Some admirers called Luciano Pavarotti the greatest tenor who ever lived. He certainly was the contemporary world’s most widely recognized opera singer and one of the most popular and successful tenors in operatic history. He possessed one of the greatest, most distinctive tenor voices of his generation. And he brought opera to millions of listeners who ordinarily wouldn’t have paid any attention to it.
His manager, Terri Robson, said in a statement that Pavarotti died at his home in Modena, Italy, at 5 a.m. local time Thursday. Pavarotti had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and underwent further treatment in August.
“The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life,” the statement said. “In fitting with the approach that characterized his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness.”
Pavarotti was the first contemporary opera star to exploit a well-oiled publicity machine; the first to give concerts in stadiums, parks and other mass-audience venues; the first to bridge the worlds of classical, popular and crossover music with equal success, breaking all sales records for a classical recording artist.
His reach grew even more as one of The Three Tenors, along with his onetime rivals Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. The trio produced a phenomenally successful series of concerts around the world and several chart-busting recordings.
“I always admired the God-given glory of his voice—that unmistakable special timbre from the bottom up to the very top of the tenor range,” Domingo said in a statement from Los Angeles.
“I also loved his wonderful sense of humor and on several occasions of our concerts with Jose Carreras ... we had trouble remembering that we were giving a concert before a paying audience, because we had so much fun between ourselves,” he said.
During the 1970s and `80s Pavarotti favored Lyric Opera of Chicago audiences with most of the roles central to his repertory and gave numerous concerts in the area. But his history of persistent cancellations at the Lyric forced the company to break relations with him in a spectacular firing that made headlines around the world.
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And critics early on observed that Pavarotti’s vocal gifts were more instinctive than intellectual, and that his corpulence limited him as an actor. Although his technical training was superb, he never developed strong musical skills. From all reports, his ability to read music was rudimentary to non-existent. He had to rely on conductors, coaches and colleagues to get through unfamiliar scores where his strong musical instincts weren’t enough. By the end of his career, by his own admission, his performances had become increasingly lax.
Pavarotti had a long history of health problems, most of them linked to obesity. In 2006 he underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer and subsequently underwent radiation therapy.
Pavarotti had not been seen in public since the cancer operation, which forced him to cancel the rest of his 2006 farewell opera tour. But Robson said at the time that he was teaching and working on a recording of sacred songs.
The rotund, bearded Italian singer’s open-hearted stage persona was one major reason for his fame. Though no great actor, he connected with audiences—they loved him and he loved them in return.
Pavarotti sang in all the world’s leading opera houses, including Lyric Opera, where he was a fixture from 1973, when he made his company debut as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
Between that year and 1989, his Lyric roles included Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Cavaradossi in “Tosca,” Riccardo in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” the Duke in “Rigoletto” and Radames in Verdi’s “Aida.”
He also gave numerous concert appearances in the Chicago area, most recently in 1991 when he recorded the title role in Verdi’s “Otello” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.
But in 1989, after Pavarotti canceled 26 out of 41 scheduled appearances at the Lyric, general director Ardis Krainik fired him, calling the decision “a business matter.” The tenor’s history of broken contracts was affecting the company’s credibility with its public, she said. By standing up to one of opera’s biggest drawing cards, she drew headlines the world over and sympathetic nods from fellow opera managers, many of whom also had been stiffed by Pavarotti at one time or another.
Everything about the Pavarotti phenomenon was larger than life, beginning with the voice itself: big, bright and incisive with a touch of metal, full and vibrant throughout its range, with effortlessly clarion high notes that led his record company to dub him “The King of the High Cs.” It was an alluring sound like no one else’s, a sound that carried a visceral impact.
“When singing high notes, I feel like a show-jumper before a two-meters-plus bar,” author Helena Matheopoulos quotes Pavarotti as saying in her 1986 book “Divo.” “Stretched to my limits. Excited and happy, but with a strong undercurrent of fear. The moment I actually hit the note, I almost lose consciousness. A physical, animal sensation seizes me. Then I regain control.”
His personality was as generous as his well-fed frame. His appetite forla dolce vita—food, wine, women, fame, applause and money, not necessarily in that order—was legendary. His fees were higher than those of any classical musician, eventually rising to more than $200,000 for recitals in such gargantuan arenas as New York’s Madison Square Garden. He raised millions of dollars for various charities, and his concerts invariably sold out.
