Tenors Of The Times -- New Year's Eve Show In Vancouver Is More An Event Than A Concert

This New Year's Eve, I'm going to see the arrival of 1997 in the company of three middle-aged, overpaid soccer fans in a Canadian football stadium.

So why am I still excited about the prospect of the Concert of the Century, the fabulous and amazing Three Tenors, who are set to warble at 9 p.m. Tuesday evening in Vancouver's B.C. Place Stadium? (Yes, tickets still are available in several price categories; call 292-ARTS.)

It's not because we in the audience will really be hearing the world's three most famous voices live. Once you start tampering with the natural sound of voices designed to be heard in unamplified splendor in an appropriate acoustical setting (such as an opera house or concert hall), you are hearing some amplified version of the real thing - arguably the same effect you get when you sit at home in front of your stereo, or when you watch the relentless parade of Three Tenors broadcasts during pledge week on public television.

No sane music lover would argue that these really are the world's three best voices, either. Of the three, Placido Domingo probably is in the best vocal shape, but even Domingo's tenor occasionally shows the effects of age (according to most sources, he turns 56 on Jan. 21) and overuse. Luciano Pavarotti, who enjoys the most international fame of the three, turned 61 last Oct. 12, and his singing at present is uneven, especially when he tries to return to early operatic roles that made his career.

Carreras, who turned 49 earlier this month on Dec. 5, was encouraged by Herbert von Karajan to sing heavier roles early in his development, to the detriment of his light and lyrical voice. Then he developed leukemia in 1987. A bone-marrow transplant at Seattle's Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center saved his life - also giving his voice a year's rest under circumstances nobody would wish to emulate. Nonetheless, Carreras' voice often sounds frayed these days, and his singing has had its ups and downs since his return to the opera stage.

So why do we care about the Vancouver concert?

Partly because it's an event, more like a moon landing than like a traditional concert. These three guys are boldly going where no tenor has gone before, into a realm far removed from the opera stage of today - though it's surprisingly close to the way opera used to be, as a highly topical and popular entertainment for the masses.

What continues to boggle most arts insiders is just how numerous those masses are. The original Three Tenors concert in 1990, held to coincide with the World Cup soccer final (the tenors have been described as "obsessive" soccer fans), began a phenomenon that was eclipsed in scope by the trio's 1994 reunion before 56,000 fans in Dodger Stadium (World Cup again), an event that was watched by an estimated 1.5 billion TV viewers in 120 countries across the globe.

No wonder Pavarotti, counting his curtain calls and his fees, suggested to the other two in his own brand of English, "Why not doing this around the world?" Why not, indeed. The results were a world tour of Tokyo, London, New York and Munich; Pacific Northwest music lovers went ballistic last May when it was announced that a Vancouver date would be added (followed by Toronto, Melbourne, Miami and Houston next year).

Many fans went even more ballistic, however, when they saw the ticket prices. Where the top Dodger Stadium tickets had been $1,000 two years ago, and 40,000 of the tickets were priced between $35 and $40, it was another story only two years later in Vancouver. The top seats were $2,000 (Canadian), with more "premier seating" available at $1,750 and "preferred" seating at $1,250.

From there on downward, seats were available in several categories from $650 to a low of $45.

Local fans who heard about the Vancouver concert and thought they'd splurge on really great special-event seats, say in the $100 range, soon faced a sharp jolt of reality. Even in American dollars (the above prices, $45-$2,000, are Canadian, though this advantage wasn't mentioned in the Seattle ads), $100 wouldn't buy good seats.

More than 33,000 fans (at this writing), however, bit the bullet and bought. Subsequent ups and downs in the news (see accompanying story on Page E 1) only served to stimulate the demand for tickets; after a cancellation was threatened, Vancouver ticket sources reported a new upswing in ticket requests.

Complicating the ticket question are three central facts: This isn't just any concert, these aren't the usual prices, and New Year's Eve is a heavy-duty evening loaded with festive expectations. The fans aren't the only ones who have heavily invested in this concert; hotels and restaurateurs are expecting $5.5 million in visitor spending, and Tourism Vancouver representatives say their agency has invested "tens of thousands" of dollars in Washington and California markets promoting Vancouver's entertainment season, of which the Three Tenors concert is the centerpiece.

For now, it seems clear that the concert is going forward, barring sudden indispositions or legal complications or other crises, and that the three guys are going to serenading the faithful as the New Year rolls in. P.T. Barnum couldn't have arranged it better - nor could his adage about "a sucker born every minute" apply more clearly than to most of us ticket buyers. Still, what we are buying is the experience, the pilgrimage, the phenomenon . . . OK, yes, the hype. But for those fascinated by these three sets of fraying vocal cords, it beats sitting at home in front of the TV, watching Guy Lombardo or the descent of a singularly uncharismatic sphere in Times Square, or even our own Space Needle in action.

We Are There. And The Times will be there, too. Don't miss your own personal report in the Jan. 2 paper, and a Happy New Year to you all.

