Opera singers Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti teamed up for their first joint performance on 7 July 1990, in a concert held to raise money for the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation. The landmark open-air show at Rome’s Terme di Caracalla (the summer venue for Rome Opera) also marked Carreras’s return to the world of opera singing following his successful treatment for leukemia.
The collaboration was the beginning of instant and near-universal fame for the trio, whose repertoire ranged from opera arias to Neapolitan ballads, Broadway hits, and pop songs – all delivered with impressively thick, beautifully enunciated European accents.
The fact that The Three Tenors – each famous in their own right in the classical world, and natural competitors – agreed to perform together was somewhat unprecedented. Pavarotti later told newspapers that all three had been asked to perform together “at least 50 times” and had refused up until that point. Perhaps it helped that they were all avid football fans: significantly, their first performance as a trio took place on the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final.
Pavarotti’s famous rendition of Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ (recorded some 20 years earlier) was already background music in millions of households in the days leading up to The Three Tenors’ first performance, as the theme music for BBC coverage of the tournament in Italy. Both football fans and the wider public were therefore primed to embrace the trio’s rich, operatic sound when they made their televised debut the day before the Final. ‘Nessun Dorma’, one of the greatest tenor arias ever written, was performed twice during the Rome concert – once by Pavarotti and again, as an encore, when he was joined by Carreras and Domingo.
The best-selling classical album of all time
The sheer scale of the coverage for The Three Tenors’ debut performance in Rome was also highly unusual for a classical act of the time – the only comparable performance in terms of viewing figures being that of soprano Kiri Te Kanawa at the Royal Wedding of 1981, which was watched by 750 million people around the world.
The Three Tenors, by contrast, performed an entire concert of mostly classical repertoire to a live audience of 6,000 and a global television audience of over one billion. The original live album of the concert Carreras Domingo Pavarotti In Concert, won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance in 1991 and became the best-selling classical album of all time.
Four years later the trio performed again in Los Angeles on the eve of the 1994 World Cup Final, a one-off show that was watched by over a billion people in more than 100 countries worldwide. They continued their association with the beautiful game with performances in Paris for the 1998 FIFA World Cup and Yokohama for the 2002 competition.
While vigorously pursuing their own solo careers, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras maintained a fairly busy performance schedule as The Three Tenors at stadia around the world through the 1990s and early 2000s – though subsequent concerts arguably never quite replicated the ‘wow’ factor of their first appearance in 1990.
The Three Tenors irrevocably changed classical music forever
Nevertheless, their enormous success proved a turning point for the classical music industry. Though shunned by purists, The Three Tenors irrevocably changed the way classical music was perceived and consumed around the world: opening up a hitherto narrow classical market and paving the way for countless subsequent classical and classical crossover artists to emerge.
To mark 30 years since their legendary Rome concert The Three Tenors – 30th Anniversary Edition, a special CD/DVD set featuring the original concert CD and a DVD of the complete concert including a “making of” documentary, was released in July 2020. Fans can relive the moment history was made by The Three Tenors in Rome 1990, and remember the night when the ‘Beautiful Game’ and classical music crossed a cultural divide and changed the music industry forever.