choir called Societa Corale Gioachino Rossini, from Modena city in northern Italy, to attend. Among the group was an amateur tenor called Fernando Pavarotti and his son Luciano, then 21.

The father and son had begun singing together in a small church choir when Luciano was a small boy and, after abandoning his dream of becoming a soccer goalkeeper, he began taking an avid interest in singing, influenced by stars like Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza.

In 1955, a teenage Luciano and the Corale Rossini attended the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales, and won first prize.

Pavarotti at Cork City Hall.
Pavarotti at Cork City Hall.

Two years later, Pavarotti came to Cork with the choir and performed in the show-stopping final slot of the Choral Festival on Friday night, May 24, 1957, to great acclaim. The group won the International Trophy and £75, as the sole entrant in the international section for male voice choirs of not less than 18 voices.

The Examiner’s reviews were effusive in their praise: “If Cork has one corner of its heart softer than any other for visiting choirs, that niche is reserved for the Italians. We do not forget our friends from Grosetto (a province in Tuscany) in 1954 and 1955. They were not with us this time; their place was taken by the 45-male voice choir from Modena, Corale Gioachino Rossini.

“This choir was given the place of honour, that of the last to sing in this 1957 Festival, and to say they deserved it and filled it as no other choir could is a complete understatement.

“When they sang a song of their native district, a gloriously voiced tenor taking the solos, the audience almost went wild with excitement, and this, followed by a chorus from the Verdi opera, Ernani. put the audience in a most demanding mood. With such singing available, everybody was prepared to wait until Tibb’s Eve if necessary for the results.” (Tibb’s Eve is a now largely defunct folk expression for a day that will never arrive).

It wasn’t just on the City Hall stage that the Italian choir wowed the locals. When they went for lunch in the Savoy restaurant in Cork, they responded to many requests to sing by contributing renditions, reported the Irish Independent.

The choir also paid a visit to Lord Mayor of Cork, Alderman Sean Casey, at City Hall on the Saturday, and presented him with a certificate of honorary membership.

The Lord Mayor said: “I regard this as an honour from your people to mine and I am deeply grateful,” adding with a smile: “I am glad, however, that it is honorary membership, as I am afraid that my voice would not be of much help to any choir!

“But I will cherish this certificate as a reminder of the pleasure which I experienced in welcoming you here.”

The choir sang at 12 o’clock mass at St Patrick’s Church on the Sunday, before heading home.

There are conflicting reports on whether the Italians stayed in a hotel or were put up in the homes of Cork people during their visit.

Holly Bough reader Pat McManus said: “I heard a gentleman on the radio some years ago who talked about Pavarotti staying in his house, somewhere on the northside, as Cork families hosted the international choirs. How thrilling was that!”

Pavarotti and the other dashing young singers certainly left an impression on many of the young ladies of Cork in 1957 (see panel below).

When ‘The Maestro’ was asked years later about his memories of Cork, his response was that he remembered it well because of all the beautiful girls and the hills!

At the height of his fame, during the World Cup in his home country of Italy in 1990, when Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma was ringing out fron TV sets across Ireland and the world, the tenor was asked about his memories of performing in Cork by Irish journalists.

He described the city as “bella bella”, recalled its “continental air of gaity”, and wished that year’s Choral Festival all the best success.

He added of Cork: “What beautiful parties, what beautiful girls.”

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In the years after Pavarotti appeared in Cork, he rose to stardom, then to superstardom, but Ireland remained close to his heart.

In 1963, he made his professional UK debut at Belfast’s Grand Opera House. It was also his first time performing in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

The tenor’s performances at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, in the role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto in 1963, and in La Traviata and La Boheme in 1964, under the auspices of the Dublin Grand Opera Society, led to his first role at London’s renowned Covent Garden.

Pavarotti returned to sing in Dublin in 1979, and again while at the peak of his powers in 1990, when seats at the RDS sold for £100 a pop.

He sold more than 100 million records, and the first Three Tenors recording — alongside Spaniards Plácido Domingo and José Carreras — became the best-selling classical album of all time. Pavarotti died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.

Thanks to Serena Belladelli of the Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti — a museum in his former home in the city of Modena in northern Italy — for identifying him in the photo.

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