Radiant tenor was king of opera world

Luciano Pavarotti


September 06, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Luciano Pavarotti, who possessed one of the most radiant tenor voices to be heard in the past hundred years and who enjoyed a level of popularity unequaled since the legendary Enrico Caruso, died early today in his hometown of Modena, Italy. He was 71.

Mr. Pavarotti was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and underwent surgery in July 2006. Last month, he was admitted to a Modena hospital, reportedly with a fever. After about three weeks of tests and treatment, the singer returned to his home, where he was cared for by local doctors, according to Italian news reports.

His manager, Terri Robson, told the Associated Press in an e-mail statement that Pavarotti died at 5 a.m. at his home in Modena.

"The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life. In fitting with the approach that characterized his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness," the statement said.

Hailed in his prime years as the "King of the High Cs," Mr. Pavarotti brought a rare combination of exciting vocalism and a magnetic, disarming personality to the opera world, quickly winning passionate fans among general audiences as well.

Although he occasionally ventured beyond his core repertoire, the tenor shone particularly in works by the popular 19th-century and early 20th-century composers of Italian opera.

He could caress a melodic line by Donizetti or Bellini with a ravishing, melting tone and bring to a Verdi aria a telling ardor. In Puccini operas, he could enrich endearing characterizations with singing of uncommon, compelling vibrancy and eloquence.

As an actor, the tenor could be highly persuasive and, especially in such comic operas as Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, could be surprisingly agile, despite a hefty physique.

Although his voice gradually lost its original gleaming quality and ease of projection in the upper register, the singer never lost his hold on the public.

The Pavarotti phenomenon -- there is no other word for it -- started in the early 1970s and still had fire as the 21st century got under way. He was undertaking what was billed as a farewell concert tour when his cancer caused him to withdraw from public view in 2006.

Few singers, operatic or pop, have ever inspired so much and such lasting affection. Mr. Pavarotti's many recordings, frequent television appearances and, especially, arena concerts drew a cross-section of music lovers captivated not just by the ringing sound of his voice, but the bearded, wide-smiling, super-sized singer himself -- at 6 feet, his fluctuating weight often exceeded 300 pounds in between much-publicized dieting.

In 1990, Mr. Pavarotti's popularity received a boost when he joined two eminent colleagues, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, for a concert to celebrate Mr. Carreras' recovery from leukemia and to mark the World Cup soccer finals in Rome (all three were longtime soccer fans).

The result, billed as The Three Tenors, was an unprecedented sensation. The recording of that event, which included pop as well as operatic works, became the best-selling classical release in history.

The Three Tenors quickly reunited to form an exceptionally lucrative franchise, with performances throughout the world drawing tens of thousands each time and earning for each singer in excess of $1 million per concert (plus royalties).

Mr. Pavarotti's final appearance in a staged opera was March 13, 2004, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performing one of his signature roles, the painter Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca.

Born into a family of modest means in Modena on Oct. 12, 1935, Mr. Pavarotti developed an interest in singing early on, inspired partly by his father, a baker, who had an appealing, untrained tenor voice.

At 19, Mr. Pavarotti started formal singing lessons in his hometown. For the next several years, as he continued to study, he supported himself teaching elementary school and selling insurance.

His first break came in 1961, when he won a competition at an opera house in the city of Reggio Emilio. The prize included an engagement to sing the role of the poet Rodolfo in Puccini's La boheme, at the equivalent of $50 a performance.

The freshness and brightness of his voice generated a fast-spreading buzz.

In 1962, he stepped in for an indisposed artist to make an acclaimed debut at London's Royal Opera House in La boheme. A year later, that same Puccini work served as his calling card to the Vienna State Opera, as it would in 1965 at La Scala in Milan, Italy.

In 1964, the singer made his first appearance at the prestigious British summer opera center, Glyndebourne, in Mozart's Idomeneo (the only Mozart work that figured in his repertoire).

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