Opera’s greatest star brought classical music to the masses

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.

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.”

His father, Fernando, was a baker who sang in an amateur chorus and had always dreamed of a career as a singer. But although Pavarotti grew up in a house full of music, his first love was soccer, for which he was said to have talent.

However, he regularly attended the opera with his father; was childhood friends with Mirella Freni, a celebrated soprano he later performed with frequently; and became interested in singing when he joined his father’s chorus as a teenager.

After struggling through the post-World War II years in Italy, he succumbed to his parents’ desire that he find something more financially secure than a singing career. His mother hoped to entice him into accounting, but he chose teaching and entered the Instituto Magistrale in Modena, graduating in 1955. Not surprisingly, he grew bored with the vocation after two years and decided to try for a professional singing career. He financed his voice studies by selling life insurance and was highly successful, thanks to his beguiling charm.

Pavarotti’s professional opera debut was as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” It would become one of his most famous roles, and he would spectacularly record it in 1987 with conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic. This first Rodolfo was in Reggio Emilia, not far from Modena, and was awarded to him as the prize for winning a local voice competition in 1961, the same year he married Adua Veroni after an eight-year engagement. The couple had three daughters.

The tenor started out slowly, singing in provincial opera houses while also serving as an understudy at better-known ones in more important venues throughout Italy and then elsewhere in Europe. He specialized in lyrical Italian operas by Donizetti, Verdi and Bellini, but he also had a penchant for Puccini, and he tried his hand at the occasional French opera. He sang little of the German composers or Mozart, and he never took an interest in contemporary opera.

At the time, Pavarotti had no models for the kind of career he would develop, unless they were his soccer idols. The most famous tenors of his youth and young adulthood -- Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano -- were stars but not to the degree sopranos were. Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland reigned supreme.

Pavarotti’s breakthrough year was 1965, when he was 30, in fresh voice and, although already heavy, full of irresistible zeal onstage. It was his size that attracted Sutherland’s attention. A large woman herself, she was looking for a tenor whom she wouldn’t dwarf. Pavarotti made his North American debut as a lovable country bumpkin in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Miami with Sutherland and then toured Australia with her.

From Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, an expert in bel canto singing, Pavarotti learned a great deal about breath control and how to support his voice. He may not have learned much about acting from the soprano -- who was stiff onstage, relying on vocal fireworks to convey drama -- but he at least discovered the need for professionalism.

It was in 1966 that Pavarotti first conquered high C. He had been uncertain that he could handle the daunting nine high Cs he would be required to sing during a first-act aria of Donizetti’s featherweight comic opera “La Fille du Regiment,” but Bonynge tricked him. At rehearsals, the conductor assured the tenor that the Cs had been transposed down to Bs, when, in fact, they hadn’t. Lacking perfect pitch, and with limited ability to read music, Pavarotti loosened up and blithely scaled the vocal heights.

The high Cs were one of the things that separated him from his main rival in opera, Domingo. But their rivalry was, to some extent, manufactured, because they were almost the opposite in every way. Domingo, the Spanish tenor, is a more dramatic singer with a far livelier intellectual curiosity. He started as a baritone and worked hard to move his voice up to the tenor range.

Once Pavarotti ascended to high C, he became in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. He opened the 1966-67 season of the Rome Opera, and he made his La Scala debut in Milan that fall. Von Karajan, then the most famous conductor in Europe, asked him to sing in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, also at La Scala. In short order came Pavarotti’s San Francisco Opera debut in “La Boheme” in 1967 and his Met debut with the same opera in 1968.

Over the next four years the tenor’s fame in the opera world steadily grew. His first solo recital disc, made in 1968, launched an exclusive recording deal with Decca Records, which continued throughout his career. He began a large series of opera recordings with Sutherland, starting with “L’Elisir,” which led to one hit set after another.

His 1972 appearance at the Met in a new production of “Regiment” staged for Sutherland marked his arrival as a major star. Although the soprano and an exceptional cast were all said to have had show-stopping moments, Pavarotti received an unprecedented 17 curtain calls.

Breslin, Pavarotti’s aggressive publicist, figured that the Met triumph could be just the beginning for his client. Breslin became the singer’s manager and set out to make him a celebrity whose career would extend considerably beyond the confines of opera.

First, he persuaded Pavarotti to try his hand at solo recitals, assuming that the tenor’s personality could easily sell an evening. It worked, and Breslin began looking for new ways to bring the “tenor out of the opera house and into the arms of an enormous mass public,” he wrote in “The King and I.”

In 1977, Pavarotti appeared on the first “Live From the Met” television broadcast with Italian soprano Renata Scotto in “La Boheme.” Never before had such a wide audience witnessed a single opera performance, and it turned out that the camera loved Pavarotti.

Before long, Breslin had the tenor selling out Madison Square Garden, attracting hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic fans to Central Park recitals, traveling to Hollywood to star in “Yes, Giorgio,” appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, being the subject of an endless string of adoring celebrity magazine features, recording crossover hits of sentimental Italian pop songs and Christmas numbers, and singing duets with Frank Sinatra.

Pavarotti also tried to retain his reputation as a serious opera singer, but his limitations as an artist began to emerge. His acting onstage declined, partly because he felt he didn’t need to work at it and partly because he began assuming more dramatically demanding roles.

In “Regiment,” audiences came to see Pavarotti, not the character Tonio. He was comfortable as the womanizing Duke in “Rigoletto.” But when it came to conveying a more heroic character such as Radames in Verdi’s “Aida,” Pavarotti’s limitations became more apparent. He was booed the first and only time he sang Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at La Scala. When he attempted the title role in Verdi’s “Otello” -- one of the most dramatically intense roles in the Italian repertoire -- in concert performances with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Georg Solti, he barely got through it.

Still, the world continued to fall at his feet. Throughout the 1980s, Pavarotti found that he could command more than $100,000 for a single performance. And his lifestyle became increasingly regal. He spent less and less time preparing his roles or studying new ones, more interested in the crossover events and in pursuing such passions as his lifelong love of horses.

In 1986, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his professional stage debut, he visited China and gave a concert in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

With the advent of the Three Tenors, Pavarotti reached yet another pinnacle of fame. He and Domingo agreed to celebrate their younger colleague Carreras’ recovery from leukemia with a benefit concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome as part of the World Cup festivities in 1990.

The performance was viewed as a one-time event, and the CD of it sold in the millions, a new phenomenon for classical music. Pavarotti immediately capitalized on that popular success with a Christmas CD, “O Holy Night,” which made him the first classical artist to top the British pop charts. The recording remained at No. 1 for five weeks.

When the Three Tenors realized how much money they could make, they revived the act in 1994 at Dodger Stadium, this time for their own profit. On television, the production had a viewership of 1.5 billion worldwide, and the trio began taking the show on the road whenever their schedules permitted.

Pavarotti still appeared in the occasional opera production in the 1990s, but by then he had entered the pop pantheon. He created his own annual charity concerts, Pavarotti and Friends, in Modena in 1993. He invited an unlikely host of pop stars to sing with him, including Jon Bon Jovi, James Brown, Bono, Eric Clapton, Brian Eno, B.B. King, the Spice Girls and Sting. He raised money for international causes. And he won new friends onstage and off.

Controversy followed him offstage as well. He had tax problems in Germany and Italy that cost him millions of dollars. He left his wife after 37 years of marriage for his secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani, a woman 35 years his junior, and a prolonged, nasty public divorce followed. In 2002, Nicoletta had twins, one stillborn, and the couple married the following year.

Meanwhile, Pavarotti finally announced his retirement in 2001, the 40th anniversary of his “Boheme” debut in Reggio Emilia.

But he managed to get through a “Tosca” at Covent Garden in London the following year. He sang the opera once more in Berlin and then mustered the strength to return to the Met in March 2004 for three truly final “Toscas.”

Critical expectations for the tenor in his 60s were low. At a Staples Center recital in 2003, he seemed a diminished figure, leaning against a tacky throne, hitting one characteristic Pavarotti note out of 100. Yet that was all he needed. He was again Pavarotti, the goose bumps rose and the crowd -- just like legions of similar crowds for more than 40 years -- went wild.

In April 2005, he began a worldwide farewell tour in Pretoria, South Africa. But July 6 the following year, Pavarotti announced that he had had surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his pancreas and that he intended to resume his farewell concerts in 2007. He never performed in public again.






Puccini: “Turandot.” A powerhouse Pavarotti performance that includes a “Nessun dorma” to die for. With Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe. Zubin Mehta conducts the London Philharmonic. (Decca)

Puccini: “La Boheme.” The lovable Parisian bohemians, led by Pavarotti, here bathed in sumptuous vocal and orchestral grandeur. With Mirella Freni. Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic. (Decca)

Donizetti: “La Fille du Regiment.” The high Cs keep coming. With Joan Sutherland. Richard Bonynge conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. (Decca)

“The Pavarotti Edition.” A 10-CD, 200-track completist’s overview of the tenor’s career. (Decca)

“Recital UCLA.” Pavarotti at his best. (Gala)

“O Holy Night.” Luscious Christmas fare with Luciano. (Decca)


Verdi: “Rigoletto.” Pavarotti at his most convincing dominates a vivid, realistic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. With Ingvar Wixell and Edita Gruberova. Riccardo Chailly conducts. Vienna State Opera. (Deutsche Grammophon)

Verdi: Requiem. Pavarotti shines in an inspired 1967 performance with great soloists (including Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto and Nikolai Ghiaurov) and conductor Herbert von Karajan. Filmed live at La Scala. (Deutsche Grammophon)

Leoncavallo: “Pagliacci.” Paired with the theatrically uncompromising soprano Teresa Stratas, Pavarotti proves that, when pressed, he can act in this lavish Franco Zeffirelli Metropolitan Opera production. James Levine conducts. (Deutsche Grammophon)

Donizetti: “L’Elisir d’Amore.” The young Pavarotti charm lights up the stage in this early-career Met outing. With Judith Blegen, Sesto Bruscantini. Nicola Rescigno conducts. (Pioneer Classics)

“The Three Tenors in Concert.” This started it all at Rome’s Baths of Caracalla in 1990. Lacking the cynicism of their sequels, the three here, led by Zubin Mehta, are a joy to behold. (Decca)

“Pavarotti & Friends for War Child.” You have to see it to believe it. With Liza Minnelli, Elton John and Sheryl Crow. (Decca)