Famed Italian tenor Pavarotti dies at 71

Famed Italian tenor Pavarotti dies at 71

Opera star succumbs at home after fight with pancreatic cancer

Thursday, September 06, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

Luciano Pavarotti was the epitome of the Italian tenor, but he was bigger than opera itself, a vocal icon to classical peers and rock stars alike. His voice's sweet tone and ringing fluidity was as beloved by aficionados as it was by millions of listeners who didn't know Puccini from Verdi. He was one of The Three Tenors, but a first among equals to many.

Pavarotti died today at home in Modena, Italy, according to his manager, Terri Robson. The singer had battled pancreatic cancer since undergoing surgery for the disease last July. He was 71.

Born in Modena on Oct. 12, 1935, Pavarotti was the only child of a baker. His father was an opera lover and amateur tenor who sang in the town chorus, the group that gave his son his initial musical experience. He once said that he received his musicality from his father and his sensitivity from his mother. The young singer would become a lyric tenor of the "spinto" variety, the sort of voice destined for the Italian bel canto repertoire.

Pavarotti made his debut in 1961 at Italy's Reggio Emilia opera house as Rodolfo in Puccini's "La Boheme," a role he would sing countless times on the world's top stages. The tenor debuted in the U.S. four years later, singing in a Miami production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" with soprano Joan Sutherland, who would partner with Pavarotti for a string of Decca recordings that are among the top-selling opera sets ever. He also paired often with soprano Mirella Freni, born the same year as Pavarotti in Modena (where their mothers worked in the same cigarette factory).

Pavarotti earned his media nickname "king of the high Cs" with a 1972 performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera, singing nine seemingly effortless high Cs in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment." But he gained his broadest fame in The Three Tenors, with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They debuted at an outdoor concert in Rome's ancient Baths of Caracalla on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final, watched by some 800 million people on TV. The live recording went on to be the biggest-selling classical album ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The concert video was just reissued on DVD in a deluxe edition.

The Puccini aria that Pavarotti sang with such fluent technique and deep, overwhelming feeling in that initial Three Tenors concert -- "Nessun Dorma" (from "Turandot") -- would become his theme tune. Several more Three Tenors sequels would follow in Los Angeles, Paris, England and Japan. The trio sang for half a million people in New York's Central Park in 1993, and they filled Giants Stadium in 1996. The charm of the original Rome concert was hard to replicate, though, and the threesome faced criticism for the pop nature of the events, which helped kick-start the big-money classical crossover phenomenon for better and worse.

In the "making of" documentary "The Impossible Dream," included in the "Original Three Tenors Concert" DVD set, Pavarotti responded to critics of the event: "To people that say the music is too popular, I am sorry to seem arrogant, but I repeat what I say: Music, like sport, should be for everybody. And if we are able to make it popular, I do not want to hear a person in our profession say, 'too popular,' because that should not exist. It just means that these people want to be in control, of music and of people."

Pavarotti used his star power for charity with his series of "Pavarotti & Friends" concerts, collaborating with pop stars the world over to raise millions of dollars for the refugees of wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The tenor teamed with the rock band U2 in the mid-'90s, recording a soaring part for the group's atmospheric song protesting the war in Bosnia, "Miss Sarajevo." He sang the tune alongside Bono and other members of U2 at the 1995 Pavarotti & Friends concert in Modena.

Any of the many greatest-hits albums from Pavarotti's vast Decca catalog show the signature tone (sweet and tangy at once), clarion top notes and charismatic phrasing of his prime. Alongside Verdi's "La Donna e Mobile," Donizetti's "Una Furtiva Lagrima," Puccini's "Che Gelida Manina" and Leoncavallo's "Vesti la Giubba," there are those age-old Italian popular songs that he took to as naturally speaking.

But beyond his fling with U2, Pavarotti carried a reputation as a conservative performer, not to mention a lackluster actor. He did branch out with Mozart in 1983, performing the title role in "Idomeneo" at the Metropolitan Opera and pleasantly surprising many critics. Even with the changing standards of Mozart performances over the years, his live "Idomeneo" DVD stands as a career highlight. An early-'80s film of Verdi's "Rigoletto" shows him in different light, with the fabulous vocal performance making up for the lip sync typical of old-school opera movies.

Never the same sort of erudite musician as Domingo (who has a second career as a conductor), Pavarotti was even accused of not being able to read music in "The King & I," the 2002 book written by former manager Herbert Breslin after he and the singer split acrimoniously after 36 years. The tenor responded by saying that he could read vocal and piano scores perfectly well, but sometimes had trouble with orchestral scores.

Breslin described Pavarotti as "the greatest tenor in the world." But the central tenet of his book -- subtitled "The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary" -- was that the tenor was a "simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar."

In a 2004 interview with The Star-Ledger, Pavarotti replied to Breslin's comments, saying that he was non-aggressive by nature, even if he always had a will to succeed. The singer added that while it would be an "untruthful person" who describes themselves as always happy, he actually considered himself "very optimistic" despite problems with his weight, his back, a tabloid romantic scandal and accusations of tax evasion.

Once asked if he was afraid of not being able to hit all those high Cs, Pavarotti said, "Of course I am afraid. What sane man is not?" Plagued by infirmities and failing confidence, the singer canceled many appearances in later years. He was banned from Chicago's Lyric Opera for repeated cancellations, reportedly more than half of 41 scheduled appearances in less than a decade.

Citing a bad cold, Pavarotti backed out of what was initially billed as his final performance at the Met, a season-concluding turn in Puccini's "Tosca" in 2002. Tenor Salvatore Licitra, 33 at the time, filled in at the last minute with little rehearsal, kick-starting his international career. Many complained that Pavarotti should have at least addressed the audience. It was an inert, very overweight Pavarotti, plagued by bad knees, who finally said goodbye to Met audiences in "Tosca" in 2004, with a brave performance that was nonetheless described by one critic as "hapless."

Pavarotti embarked on an extended farewell recital tour that year, which included a stop at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel. He took care to marshal his energy, sharing the program with soprano Carmela Remigio (who won Pavarotti's competition for young voices in 1992). The tenor strained at times and was obviously burdened by the high humidity, but he showed flashes of that distinctly Mediterranean sound. He wasn't up for "Nessun Dorma," but he charmed the 6,500 present with a surprisingly subtle take on "O Sole Mio." He dedicated the tune in the usual Italian fashion -- "to the men, too, but especially to all the beautiful women."

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Pavarotti underwent surgery in New York and canceled the rest of his farewell tour, though he promised to resume the concerts. He had gone out on a high note, though, closing the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy with "Nessun Dorma." In the past year, Domingo and Bono were among those who visited Pavarotti at home.

Before his last New Jersey performance, Pavarotti was a wary, listless interviewee, but he took the time to muse over why opera -- and the Italian tenor voice -- still commands an audience: "It's simple: People still love Italian opera because it's beautiful. This art is like antique furniture -- it's solid and lasts a long time."

Mostly, though, Pavarotti was concerned to enjoy his leisure time with toddler Alice, his daughter with Nicoletta Mantovani, his former secretary and 35 years his junior, whom he married in 2003. He expressed rue over missing too many years with the three daughters from his first marriage. "Listen -- do you hear?" the singer asked, suddenly animated, as his little girl squealed near the phone. "This is the music I most want to hear today."

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