Accessibility links

Italian Opera Star Pavarotti Dead at 71

Hailed as one of the last century's greatest tenors, Luciano Pavarotti died September 6 in Modena, Italy at the age of 71. He was considered one of the last in the line of classic Italian tenors. Pavarotti earned the nickname "King of the High C's" after executing a string of high notes in Donizetti's opera Daughter of the Regiment, which has long been considered a challenging work for tenors. His large, rich voice and endearing personality made him a favorite with music lovers around the world. VOA's John Stevenson recalls the career of Luciano Pavarotti.

A New York Times newspaper critic once commented that "God has kissed the vocal chords" of Luciano Pavarotti. The opera star distinguished himself as the master of "bel canto" works, or those that require pure tones and exact articulation in the higher register of notes.

Born in Modena, Italy, in 1935, Pavarotti was first encouraged to sing during his early childhood. His parents often played recordings by great Italian tenors such as Caruso and Gigli. Aspiring to a career as a professional soccer player, Pavarotti decided to earn a teaching degree, and was an instructor at an elementary school for two years. His father encouraged him to continue with voice lessons, which paid off when he won a singing contest in 1961, and was offered a role in a local production of Puccini's opera, La Boheme.

During the early-1960s, Pavarotti appeared in other operas, where he enraptured audiences with his powerful voice and his ability to soar through difficult musical passages. In 1965, he made his American debut with the Greater Miami Opera Company in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and in 1968, he appeared for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, performing as Rodolfo in La Boheme.

As Pavarotti's voice grew in richness and depth, he expanded his repertoire to include works by Verdi, Mozart and other composers. Admitting to being a slave to his throat, Pavarotti once said that tenors were like athletes and had to constantly train to maintain muscle control.

"That's absolutely true. You have to be like an athlete," he said. "You have to do it every day. It doesn't mean that you have to destroy yourself. Sometimes 10 minutes is enough, but the instrument should always be there."

By the early-1980s, he had earned his place as one of the world's leading opera figures. Television performances of some of his greatest roles helped Pavarotti broaden his audience and sustain his position of classical music superstar. In 1986, 250 million Chinese listeners heard his Beijing performance of La Boheme.

Pavarotti also became famous for his free, outdoor concerts, which included arias as well as popular tunes from his native Italy. The 1990 recording of the "Three Tenors" concert in Rome, featuring Pavarotti with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, sold millions of copies. Pavarotti's free concert in New York's Central Park drew a crowd of 500,000 fans. Surprisingly, Pavarotti suffered from pre-concert stage fright, saying that he dreaded the moments right before going onstage rather than the actual singing.

"Yes, because before [you go onstage], you don't know what is going to happen," he said. "The moment you are putting your feet on the stage, you realize what is the situation of your voice, of your body. More than everything, there is a click that happens when you are there to make you become another person. The 15 minutes before, you really would like to be somebody else."

Pavarotti's 1993 Central Park Concert was a reaffirmation of his popularity and his confidence following painful knee surgery and a strict, weight-loss diet. He received tumultuous applause from the audience as well as praise from the critics. He embraced the rock and pop fields with the release of Pavarotti And Friends, a charity concert that featured the renowned opera star singing with British rocker Sting, The Neville Brothers, and Queen guitarist Brian May. In 1993, Pavarotti and fellow tenor Placido Domingo celebrated the 25th anniversary of their debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Pavarotti avoided the question of retiring, saying that his audience would let him know when it was time.

"How much longer would I like to sing? I don't know," he said. "You tell me how much longer. That is not my decision. I'm going to sing until they want me. A couple of years ago, I was thinking about retirement because I did not feel well for certain reasons. But today, I really feel good, and it's not on my mind for the moment."

Pavarotti was also known for his humanitarian works. In 1988, he performed a concert to benefit victims of an earthquake in Armenia that killed 25,000 people. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, he collected aid with U2 lead singer Bono.

In July 2006, as he was about to resume a tour, doctors diagnosed the singer with pancreatic cancer, one of the most dangerous forms of the disease. He underwent surgery, and cancelled the remainder of his concerts.

In a statement announcing Pavarotti's death, his manager, Terry Robson, said, "The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer that 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 the illness."

Opera great Luciano Pavarotti, dead at age 71.