Luciano Pavarotti, one of the most famous tenors of the 20th century and a figure whose hefty physique was known to millions as the quintessence of opera, died Thursday at his home in Modena, Italy. He was 71.
Pavarotti was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006 and was treated with several rounds of chemotherapy.
In part because his bearded and mustachioed visage was largely unchanged for 40-odd years, even as his weight noticeably rose and fell, Pavarotti was a cultural constant. He appeared not just on the world’s great stages but — more importantly in terms of achieving popular fame — at stadium concerts, on network and public television, on mass-market magazine covers and even in a feature film, a feat that harkened back to a golden age when opera greats lent class to movies.
Though Pavarotti’s star had already dimmed by the start of the 21st century — his voice had worn thin — and he was nearly as famous for canceling appearances as for making them, he remained in the public eye, beloved, if only in memory, as “king of the high Cs” and a paragon of Italian robustness.
Born in Modena, Pavarotti made his operatic debut in 1961 and quickly rose to fame thanks to his ringing high notes, tonal warmth and lyric effusions. A protege of soprano Joan Sutherland, he worked with her onstage and on records frequently, establishing one of opera’s most durable partnerships.
His American breakthrough came in February 1972 when he sang the role of Tonio in Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and created a frenzy that never abated.
Capitalizing on that fame, Pavarotti became a familiar face on TV, appearing first in full-length operas, including the initial “Live From the Met” broadcast in 1977, and later in concert programs. But he pushed his appeal by making “Yes, Giorgio” (1982), a movie that Leslie Halliwell charitably called “out of key with the modern film business.”
Pavarotti’s fame, if not his artistry, reached its pinnacle in the 1990s. Following the selection of his recording of Puccini’s aria “Nessun dorma” (None Shall Sleep) as the 1990 World Cup’s theme song, he embarked on a series of massive outdoor concerts.
The first of these was the inaugural Three Tenors concert, featuring Pavarotti alongside Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras at Rome’s Baths of Caracalla on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final. Their recording of the event sold in the millions and won a Grammy, his fifth of five.
Three other Three Tenors concerts followed (Los Angeles, 1994; Paris, 1998; Yokohama, 2002), but so did retirement from the opera house, including a botched Met farewell in 2002: Scheduled to appear in “Tosca,” Pavarotti didn’t.
The tenor’s charitable work was epitomized by a series of high-profile benefit concerts titled “Pavarotti and Friends” and recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which bestowed on him its highest honor, the Nansen Medalin 2001.
Pavarotti was married twice, first to Adua Veroni and then to Nicoletta Mantovani. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four daughters and a sister.