The Qantas Flight from London to Sydney developed a minor mechanical glitch just prior to landing in Bangkok, Thailand.  As a result the passengers were sent to various hotels in the city for some much needed rest. We certainly needed that as all of you who have travelled long distances know too well.  We had also lost track of time as was very obvious when we were returned to the airport and bundled into a crowded transit hall. Way off, on the far side was a minuscule television set blaring what appeared to be a concert.  It was the 8th July 1990 in Bangkok and we had, unbeknownst to some of us, (nor did we care because tiredness had set in again) witnessed the live transmission of the three tenors concert on the eve of the World Cup-Final in Rome.

The concert was the brain-child of tenor Jose Carreras and Italian producer and entrepreneur Mario Dradi.  In June 1989, after a concert, Carreras suggested the idea of a three tenors concert in which Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and himself, together with Zubin Mehta conducting, performed on the eve of the World Cup Final the following year.  The proceeds of the concert would be channeled into Carreras’ pet charity The Jose Carreras International Leukemia Foundation. Carreras had recently returned to full-time singing following successful treatment for leukaemia.

Dradi immediately set to work.  The Baths at Caracalla were chosen as the venue mainly because it could accommodate approximately an audience of 6,000.  Domingo and Pavarotti agreed to take part immediately. Mehta heard about it first from a newspaper article while performing in Hong Kong and dismissed it as media chatter.  But he too was enthusiastic when approached officially.  

The plan was to use two big orchestras – the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.  It was here that a few glimpses of scepticism started to appear. Dradi always feared that because Rome had been chosen the issues would be political and he was not mistaken.  A week before the performance a Rome councilor fought to have the performance cancelled because it would ‘demean’ the significance of Caracalla and open the venue to rock bands and less ‘worthy’ performers.

Mehta, on the other hand, thought that bringing the three tenors to sing together would create an atmosphere fueled by rivalry between the singers.  Here, he argued, were three world-famous artists used to being king-pins in whatever and wherever they performed and he was afraid that their egos might get in their way of co-operating.  But his doubts were soon erased when the tenors met for their first informal rehearsal in December 1989. They acted ‘like kids’ and joked, high-fived and hugged each other, especially Pavarotti who couldn’t stop smiling.  Plus trying to integrate 2 orchestras into one proved an irritant but not an unsurmountable one. Initially the orchestras were rehearsed separately with one of Mehta’s assistants taking one orchestra through its paces and Mehta the other.  The singers joined on July 4. The orchestra plus their instruments travelled to and from Caracalla twice before the big day. Mehta originally called it ‘The Impossible Dream’ but he need not have worried.

The repertoire chosen for the singers was easily interchangeable, Mehta adds.  Each of the tenors could have easily sung the other’s songs and arias. One of the things that Mehta insisted on, however, was that the tenors had to be seen singing together.  “Otherwise,” he argued, “you might have just had them singing their individual repertoire and the result could have then been incorporated into the concert.”

Lalo Schifrin, an Argentine-born composer/arranger who lived in the USA was called on to arrange a medley of songs which included songs from the participating teams in the World Cup Final.  The latter were sung in their original tongue. And so we got Memories from Cats representing England, La Vie en Rose representing France, Ochi Tchorniye representing Russia,  and a plethora of songs, including O Sole Mio, representing Italy.  The finale was climaxed by the singing of Nessun Dorma with its resounding ‘Vincero’ as its climactic flourish.

As we all know the concert was not only a resounding success but the Decca recording on CD, VHS and DVD became the best-selling classical album of all time and led to additional performances at three other World Cup Finals.  Around 1.3 billion viewers worldwide watched the Los Angeles performance in 1994, followed by performances in Paris in 1998 and 2002 in Yokohama. Their last performance together was in 2003 in Columbus, Ohio.

The only criticism came after the concert.  Each tenor supposedly received around one million dollars per concert and they were accused of being motivated more by money than for any artistic merit.  Pavarotti, when asked, replied: “We make the money we deserve. We’re not forcing someone to pay us.”  

Pavarotti, however was accused by some of receiving more than his fellow tenors for his appearance in Caracalla.  He firmly denied this. Later, after his death, Pavarotti’s former agent wrote that Decca did pay Pavarotti 1.5 million dollars more than his colleagues.

Be that as it may, the memories of that first concert still reverberate around the world and will continue for some time.