One of the most popular and lucrative franchises in classical-music history, the Three Tenors was a cultural phenomenon, inspiring adoration among fans and disdain from music purists who regarded the enterprise as a shameless money grab.
The teaming of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti performing operatic favorites and pop tunes did indeed generate a lot of money over several concerts, albums, DVDs and broadcasts. More than 1 billion viewers are estimated to have seen the concerts, in person and on television.
Even today, the franchise keeps on giving: Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the Three Tenors concert at Dodger Stadium, an event being celebrated by the release of a new DVD edition of the 1994 performance, which featured the three singers performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta.
The Three Tenors concerts were often programmed to coincide with the World Cup championships. (In 1994, the World Cup was held in the U.S., with the final match played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.) The Dodger Stadium concert was organized by Tibor Rudas, the Hungarian-born impresario known for his arena-style concerts.
The Los Angeles Times reported that top tickets went for about $1,000 and that more than 50,000 people were in attendance, nearly filling Dodger Stadium.
Former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer noted in his review that a traffic jam made him late for the start of the concert. The critic was unimpressed for the most part with the event, calling it a "megatenor show" and describing the three stars as "contenders for the universal Golden-Larynx award."
He also faulted the concert's audiovisual systems, which he said resulted in poor sound-image synchronization on the stadium's DiamondVision screen.
His review incited a deluge of reader letters, some in support of the unkind assessment, but many more siding with the tenors. Later the same month, the Times reported that letters were running about five-to-one in taking issue with Bernheimer's review.
Critics like to have the final word, and Bernheimer weighed in again the following month with a Times essay on the "monster concert" phenomenon. In the article, he criticized the promotional hype surrounding the event and accused the tenors of trivializing their art form.
In 1995, Wayne Baruch, the general manager for the Dodger Stadium concert, penned a humorous Times opinion piece titled "Time to Play Fair With Three Tenors," in which he took the newspaper to task for its often disparaging coverage of the concert.
The new DVD release, from Warner Classics, features the actual concert at Dodger Stadium and a making-of documentary that shows the singers rehearsing for the show. The release also comes with a companion CD with some of the songs from the performance.
Loved or loathed, the Three Tenors are still with us, albeit only in digital spirit. (They gave their final concert more than a decade ago, and Pavarotti died in 2007.) Given the state of opera in the U.S. -- the Metropolitan Opera is in dire financial condition, while other companies struggle to survive -- the arguably crass populism of the Three Tenors may seem in retrospect like a small problem indeed.