“No one ever loses money on Luciano Pavarotti,” wrote Herbert Breslin, his longtime manager and Svengali, in his tell-all book, “The King and I,” about how he helped to engineer the tenor’s unprecedented success. By masterminding that magnetic voice and presence into a commodity that was salable worldwide, Breslin clinched his client’s ascent to superstardom.
Despite his limitations as a musician, Pavarotti managed to cut an impressive swath through a relatively limited Italian repertory in both the opera house and concert hall. His smooth legato line, exquisite soft singing and easy negotiation of the most difficult florid passages made him a natural for the bel canto roles of Donizetti and Bellini. It was in these parts that he based his European fame after his 1961 debut in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia.
His voice was particularly well suited to the more lyrical early and middle-period Verdi roles such as the Duke of Mantua in “Rigoletto,” Gustavo in “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Alfredo in “La Traviata.” When he moved on to heavier Puccini parts such as Rodolfo in “La Boheme” (the role of his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1968) and Cavaradossi in “Tosca,” he never went beyond his lyric means.
He sang the dramatic role of Calaf, in Puccini’s “Turandot,” only on recordings, although he made “Nessun dorma,” the tenor aria from that opera, his signature tune in concerts.
Indeed, his ardent performance of that aria at the World Cup soccer games in Italy in 1990 alongside Domingo and Carreras was pivotal in launching The Three Tenors as a commercial phenomenon worldwide, thanks to recordings, video and television. The first Three Tenors CD sold more discs than any classical recording up to that time.
Pavarotti was fortunate to live well into the stereo, digital and home video eras of recording and to have his art generously represented in all electronic media. Few opera singers enjoyed a more mutually beneficial relationship with recording. He recorded all his major roles and made millions of dollars for his recording company, Decca.
Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy, on Oct. 12, 1935. Early on it was clear that the timbre and lyric coloration of his voice were exceptional. His father, Fernando Pavarotti, had a respectable tenor voice that the elder Pavarotti had been forced to subordinate to his job as a baker. His father nurtured a love of singing in the boy by playing him 78-rpm records by such legendary Italian tenors as Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Tito Schipa.
After seven years of study and a temporary loss of voice the final year that nearly forced him to give up singing, the 26-year-old Pavarotti made his professional debut. It caused no excitement in Italian operatic circles. But this didn’t slow the ambitious young tenor. He went on to make a series of highly successful debuts in the top European and American theaters—Covent Garden, La Scala, Rome, Paris, the Met, Lyric Opera, San Francisco.
After more than a decade of opera and concerts, Pavarotti and his handlers decided he was destined for things beyond the limited sphere of classical music. Pavarotti became Pavarotti Inc. with the big stadium gigs, a puffy autobiography, a Hollywood movie (“Yes, Giorgio,” a box-office flop) and other dubious career moves.
As his fame grew, the tenor began coasting on his popularity and his singing became increasingly lazy, by his own admission. Along with chronic struggles with his weight, he grappled with knee and hip surgery that sapped his stamina and hampered his mobility. His cancellations became more frequent as he fell prey to a host of ailments. Bad knees forced him to sing his final stage performances in a chair or hobbling about the stage.
In 2003, the singer divorced his wife and former manager, Adua Veroni Pavarotti, after 41 years of marriage and three daughters to marry Nicoletta Mantovani, his personal manager and a woman 34 years his junior.
Pavarotti retired from staged opera in 2004 but continued to sing concerts. His “worldwide farewell celebration tour,” which began in 2005, when he was 70, was widely regarded as an artistic bust. By then, many in the music business were forced to agree with Breslin’s contention (included in “The King and I”) that the tenor was “in it only for the money.”
So what, history will shrug. That unique trumpet of a voice remains on disc and video, an imperishable reminder of the surpassing artistry that will outlive the antics, foibles and gimmicks with which Pavarotti, in late career, seemed determined to tarnish his legacy. No other singer in the annals of opera rose so far, so brilliantly, and with such a public to cheer him, or her, on.
Pavarotti is survived by his wife, three daughters by his first marriage and a daughter by his second.
Ave Maria (Schubert)
// Notes from the Road
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