Luciano Pavarotti, 1935–2007

Luciano Pavarotti was one of the biggest opera stars of the last century, but he was much bigger than opera. A lyric tenor whose remarkable voice was so honeyed and brilliant that even non-opera lovers were readily moved by its beauty, he married his natural musicality with a blatant gift for showmanship. Besides his triumphs in the world's greatest opera houses, he sold more than 50 million albums, his arena concerts were packed like a rock star's and he would happily sign autographs for his fans for hours. As he aged—and performing on the opera stage became more demanding—Pavarotti and his manager found amazing ways for him to become even bigger in the public eye, especially with the phenomenally successful Three Tenors gigs, where he joined Plácido Domingo and José Carreras: their televised concerts were seen by as many as 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. For his charity concerts and albums "Pavarotti & Friends," he roped in such singers as Bono, Elton John and even the Spice Girls. (Check out his live performances with James Brown, Barry White and other singing legends on YouTube.) Critics may have disdained such commercialism, but with the help of recordings and television, Pavarotti doubtless reached the widest audience of any opera singer in history. Dubbed at various times Lucky, Lurch, