During the last time Cynthia Lawrence (MMus’87) sang with world-renowned operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, he gave her a one-eyed glance to see where she was going to land before she plunged backward off a wall in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca.
Evoking gasps from the audience in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the ever-daring Lawrence landed without incident. For 18 years, she had shared the stage with Italian master Pavarotti, spending hours with circus flyers in preparation for jumping as high as 26 feet in her various roles with him. She remembers their last outstanding performance as if it were yesterday.
“I learned he was always observant, always aware and searching for subtle performance nuances,” Lawrence, a lyric soprano, says. “He knew the strengths of those around him and gave them power, responsibility. What a showman.”
One of the most commercially successful tenors of all time, Pavarotti died on Sept. 6, 2007.
Lawrence herself has had a memorable career, performing in starring roles on the world’s most important opera stages from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London to the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. From jumping off walls, stabbing a few famous baritones and throwing herself on others, her life is full of exciting and dramatic scenes that don’t tend to be a part of the average 9 to 5 job.
Lawrence loves performing, meeting people and putting disparate singers together in different roles. She also teaches master classes around the country and serves as a voice faculty member at the University of Minnesota.
She tells her students they all have to make choices. Choosing to be really good or only okay is up to them.
“Unless you choose, you’ll never know,” she reflects.
For Lawrence it all started at CU when undergraduate dean Charles Byers encouraged her to abandon her dreams of playing piano and being a country western and Broadway show tunes singer.
Before long, she launched into operatic repertoire with voice professor Barbara Doscher. Doscher’s world-class instruction later surprised both Pavarotti and Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo who assumed Lawrence gained her vocal technique from a New York studio.
Lawrence developed her character and fortitude, however, from her early years spent working with horses. The mental preparation of riding beside 30 horses helped her stay calm.
“It’s similar to being on the operatic stage,” she says, noting getting nervous is useless. “You have to stay composed. I get up and I’m energized.”
Two decades ago, the accomplished singer almost missed Pavarotti’s competition in Philadelphia because of a flight she needed to catch. A conference call with Pavarotti, Opera Company Philadelphia and her soon-to-be-agent resulted in her participating in “Pavarotti Plus — Live from Lincoln Center” in 1989. Another call followed, asking her to join him in singing the lead roles in Gaetano Donizetti’s Elixir of Love.
“I’ve never learned so much in such a concentrated time,” she reminisces. “It was just the two of us on stage. He was always a friend, mentor, very demanding, sympathetic and kind.”
Lawrence learned some important life lessons from the big-hearted Italian. When you are a performer, you perform and leave the baggage of your personal life off stage, she says. Pavarotti wanted others to be “on” 100 percent for a performance just as he was, regardless of their personal issues. Audiences expected no less.
“You wallow or you rise and do the job the best you can,” she says. “Both our public and private faces are real and come from within. You have to explore and develop them.”
In October 2008, Pavarotti’s widow created a concert in his memory. Singing in the ruins of Petra, Jordan, Lawrence joined the Jordanian royal family, Plácido Domingo, Spanish tenor José Carreras and American operatic baritone Sherrill Milnes and rehearsed with Sting. A newly released DVD, A Tribute to Pavarotti: One Amazing Weekend in Petra, includes Lawrence as a soloist and speaker.
Singing with other great artists, she observes their high standards as well. Their focus is on performance quality and the ability to transport the audience through their singing.
“It takes years to get there — some never do,” she reflects.
Lawrence subscribes to the philosophy of her husband Mark Calkins (MMus’87), whom she met at CU when they both performed in a campus production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme: “Amateurs practice until they get it right,” she says. “Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
Marty Coffin Evans (Engl’64) is a frequent contributor to the Coloradan.