-------------------------------------------- LITTLE-KNOWN FACTOIDS ABOUT THE THREE TENORS --------------------------------------------

Courtesy of their very own sleazoid tripartite biography, "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors," by Marcia Lewis (Birch Lane Press, $21.95):

-- In 1958, when Placido Domingo was only 17, he became the father of little Jose Domingo (he and his first wife were divorced not long afterward).

-- The Three Tenors' current wives are not friendly and do not socialize.

-- Jose Carreras' nickname is "the Honey-Throated Heartthrob," and he is reportedly known for frequently testing his own adage, "Sex is good for my voice."

-- Pavarotti loves horses and bought his first horse, a 4-year-old gelding named Herbie, on a 1979 trip to Ireland.

-- Domingo's current wife, Marta, was a better-known, established opera singer than her now-famous husband at the start of their opera careers in Mexico.

-- Pavarotti's romance with the 24-year-old Nicoletta Mantovani prompted his long-suffering wife Adua to file for divorce, and reportedly also angered the Vatican, which subsequently withdrew an invitation for the tenor to sing for the pope.

-- Nicoletta makes Pavarotti listen to her Pearl Jam CDs in his Maserati.

-- Domingo once received 83 curtain calls and 75 minutes of applause after a performance in Vienna.

-- Carreras' marriage ended because of his longstanding affair with an Austrian flight attendant, but he left the Austrian in favor of a German model.

------------------------------------ TICKETS, TICKETS, WHO'S GOT TICKETS? ------------------------------------

The Vancouver "Three Tenors" event was announced just before Memorial Day, causing a feeding frenzy among fans who wanted to see the New Year in with "Nessun Dorma" and the Tenors' trademark medleys. After an initial flurry of ticket sales last May, however, when seats at the very bottom and very top of the price range disappeared, sales leveled out and stalled at a little more than half the capacity (just over 30,200) of the B.C. Place Stadium capacity (52,200). Disappointing ticket sales were probably among the reasons the local presenter, Headquarters Entertainment Corp., decided to pull the plug on the concert earlier this month - but was forestalled by a B.C. Supreme Court decision preventing a cancellation.

Other concerns were a legal disagreement between Tibor Rudas, the impresario who put on the first Three Tenors concert in Rome of 1990, and the concert agency that is producing the tenors' current world tour, Hoffmann Concerts Inc. While Hoffmann's representatives claim the dispute has now been cleared up, Vancouver Headquarters president Tina VanderHeyden said she feared the legal outcome would be a move by Rudas preventing Hoffmann from presenting the Three Tenors on the world tour, leaving Headquarters holding the bag in Vancouver. In its contract with Hoffmann, Headquarters "bought the gate" - is entitled to the proceeds from ticket sales - but could lose money if tickets don't sell well.

The off-again, on-again concert situation was complicated further on Dec. 17, when some corporate concert sponsors released big blocks of unused tickets - thousands of them, according to B.C. TicketMaster sources - at deeply discounted prices ($100 Canadian for $650 seats, for instance). Stories varied drastically about who was eligible to buy those tickets and how that eligibility was determined. In Vancouver, TicketMaster spokesman Peter Jackson said sales agents weren't requiring proof of eligibility from ticket buyers; in Seattle, callers were told they had to supply information identifying themselves as constituents of the sponsors.

No matter whether the news reported confusion over ticket prices or the possibility of a canceled concert, ticket orders continued to surge whenever the Three Tenors concert made the news, further proving the adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

------------------------------------------ MONEY, MONEY: A RICHNESS TO THEIR SINGING ------------------------------------------

The first Three Tenors concert in 1990, not long after Jose Carreras' comeback following his battle with leukemia, was designed as a fund-raiser for Carreras' leukemia foundation. The tenors each received a fee generally estimated to be $500,000, giving away the recording rights to Decca/London. No one realized how popular the concert - which eventually sold more the 10 million recordings - would be. As Pavarotti later put it, "To the first Three Tenors table we brought our open hearts and our goodwill. To the second concert negotiations, we brought our lawyers and our accountants."

The second concert, in 1994, was an extravaganza with waterfalls, Greek pillars, a five-story set and so much elaborate finery that it cost about as much to produce as it made from tickets (around $13.5 million, though figures vary). The second time around, the tenors received a reported $1 million each, with a percentage of the record and video royalties. Warner Records had to pay "a reported figure somewhere between $11 and $15 million" for the recording rights; over 8 million CDs were sold, and they're still selling.

For the current world tour, of which the Vancouver concert is one stop, the tenors will each earn an estimated $10 million.

Lots of money? It certainly is. Yet in comparison with the salaries earned by pop music stars and sports figures, the figures seem much more modest.

"If you see a basketball player makes $12 million," a puzzled Carreras once said, "you say he must be the best, but for us it is like there is a corruption."

Matthias Hoffmann, the impresario producing the current world tour, has another comparison: "If Janet Jackson can sign a deal for $80 million, the Three Tenors are totally, totally underpaid."