For more than three decades he was simply the most famous singer outside the realms of pop music in the world, renowned not just for the searing power and ease of that huge voice but for his equally large girth (taunts always hurt him) — and for that stance when he stood and delivered, arms outstretched, trademark handkerchief dangling from one hand. On the opera stage, his acting, it must be said, left much to be desired. But for all that, for those to whom opera simply meant Romantic Italian opera, he was unequivocally the greatest operatic tenor of his, and perhaps of any, time.
Pavarotti, the son of a baker who happened also to be a gifted amateur singer, studied first with Arrigo Pola in his hometown of Modena and later with Ettore Campogalliani in Mantua. His debut was at Reggio Emilia on April 29, 1961, when he sang Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohme — the role with which he was to be most closely identified throughout his career — and made an instant impression with the easy, powerful lyric quality of his voice.
Before long he was being heard abroad, in Amsterdam as Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) and at London's Covent Garden, again as Rodolfo (both in 1963). Glyndebourne saw him in 1964, when he sang Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo, a comparatively rare foray into that composer's music.
His first appearance in the United States was in 1965, in Florida, again as Edgardo, singing opposite Joan Sutherland. With Sutherland he toured Australia that year under the aegis of the Sutherland-Williams company, yet again singing Edgardo. That same year took him for the first time to La Scala, singing Rodolfo, and two years later his interpretation of that role led to his debuts at San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
Other roles he sang included Alfredo (Verdi's La traviata), Cavaradossi (Puccini's Tosca), Calaf (Puccini's Turandot), Elvino (Bellini's La sonnambula), Gustavus III (Verdi's Un ballo in maschera), Rodolfo (Verdi's Luisa Miller), Radames (Verdi's Aida), the Duke of Mantua (Verdi's Rigoletto), Tebaldo (Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi), Des Grieux (Massenet's Manon), Ernani (Verdi) and Arturo (Bellini's I Puritani).
But it was after he sang the role of Tonio in Donizetti's La Fille du r_giment at Covent Garden in 1966 that he became known as "the King of the High Cs", effortlessly singing nine of them in close succession in the aria "Pour mon ê¢me". Six years later he repeated the feat at the Met, earning 17 curtain calls, apparently a record.
Pavarotti was always a willing popularizer, but never more so than in the period from 1990 onward. In that year the World Cup soccer tournament was being staged in Italy. Pavarotti's voice was used as an aural trademark, and as part of the World Cup celebrations he gave the first of what would turn out to be a stream of high revenue-earning "Three Tenors" concerts with Plšcido Domingo and Jos_ Carreras. As a result, the aria "Nessun dorma" from Turandot became a popular bestseller. Indeed, from that time dates the classical recording industry's turning itself over to the pop-style marketing which now predominates (among the major labels) and arguably ill suits it. Many would assert that Pavarotti and his Three Tenors cohorts brought opera to the masses; this, however, was not really the case, since few of these listeners would actually go on to explore the context of an aria like "Nessun dorma" by seeing, or buying a recording of, the entire opera.
If all of this suggests that Pavarotti was a cynical operator, nothing could be further from the truth. No doubt he enjoyed his starry status and the vast income it produced as much as he relished his flirtations with women and his appetite for large helpings of corpulence-inducing Italian food, but he always considered himself the most serious of artists.
What marked his singing and his approach to opera was, however, a rather endearing naivety. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and it was obviously a simple heart. He asked no questions about the subtle inner wrestlings of human nature or the osmosis-like effects that others have upon us, but dealt in direct, clearly defined, extreme emotions, generously expressed.
This generosity extended beyond the act of singing. He joined forces with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, in raising funds for their campaign to eliminate land mines.
In the mid-1990s the voice began audibly to decline, but despite much unfavorable comment from the critics, Pavarotti continued to sing. In 2004, aged 69, he began his farewell tour.
That tour included his final performances at the Met, singing Cavaradossi. His invitation was a matter of some controversy, for two years previously he'd been scheduled to sing the role in two performances of Tosca that were widely assumed to be intended, albeit unofficially, as his Met farewell. Pavarotti did not, in the event, show at either of the performances, protesting a cold but keeping everybody waiting for his decision on whether or not to appear until just a couple of hours before curtain time. That would surely be that — "This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours," Joseph Volpe, then the Met's general manager, said he told the tenor. Not so. Under pressure from the humiliated Pavarotti himself, Volpe allowed him a final stab at the role. In neither vocal, theatrical nor musical terms was that last Met appearance considered successful.
Pavarotti's personal life was not always easy. His 35-year marriage to his business manager, Adua Veroni, which produced three daughters, ended in the mid-1990s after the discovery of his affair with his personal assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani. He went on to marry Mantovani in December 2003, a year after the arrival of twins, one of whom died at birth. In 1999 he was convicted of tax evasion and was forced to pay $11 million in arrears and penalties, though he was cleared on appeal in 2001.
And then, last year, came the devastating diagnosis of cancer of the pancreas. He endured an operation to remove the tumor in New York and months of chemotherapy and other treatment in Modena; by July of this year he was reported to be improving and even working on a recording. But in the end it was perhaps inevitable that he would succumb, which he did this morning, eleven days after he came home after more than two weeks in the Modena Polyclinic.