The Back Story
By Cynthia Edwards
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It happened in 1982 in Houston. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti was slated to be the ultimate treat for opera patrons in the Southwest, and the ultimate box office draw for Houston Grand Opera, who were sponsoring his advent. For not only did Pavarotti agree to perform a concert under their auspices; he also agreed to tape a 30-second commercial on their behalf, urging viewers to buy season tickets to five or six operas he wasn’t going to be singing in.
The day of filming the commercial arrived. I was the copywriter of record. I had written a simple yet persuasive script that the Italian-born tenor was to read off a teleprompter before the lens of an immovable camera. A couple of takes and he would be finished. The schedule of this all-important star was such that all camera and lighting set up (in a hotel ballroom) had to be completed before he arrived. There was no time for adjustments or fiddling around — perfection was the order of the day.
As the shoot progressed, the great man began to feel sure he could improve on my copy. He attempted to wing it, making up a new script as the camera duly rolled. Sad to say, his English wasn’t quite up to snuff, and he lost the thread each time. (I doubt if I could ad lib perfectly for 30 seconds myself … I have enough trouble recording an answering machine message.) I had the task of madly scribbling his thoughts on the teleprompter paper to help him through it. To no avail.
He was on such a tight schedule that when the time allotted for the commercial was up, so was he. He firmly declined any further takes and left. Even though we had no usable film from the session, his exit was not without its charm. Pavarotti smiled at everyone he met as he swept from the room, stopping only to squeeze the right elbow of the young woman who had tried so hard to write words the great tenor could get his tongue around.
There is a happy ending. We made a silk purse from a sow’s ear, cutting up the film and adding a voice-over to make it look like poor Pavarotti totally messed up the spot. Well, it was true; but we made it look funny and charming, not tragic. The spot ended up winning every advertising award from Houston to New York … which it wouldn’t have done, if only Pavarotti had spoken his lines properly in the first place.
Thank you, Luciano. You helped my career and I’ll always be grateful!