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Pavarotti: A man of gusto

From the classical and pop worlds, colleagues remember the tenor's passions for music, food and friendly rivalry.

September 07, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

On Thursday morning, it was expected that classical music luminaries would be mourning the death of Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who had died only hours earlier at age 71 at his home in Modena, Italy, after battling pancreatic cancer.

One of those luminaries was Plácido Domingo, managing director of Los Angeles Opera -- and, along with Pavarotti and José Carreras, one of the popular Three Tenors. Domingo, who heard the news while in rehearsal for Saturday's opening of L.A. Opera's "Fidelio," called it a "very sad day" and expressed his frustration at not being able to jump on a plane for Italy, where on Thursday admirers deposited bouquets of flowers at the front gates of Pavarotti's villa. The funeral is scheduled for Saturday, and tenor Andrea Bocelli is expected to perform.

But for Pavarotti, credited with introducing opera to the masses, the waves of sadness were equally evident in the world of pop culture. Like soprano Beverly Sills, who died of cancer in July, Pavarotti -- who sang with the Spice Girls, was spoofed by Elmo on "Sesame Street" and was the only opera singer to have appeared on "Saturday Night Live," on the 1998 Christmas show with Alec Baldwin and Vanessa Williams -- achieved a superstar status that transcended the boundaries of classical music.

This brief missive from Sting appeared on the official website of the English rock musician:

"We lost a great friend,

A great voice and the world

Is a smaller place

without the big man."

U2 frontman Bono also posted a statement on the U2 website, calling Pavarotti "a great volcano of a man who sang fire but spilled over with a love of life in all its complexity." He added: "Even when the voice was dimmed in power, his interpretative skills left him a giant among a few tall men." Bono is also expected to attend the funeral.

Pavarotti's bond with the entertainment industry was in keeping with what his classical music colleagues described as a fun-loving nature. Domingo said that even their perceived rivalry for the unofficial title of "world's greatest tenor" was enjoyable behind the scenes. "I think it was this kind of friendly competing," Domingo said. "When you are building your careers in the same lifetime, it becomes: 'Anything you can do, I can do better.' It creates press, but we always kept the friendship. We had the best time with our Three Tenors concerts. It was something very wonderful for us."

Zubin Mehta, who conducted the first Three Tenors concert in Rome in 1990, said from Rimini, Italy: "It was a great joy for me to work with him. He didn't have a large repertoire, like Plácido, but he always came superbly prepared. The best thing about him was his diction." And, apparently, his enjoyment of good food. Mehta, who went to visit the ailing Pavarotti twice last month at the tenor's home, added: "He knew how much I liked spicy pasta, so he had spicy pasta for me. He had chocolate cakes made for me. And he even had a pupil of his sing for me."

Gloria Lane, a mezzo-soprano who now makes her home in Studio City, performed with Pavarotti at La Scala in the 1960s. She said Thursday that she had been "crying all day" about Pavarotti's passing, but she began to laugh as she told her own pasta story: "I met him at La Scala; we were both staying in the same hotel and he was in the next room to me. And we were both having lunch in the dining room of the hotel, and he saw me having a steak and said, 'Why are you eating that? Pasta is much better for you when you have a performance to do.' That's exactly what I did from then on, and he was right."

Lotfi Mansouri, general director of San Francisco Opera from 1988 through 2001, recalled Pavarotti "as someone with this very, very passionate and larger-than-life personality. It was the way he sang but also the way he would play tennis and his love of horses, and he loved cooking, of course. He absolutely loved life.

"He did many of his first roles at San Francisco Opera. In 1968, we were doing 'La Bohème' and he had just finished an aria. There was applause -- and then an earthquake. People started toward the exits. Luciano walked over to the prompter and said, 'What is this?' The prompter said, 'Don't worry about that,' and he went back to singing, and everyone sat down again. The next day, the paper said he saved the audience from panic. There were lots of stories to tell about him."

Ernest Fleischmann, former longtime general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said with a laugh that Pavarotti did a number of benefit concerts for the Philharmonic during his tenure and "although he was very well paid, we made a lot of money. He was always a joy to work with. He always seemed to enjoy what he was doing, which cannot always be said of some of his colleagues."

Times staff writers Craig Fisher and Chris Pasles in Los Angeles and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.

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