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Pavarotti, Big as Life

Fan-oriented book by star's wife holds surprise candor

BOOKS written specifically for fans have a habit of being too easily dismissed by reviewer/critic types. And yet an important part of any entertainment star's allure is the quality and quantity of his or her fans: It has always been true in movies, and even more so - if less evidently - in opera.

Opera, like all performance mediums, is about illusion and the careful creation and maintenance of an image. This area of expertise has long been the province of a slice of the entertainment industry known as public relations. It is a finely tuned business, built on the one-on-one relationship of press agents and feature writers and editors in print journalism (and now, increasingly, with their counterparts in television). Image-sustaining books - authorized life stories - figure prominently, as do glamo rous, coffee-table-type photo albums.

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It goes without saying that Luciano Pavarotti is one of opera's biggest stars. With the help of multiple media, crossover music albums, and the like, he is the most famous opera singer of the day - and probably the century, at least in sheer numbers of people who know of him. He is the only opera singer able to fill sports arenas to capacity for his much-maligned but vastly entertaining evenings of arias.

Not since Maria Callas has an opera star been the focus of so much persistent media attention. Pavarotti's public relations have been orchestrated throughout most of his career by the redoubtable Herbert Breslin, but as Mr. Breslin has often noted, his ability to "sell" Pavarotti has rested on the tenor's special abilities as an artist and communicator.

Pavarotti's is a uniquely giving stage personality. He possesses the uncanny ability to suggest that he is embracing every last member of any given audience. If at times performances verge on being circuslike, particularly in those huge recitals where he parades about with the now-proverbial pillowcase-sized white handkerchief, it is compensated for by his honesty and integrity on stage: Pavarotti gives as much as he has to give each time he faces his public. A man in his position could "cheat" all the t ime and be forgiven, but he almost always chooses not to (notwithstanding a recent flap involving the BBC suing him for lip-syncing an aria at a live concert).

"Pavarotti: Life with Luciano" is written by his wife, Adua. It would be wrong to call it a slavishly adoring effort, but it is very much written for fans. The trend toward the gossip-and-innuendo exposes that seems to have taken over the publishing world may feed a particular public's prurient curiosity, but it adds nothing to the understanding of the subject of the book. In this book, there is some unexpectedly candid talk about the pressures of living with a megastar spouse (and father) and maintainin g any sort of identity around him. There are insights - not necessarily thunderbolts of revelation, but a sense that even this outgoing, generous near-myth is, in fact, human.

The book also serves, in describing his youth, as a reminder of how much the world has changed in nearly 40 years. Pavarotti grew up in sleepy little Modena, Italy, which is now a prospering city.

He saw first-hand the ravages of World War II. His first voice teacher, hearing the potential in Pavarotti's voice, taught him for free. Today's aspiring singers have far fewer physical hardships and receive far less generosity from professionals who theoretically are there to nurture and support young talent but all too often succumb to the lure of ready cash.

The book is a handsome photo album of the tenor at work, at play, and at home. There is a good balance between text and photos. But there are also numerous errors of fact, some in the text, far more in the captions. Sometimes it's just a singer credited but not included in the photo. Sometimes it's the muddying of recent history: Last season's 25th anniversary of the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House is called the 25th anniversary of the founding of the company (now in its 109th season); Pavaro tti is said to have sung Otello at the Met, whereas he sang it in concert at Carnegie Hall.

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These things are not ruinous, but they do allow mis-statements to enter the archives. This problem is now taking on alarming proportions in the publishing world, at least in the areas involved with classical music.

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