I saw Pavarotti sing "Pagliacci" at Carnegie Hall 15 years ago and it was pretty good. The great man was a good hundred pounds over his fighting weight and he perspired heavily, but when it came time for him to stand and deliver "Vesti la giubba," he did it big, a cry from the heart with a sob in the voice that a tenor from, say, Minnesota or Iowa would find it hard to match, and the audience cried out in admiration, as it should, and stood and clapped and the great man bowed, hand over his heart, and grinned gamely -- he was, after all, playing a guy who is about to stab his wife and her lover -- and then we all sat down.
It was a good moment, like seeing the 51-year-old Gordie Howe finesse a goal for the Whalers or the Everly Brothers knock out "Bye Bye Love" in their late 60s, and we walked out onto 57th Street that night feeling vindicated, that the champ had come through for us. Some years later, old but still game, he came to St. Paul with his Three Tenors show and filled the hockey arena and did "Nessun dorma" in his regular key and sent the folks home with tears in their eyes, which is what a tenor should do. When tenors sing, it isn't about weight reduction or the benefits of a program of regular exercise. It's about tragedy and despair and glory.
In the real world, if you discover that your wife is fooling around with somebody, you probably yell at her, slam the door and walk away -- hey, she wants the baritone, let her have the baritone. Take a pill. Don't pick up that knife, pal. Join our group, Ordinary Persons Enduring Relentless Adversity. We meet on Tuesday nights and talk about issues that otherwise might turn into a big aria.
The great tenor stood and sobbed in our behalf, all of us who don't weep so much and when we do it isn't particularly artistic. Men, for example. Women can weep with great expressive range and tone quality -- when my wife weeps, it brings tears to my eyes, especially if I'm the cause -- but with men, there's no grandeur to it at all, just some groaning and precipitation and your face turns rubbery and you sit in a dark corner until it passes.
Mine is not a tragic life that I'm aware of, though a few months ago I was trapped next to a talkative drunk at a fundraising dinner party and thought seriously about poisoning his wine and watching him fall face-first into the crême brulée. The reelection of the Current Occupant was a tragedy but such a dull, predictable one, like driving your car into a swamp and getting stuck, that nobody could possibly sing about the pain of it all.
In fact, the times I've wanted to plant my feet and sing in my upper register and sob in Italian have all been for the exquisite grief of being a dad. Romantic turmoil is a picnic compared to the emotional turmoil of parenting -- the load of guilt, the sense of incompetence and failure, the night thoughts, the terrible scenarios that come to mind, the agony of watching your child perform in public, the fear of your bright young thing entangled with brainless self-destructive people -- O God! God! God, save my child! From me and from other idiots. My little girl shoots baskets in the driveway and I get tears in my eyes, thinking of her deprived of my protection, as someday she will be. O my darling.
It's a sweet part of growing old to see your own child grow up and take on these sorrows. My boy was a big Van Halen and Mötley Crüe fan and liked other hair bands and then he fell in love with a good woman and they begat two little boys and now he tunes in to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and George Jones. Metal bands say not much at all about daddyhood and country singers say a lot; you can hear it in their voices, just like in Pavarotti's. He died at 71, leaving one small child. This was his tragedy at the end. All that money and acclaim and a great career to look back on, but what he really wanted was 10 more years to see that kid grow up. Dear God, give us more time. The heart weeps at the thought.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.