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Opera World Loses a Leading Ambassador

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By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, 71, who died last night of pancreatic cancer at his home in Modena, Italy, combined a lustrous lyric tenor voice with a radiant and expansive personal charm to win the largest and most diversified audience ever accorded an opera singer.

Millions of listeners who never came close to setting foot in an opera house knew and loved Pavarotti through his countless appearances on television and in stadium concerts -- especially the spectacularly successful Three Tenors marathons with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. The Decca recording of their first collaboration became far and away the best-selling classical album in history, with upward of 15 million copies distributed to date.

Connoisseurs acclaimed Pavarotti for his voice of surpassing sweetness, full and vibrant throughout its range, and for his warmly lyrical performances of standard Italian roles, such as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata," Nemorino in Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," Rodolfo and Caravadossi in Puccini's "La Bohème" and "Tosca."

But Pavarotti -- in tandem with his shrewd, aggressive longtime manager, Herbert H. Breslin -- also courted a popular audience with unprecedented zeal. And so Pavarotti made commercials for the American Express card, led New York's Columbus Day parade, clowned through the expensive Hollywood flop "Yes, Giorgio" and posed for press photographs with mountains of pasta.

The world was kept informed of Pavarotti's joie de vivre, his ebullient flirtations and his halfhearted struggle with his weight, which fluctuated between 250 and 350 pounds. At the peak of his career, he received more than 50,000 fan letters a year, and it was said that he never turned down a request for an autograph, a picture or a kiss. His rivalries with other singers -- notably Domingo (which was mostly friendly) and the soprano Renata Scotto (which was not) -- were also widely chronicled.

Yesterday as Pavarotti's death grew imminent, Domingo said in a statement: "One of the most gratifying aspects of my life is that Luciano and I became friends in spite of what many important people in the entertainment industry had planned for us. They thought that feuding would not only be good for promoting our then still young careers but also for the music business in general. What really happened was that our careers encouraged each other. . . . Eventually we both fooled everybody by becoming real friends who respected each other for their individual strengths and weaknesses."

Some found the unrelenting onslaught of personal publicity distasteful, but it helped make Pavarotti the best-known and highest-paid classical artist of his time. And he could not be dismissed: Behind the huggy-bear, "I'm just a happy, regular overweight Italian guy who loves to sing" persona was a great and serious artist.

Ultimately, Pavarotti captured the public imagination as no tenor since Enrico Caruso, whose name he regularly invoked. "Probably the biggest similarity between Pavarotti and Caruso is the way each could envelop an audience," the late soprano Rosa Ponselle, who knew both men, said in 1979. "Each could make every person feel that he or she was being sung to individually."

Luciano Pavarotti was born Oct. 12, 1935, in Modena, a city renowned for its love of opera. Even his father, a baker by trade, sang tenor in local productions. His mother labored in a cigarette factory with the mother of soprano Mirella Freni, who became a frequent leading lady to Pavarotti on world stages.

Standing over six feet tall and somewhat athletic in his youth, Pavarotti excelled in soccer as a young man. He gravitated to opera as a profession and was good enough to qualify for voice training at Modena's Istituto Magistrale, which he said saved him from his mother's attempt to make him into an accountant.

He taught elementary school and sold insurance while vying in opera competitions. Among his early instructors were Modena tenor Arrigo Pola, who sensed his brilliance and taught him for free, and Ettore Campogalliani in the city of Mantua. Pavarotti underwent intensive regimens on posture, spending six months alone on how to hold his jaw.

After several misses, Pavarotti won an opera contest in 1961 and made his debut that year as Rodolfo in "La Bohème." After years touring Europe, he made his American debut in 1965 with the Greater Miami Opera in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" when he substituted for another tenor at the last minute.


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