Opera and football have traditionally had little in common. Though both attract large crowds and impassioned opinion, we don’t expect much crossover in the fans.
But the 1990 Fifa World Cup changed all that. When Luciano Pavarotti sung “Nessun dorma’’ as the BBC theme tune for the tournament in Italy, he brought classical music to a mass market.
Every match, every trailer on TV, featured the aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. For once, the “beautiful game’’ also brought us beautiful music, and people could soon be heard humming the tune in the streets. When “Nessun dorma’’ was released as a single, it reached number two in the charts – an unprecedented achievement for a classical recording.
The Fifa World Cup also saw the inaugural concert of the Three Tenors – Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the trio continued to sing together at sell-out performances across the world.
The popularity of “Nessun dorma’’ reinvigorated the traditional classical market, but it also spurred a new genre of ’’crossover’’ music, where artists attracted a wider audience through accessible compilations of popular classical works.
Pavarotti’s footballing collaboration spawned the success of singers such as the Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, whose albums feature popular and classical songs, including hymns. The English tenor Russell Watson, who also sung “Nessun dorma’’ before Manchester United’s premiership-winning match in 1999, sells ringtones of both his pop and opera hits.
As for Pavarotti, his association with football brought him worldwide recognition and fame. At his funeral last year, the Italian air force flew over Modena Cathedral while a recording played of the great tenor himself singing “Nessun dorma”.
The aria – meaning “none shall sleep” – was never more apt.