Radiant tenor was king of opera world

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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).

Mr. Pavarotti's career moved into a new phase when he was spotted by stellar soprano Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge. The young tenor's U.S. debut, in 1965 at Florida Grand Opera (then called Greater Miami Opera), was opposite Sutherland in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

The two singers then toured Australia performing several Italian operas. The tenor, in his 1981 book Pavarotti: My Own Story, called this venture "the final important experience of my education as a singer."

Although his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968 -- La Boheme again -- went well, Mr. Pavarotti was ill with the flu at the time and, by his own admission, not at his best.

His best came soon enough, in 1972, when he sang Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment at the Met and thoroughly conquered the house, delivering the demanding aria, Ah, mes amis, with its famous nine high Cs, effortlessly and brilliantly. He took 17 curtain calls that night.

A particularly intense love affair between Mr. Pavarotti and Met audiences continued for many years. Among the high points of that rapport was the first "Live From the Met" telecast on PBS in 1977, a performance of La Boheme.

"Naturally, we were already nervous to be singing live on television," Mr. Pavarotti wrote in an essay for The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia (1987). "Then somebody told me I'd be singing in that one performance to more people than ever heard Caruso in his entire career. I wonder that I made [it] out of my dressing room."

The tenor's superstar status was indisputable by that point. It only increased when he added concertizing to his busy schedule in opera houses around the world.

Mr. Pavarotti's separate concert career began in earnest in 1973 and never stopped. He created a new persona in this format, always clutching a huge white handkerchief (more of a dinner napkin, actually) -- an image that gained iconic status. The familiar sight of the tenor, at the end of each aria, stretching out his arms in a grand, embracing gesture likewise became a Pavarotti trademark.

Locally, his appearances included a 1985 concert before a crowd of 14,000 at the Baltimore Civic Center and a return engagement in 1989 before 10,000 fans at the site, then renamed the Baltimore Arena.

Such large-scale, heavily-amplified events did not necessarily bring out the best of the singer's talents, or earn universal praise in the music world. A common view, expressed in 1997 by noted critic Peter G. Davis, decried "a prodigiously gifted singer who turned slovenly, unmusical, and uncaring whenever he stooped to entertain the masses."

There were also complaints in the press when, during a fundraising concert in Italy in the mid-1990s, Mr. Pavarotti lip-synched some of the music.

Other controversies occurred along the way, including a parting of ways in 2003 with longtime manager Herbert Breslin, who went on to write an often unflattering book about the singer.

Mr. Pavarotti made another round of headlines when he and his wife, Adua Veroni, went through a bitter divorce after 35 years of marriage. In 2003, the singer then married his secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani, 34 years his junior; the couple had been living together since the mid-1990s.

Both women survive Mr. Pavarotti, as do four daughters -- three from his first marriage -- and one granddaughter.

Whatever bloom was lost in the closing chapters of Mr. Pavarotti's career, there was always enough of the great artist and the gleaming sound left in the tenor to disarm most listeners, to generate enthusiasm and even gratitude, right up to his final performances.

In the end, nothing can diminish the record of his finest work from his peak decades, a great deal of it preserved on disc and video. It remains a benchmark of lyrical singing -- a model of vocal production, refined articulation, and poetic, visceral communication.

The force of his dynamic personality and unmistakable star quality will not likely be encountered again for a very long time.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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