This weekend marks eight years since the death of legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. This past summer was also the 25th anniversary of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. That staging of the Mundial was in many ways seminal for a generation of football fans, particularly those who follow the English game. Outside the sport itself, one of the legacies of Italia ‘90 was the transformation of Pavarotti into a verifiable pop star, as well as the cementing of the inextricable symbolic and metaphoric links between opera and football.
This week, we look back at Pavarotti, Italia ‘90, and the aria that brought opera to the terraces.
For their televised coverage of the tournament, the BBC chose “Nessun Dorma,” from the third act of Puccini’s Turandot, as its theme song. The specific recording was from a 1972 production of the opera, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by the esteemed Zubin Mehta) and vocal performances by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, and some guy you may have heard of named Luciano Pavarotti.
The aria in question seemed more than apropos for the grandest stage in football. Turandot, based loosely on an epic poem from 12th century Persia, tells the story of a prince desperate to win the affections of an uninterested princess. The prince is challenged to answer three riddles; answering all three correctly will win him the princess’ hand in marriage, while a single wrong answer would mean a swift beheading. “Nessun Dorma,” the aria which opens the third and final act, shows prince expressing supreme confidence in his abilities and his inevitable victory. As the chorus laments the prince’s hubris and insists that he is doomed to die, the prince cuts them off mid-sentence to yell at the heavens in defiance, essentially telling Fate itself that he will win the princess’ heart and there’s nothing in the world that can stop him.
Given the high stakes and astronomical odds that every footballer has to stare down, particularly at the World Cup, “Nessun Dorma” fits quite nicely.
The aria became one of the most celebrated parts of BBC’s coverage of Italia ‘90. So much so that the recording, nearly 20 years old by that point, hit #2 on the UK Singles Charts. Think about that for a second. A 20 year old opera recording hitting it big in the British pop charts. The popularity of the piece was so swift and so comprehensive that Pavarotti brought it out for a concert he gave with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras in Rome on the eve of the Final between West Germany and Argentina. That concert, and the subsequent record-breaking sales of the recording, became the basis for the worldwide phenomenon of The Three Tenors and the permanent embedding of opera in popular culture. Luciano Pavarotti, until then content with being a well-loved fixture in European opera houses, had become a pop star.
But beyond the aria’s impact on pop music, “Nessun Dorma” became a sort of uniting thematic element for the stirrings of a new generation of English football. The looks of utter dejection and despair on the faces of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle after their missed shots in the semifinal penalty shootout against West Germany, the tears that streamed down Paul Gascoigne’s face, all set to the soundtrack of Pavarotti’s thundering tenor set the tone for football’s renaissance in its own ancestral home. In the years to come, England would start to put its legacy of hooliganism to rest, as well as heal from the self-inflicted wounds of Hillsborough and Heysel. The Premier League would emerge and usher in a new, modern era of the game (for better or worse), the fans in the ground would become distinctly more middle class (again, for good or ill), and English football would become a truly global phenomenon.
In “Nessun Dorma,” an aria in which a young lovesick man screams at the heavens in cocksure defiance, football fans found a piece of music which encapsulated everything that made football beautiful— the joy, the pain, the glory, the spectacle, and the heartbreak. In this improbable marriage of high art and low culture, “Nessun Dorma” offers football an artform that comes closest to describing its own spectacle and grandeur.