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Opera's greatest star brought classical music to the masses

Luciano Pavarotti: 1935 - 2007

September 06, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Luciano Pavarotti, the Italian tenor with a glorious voice that made him the opera world's greatest star as he brought classical singing to the masses on a scale never before imagined, died today. He was 71.

The singer, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, spent his final hours "peacefully" at his home in Modena, Italy, said Edwin Tinoco, his personal assistant, speaking to Italian television.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Pavarotti debut: An obituary of singer Luciano Pavarotti that ran Sept. 6 in Section A said he made his North American debut in Miami in the opera "L'Elisir d'Amore." The opera was "Lucia di Lammermoor."

Pavarotti was acclaimed for the clarion tone of his gorgeously lyrical voice that could effortlessly fill the largest arena. He was beloved for his ardor and Italian charm, which came across whether he was singing on the opera stage or cooking as a guest on a late-night television talk show.

Former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta, who collaborated with him frequently over several decades, said Wednesday that whatever Pavarotti did, he did "always with great joy."

As a singer, Mehta said, "he set a standard that will remain with us for decades to come."

Pavarotti's appetite for food and his thirst for fame became legendary, as did the trademark oversize handkerchief he waved whenever he sang in recital and the giant Hermes scarves he draped around his large frame. Extraordinary as it seemed for a man whose weight was said to peak at well above 300 pounds, he even became a sex symbol.

In sheer numbers of fans, Pavarotti was more popular than anyone before in classical music. He invented the large arena show for classical music. He was the first opera star to perform solo acts in Las Vegas venues and at Madison Square Garden in New York City. As a motivating force for the Three Tenors, he -- along with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- sang before hundreds of thousands of fans and sold millions of CDs, totals previously unseen in the classical field. Their concerts were televised to audiences said to number in the billions and earned vast sums of money.

Pavarotti's singing of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's last opera, "Turandot," was the theme for the 1990 World Cup soccer tournament, and he made that aria as recognizable as a pop hit.

His combination of natural musicianship and an instinct for how to win over an audience was without rival. In the early '70s, he became known as the "King of the High Cs," because of his ability to effortlessly belt out this money note, which rang in the air with a beautiful purity.

Between 1965 and 1975, when he often sang with the celebrated Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, he produced electrifying moments on stage night after night. The recordings he made in those years have been regularly recycled into new formats and collections that have retained their popularity.

But Pavarotti ultimately allowed success to turn him into an Elvis-like caricature of himself. Superstitious about retiring but in poor health and hardly able to walk, he regularly canceled appearances in his later years. When he did perform, he could appear remote from the music, and he hid water and apple slices around the stage so he could constantly lubricate his voice.

Even so, he remained a law unto himself. Other people's standards simply didn't apply. His fan base grew steadily despite a string of artistic failures.

In fact, his prime was relatively short. He came to fame in the early 1970s, and by 1976 Andrew Porter, in the New Yorker, was expressing disappointment at a Pavarotti performance in Bellini's "I Puritani": "The fresh, limpid flow of sweet sound with which he used to delight us now ran jerkily." The singer's one feature film, "Yes, Giorgio," was an $18-million flop in 1982.

And by that time, many of Pavarotti's admirers in the business had become disenchanted with him. In the 2006 memoir "The King and I," Herbert Breslin, the tenor's manager of 36 years, wrote that the "story of Luciano Pavarotti is the story of a very beautiful, simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar."

Rudolf Bing, who had been manager of the Metropolitan Opera when Pavarotti made his debut there in 1968, complained to New York magazine in 1981 that "seeing that stupid, ugly face everywhere I go is getting on my nerves. It's all so unnecessary, so undignified."

Luciano Pavarotti was born Oct. 12, 1935, in Modena, Italy, which had a population of less than 10,000. The singer, who never lost his small-town roots no matter how grand his lifestyle became, frequently referred to himself as a country boy and maintained his main residence there for most of his life.

Pavarotti spent his youth mostly surrounded by women: his mother, Adele; his sister, Gabriella; a grandmother; and various aunts. He admitted in his two autobiographies that he was spoiled as a child and was a flirt. "I always like having women with me," he wrote. "If they are intelligent and good-looking, that is all the better."

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