Opera World Loses a Leading Ambassador

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.

His Miami co-star, Joan Sutherland, became one of Pavarotti's prominent early supporters and brought him on tour with her to her native Australia. They also recorded some of his earliest and best-loved albums. He credited Sutherland's husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, with recognizing his potential to reach incredibly high notes. Supposedly Bonynge tricked him into reaching high C while accompanying the singer as Tonio in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment," and the result was so strikingly beautiful that it became one of Pavarotti's signature accomplishments.

On Nov. 23, 1968, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut, again as Rodolfo in "Boheme." Critic Peter G. Davis, writing in the New York Times, faulted Pavarotti's "stiff" acting but was enthusiastic about "the natural beauty of his voice."

He went on to sing more than 375 times with the Met, including his dazzling work again as Tonio, a peasant, with Sutherland as his love interest in "Regiment" in 1972. Afterward, he was promoted by his record company as the "King of the High C's" and appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" to demonstrate his skill. This became one of his earliest opportunities to reach a wider audience beyond the opera world.

Pavarotti was renowned for the beauty and freedom of his upper register. "When singing high notes I feel like a show jumper before a two meters-plus bar," he once said. "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, after it has been successfully negotiated, I regain control."

Yet he could be a maddeningly lazy interpreter -- in 1992 he lip-synced his way through a concert in Italy -- and his attempts to move into heavy roles such as Otello and Don Carlo were met with an indifferent press and, on at least one occasion, outright heckling.

Pavarotti also attracted criticism for his frequent cancellations. The Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989 refused to hire him anymore after he canceled 26 of 41 scheduled performances over eight years.

Nor did his stadium concerts find him at his best. When he came to Washington's Capital Centre in 1992, he sang for only 37 minutes. "Those who paid top price [$175 per ticket] spent about $ 4.75 per minute to hear mediocre sound and see Pavarotti from a distance on a giant video screen," Joseph McLellan reported in The Post. "Yes, they were in the same room with the great singer, but it was an awfully big room."

An even greater fame lay ahead, when Pavarotti joined up with two of his most celebrated colleagues to create the Three Tenors for a 1990 concert at the Roman Baths of Caracalla. Understandably miffed that they had accepted a flat fee for their first disc and therefore received not a penny in royalties, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras made no such mistake when they sang together again four years later in Los Angeles. It is estimated that as many as a billion people heard portions of the second Three Tenors event, which was disseminated via cable, audio and video and remains a popular fundraiser for PBS.

In 1996, the trio reunited for a world tour that brought each man a cool $1 million per night. Another Three Tenors disc was issued in 1998 and a Christmas album (complete with "Jingle Bells" and "Feliz Navidad") in 2000. The final reunion took place in 2003 in the English city of Bath.

Whether the success of the Three Tenors was a good thing for classical music has been much debated. The Three Tenors, in the very act of proving that an ostensibly classical album could make a fortune, helped inspire a vast dumbing-down at the record companies, which had previously been delighted on those rare occasions when a classical record came close to selling 100,000 copies.

Moreover, the concerts hardly represented Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras at their best. The famous arias were rolled out in a perfunctory manner -- scarcely comparable to the tenors' best studio recordings -- and the novelty numbers were sometimes downright awful.

Fortunately, Pavarotti made a great number of other recordings, including complete performances of many of the most popular operas by Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini; Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" and Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana"; as well as numerous collections of arias and ensembles. Some of his finest discs were of unexpected repertory, such as Rossini's enormous French opera "William Tell."

Pavarotti's last appearance at the Metropolitan Opera took place in March 2004. At the age of 68, he shepherded his voice carefully, singing quietly when he could and breaking up long phrases more eagerly than he used to (although never to the detriment of musical or dramatic sense). He moved slowly and with what seemed an unsteady stiffness; indeed, he was barely recognizable as Puccini's hero, Mario Cavaradossi, the ardent young lover of diva Floria Tosca. But he was still recognizable as Pavarotti -- the man with the lambent, sun-splashed voice, diminished by time and infirmity but still the most sheerly beautiful sound made by any tenor in recent memory.

Pavarotti's private life was complicated and he was not immune to scandal. In 1996, tabloid photographers spotted him on a beach kissing his 26-year-old secretary, Nicoletta Mantovani. Soon after, he separated from his wife of 35 years, the former Adua Veroni, and endured years of bitter alimony negotiations.

He married Mantovani in 2003. Besides his second wife, survivors include three daughters from the first marriage and a daughter from the second marriage.

Staff writer Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.

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