Opera was not the 20th century’s surest route to superstardom. But it was if you sang like Luciano Pavarotti.
Pavarotti, the literally and figuratively larger-than-life tenor whose recordings sold more than 100 million albums, and whose voice boomed everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, died at 5 a.m. Thursday morning, local time, at his home in Modena, Italy, after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
Dubbed the King of High C’s, for the showiest chandelier-shaking note in his repertoire, Pavarotti was hospitalized last month. Earlier Wednesday it was reported that his condition had taken a turn for the worse.
The singer underwent cancer surgery last year. It was the latest in a series of health setbacks that plagued the enduring performer in recent years.
“The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life. In fitting with the approach that characterised his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness,” Pavarotti’s manager, Terri Robson, said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Even during his most recent hospitalization, Pavarotti’s wife insisted the singer would sing again. It was a message that Pavarotti himself likely approved.
“I think the important thing is to sing very well until you sing, and have the fresh voice like my father did,” Pavarotti told the BBC in 2005. “My father was a great tenor. Beautiful voice. And he was fresh until two weeks before he died at the age of 90.”
Pavarotti’s father, Fernando, was a member of the local choir in Modena, Italy, where the future opera star was born on Oct. 12, 1935. Pavarotti would follow in his father’s footsteps–and then forge a whole new path.
The turning point for Pavarotti came when he was 25 –and had a day job.
“Let’s say, [in] the beginning, I am an elementary school teacher,” Pavarotti told the BBC. “And on 21 April 1961, I became a tenor.”
That’s when Pavarotti, fresh from winning a key competition, made his professional debut on the Italian stage in a production of La Boheme.
From there, Pavarotti embarked on a career that made him the world’s most famous opera singer, able to command the attention of 500,000 in New York’s Central Park, as he did in 1993, or recruit stars such as James Brown, Sting and Bono for his annual “Pavarotti & Friends” benefit concert.
“He knows the public loves him for himself, not only for his voice. If he lost his voice tomorrow, they would still love him,” the late Terry McEwen, a record executive and opera director, said of Pavarotti to Time in 1979. “He could go on performing, he could be a different kind of star.”
A different kind of star is exactly what Pavarotti was. He was overweight, lived in a tux and sang in tongues foreign to most casual Saturday Night Live viewers, and, yet, his fame transcended the opera house, making him right at home before, yes, most casual SNL viewers. (He dueted with Vanessa Williams in a 1998 episode of the sketch-comedy show.)
Pavarotti won five Grammys, earned a night at the Kennedy Center Honors alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews and Quincy Jones, starred in his own Hollywood movie, the 1982 romantic-comedy Yes, Giorgio, a flop, and fronted who knows how many local PBS pledge drives thanks to his popular concert videos with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, known jointly as “The Three Tenors.”
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