It was an odd choice to be sure. Coloratura soprano and my duo partner Janet Chvatal suggested I arrange this piece, the trademark of famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti, from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.
Classical guitarists seemed to be in two camps on arrangements; you do them or you don’t. I was in the latter before I began working with voice and guitar repertoire. Sure, I’d done a few Scarlatti harpsichord works, and a Bach organ work, but other guitarists arrange at a much more prolific rate.
Over the years I worked with Janet, I made a series of arrangements for voice and guitar from opera works: O Mio Babbino Caro by Puccini, Oh Quante Volte by Bellini, and Deh vieni non tardar, by Mozart, in addition to some Schubert and Mozart piano/voice works.
Janet’s suggestions were often fruitful, but arranging Nessun Dorma for solo guitar seemed like crazy talk. This worked posed dilemmas which I had yet to face. First, Pavarotti’s performance was the watermark. I couldn’t compete with that. Next, the power and volume of the orchestral and vocal line brought chills if not tears. How was I going to achieve authenticity when the guitar could never reach this dynamic range?
I was about to give up, when I remembered my father’s reaction to Nessun Dorma. My father (who had passed away a fear years prior) was a big Country and Western music fan. One Christmas I bought him an album of Pavarotti arias. My mother told me that he used to lie on the floor, eyes closed, listening to the recording. When Nessun Dorma played, tears would stream down his face.
I decided to keep working, as a tribute to my father’s love for Nessun Dorma. I reduced the harmony (Puccini’s orchestra is actually very thin, with unisons everywhere), and began to find a key where the accompaniment and vocal range would fit on the guitar. It soon became apparent that standard tuning was not going to provide this range, so I began with a reentrant tuning, dropping the sixth string to D, finally resting on the scordatura of 6th string at D, fifth at G.
Now, with notes in place, I began working to add texture and volume to the appropriate sections of the work. It sounded downright silly. Then one morning, about 4 am, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I headed downstairs to my studio, keeping the lights very low. I picked up my guitar and began quietly going through the Nessun Dorma. When I came to the big moments, instead of getting ‘big’ I got ‘small’ (in an attempt to create the effect of the original, but by using the opposite expressive tools–a trick I had learned from working with a conductor years earlier). My first impression was how natural this sounded on the guitar. In fact, it felt as if I had come home from a Pavarotti performance and dreamed the work.
Janet came in later that day for rehearsal, and while she was finishing up some paperwork I played through the work, with the new mood in mind. When I finished, I noticed she had stopped working and was staring at me. “Scotty”, she said, “that was beautiful.” Finally, after three or four months of work, the piece had found its voice! It’s grown in popularity ever since–I have even heard it yelled from the audience as an encore.
In 2009, I performed in Rimi, Italy. My father had fought there in WWII with the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division. I was planning on visiting the battle scene where he fought at Mt. Belvedere, a battle which helped turn the tide of the war, and one with which the Italians were very familiar.
Normally, I like to finish my programs with a fiery, flashy, fun piece, leaving the audience on a high note. But that night I decided to change my program and finish with Nessun Dorma. It seemed fitting to tell the story of my Country-and-Western lovin’ father, how his musical ears were opened by an Italian opera composer. I also expressed my father’s love for the Italian people and how he always wanted to return to Italy. I performed the piece in remembrance of my father, of his love of Italy. While he never returned, I did so as his ambassador. Of course, the audience embraced this with a wave of love and acceptance.
I’ve had numerous requests to arrange other works or to publish the ones I’ve already arranged, but at this point in my life, with all that went into the making of this work, I think I’ll never achieve what I did with this arrangement of Nessun Dorma.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of this arrangement, or the recording, go to Miramont.