The Three Tenors (from left) José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, in 2000
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One of the most famous classical crossover songs, “Nessun Dorma” has a title no one translates. Possibly because it is a bit silly: when a tenor is belting away at full-strength, “No one will sleep” might well evoke the response “especially with that racket going on”.

From the time of Turandot’s premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1926, after the death of its composer Giacomo Puccini, the aria sung by Prince Calaf in the final act was a favourite showboating piece for tenors to perform in concert. The silky melody, the emotive arc of the full, gorgeous tenor range, the build-up to the final, victorious cry of “Vincerò!” (“I will win!”) allows for a peacocky display of both technique and lip-quivering feeling. No one cares what the words actually say: Turandot has a storyline that involves solving three riddles and marrying the princess, or getting your head cut off. The unknown Calaf solves the riddles; the princess decrees that no one shall sleep until they discover his name. If they fail, everyone gets their heads cut off.

So forget the words. The song comes across as a simple, giant yelp of triumph; as such, it has proved highly adaptable. Long before “Nessun Dorma”, in a 1972 recording by Luciano Pavarotti, was adopted as the BBC’s theme tune for the 1990 World Cup, it had broken out from the narrow world of opera: in 1956 Mario Lanza, perhaps the first heartthrob classical tenor (he also worked as a model), gave the aria a matinee-idol treatment in the film Serenade, while pouting love-interest Sara Montiel listened with suppressed excitement. Since then, the song has been used at dramatic high-points in bafflingly disparate films, from Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015) to The Killing Fields (1984) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).

The uplifting, manly-but-emotive tune even suited the football terraces. In 1990 the Pavarotti version shot to number two in the UK singles chart: it had become one of the great sporting anthems. Yet its place in football’s history is unusual: it wasn’t so much that football promoted “Nessun Dorma” as vice versa.

In 1990 the sport had a bad name, especially in Britain: violent fans, stadium disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough. But Italia 90, when 26m people watched the semi-final shootout between England and West Germany, changed perceptions of the game, in a strange example of the power of posh music. “The final slo-mo eulogy, as Pavarotti’s voice underpinned Gazza’s tears, sent us all snuffling for the tissues. All the unbeatable drama inherent in our national sport dawned on us,” wrote journalist Jim White.

Of the dozens of covers, a few of the more surprising are Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne’s 1989 “A Love So Beautiful”, which lifts the tune but replaces the words, and a bizarre heavy-metal rendering by Manowar in 2002. In a 2010 version by Jeff Beck, the guitar “sings” the tune. As for Aretha Franklin — who stepped in at the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998 as cover for her friend Pavarotti, who had a sore throat — that one is best described as soul-funk-improv. And there was commerce: “Nessun Dorma” was used in 2009 to advertise Lavazza coffee in a version by Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons.

Although just about every ambitious tenor has had a go at the song, it is indelibly associated with Pavarotti. When he and Plácido Domingo teamed up with José Carreras to form the “Three Tenors” act, “Nessun Dorma” became their staple, sung almost competitively in a mega-decibel finale, and on the triple-platinum The Three Tenors in Concert, still the best-selling classical album ever.

It was the last thing Pavarotti performed in public; although he was so ill by the time of his final appearance, at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, that his “Nessun Dorma” was lip-synced. At his funeral a year later, as he was honoured with a fly-past by the Italian Air Force, the music that thundered out was — well, what else could it be?

For more in the series, and podcasts with clips, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photograph: Mick Hutson/Redferns

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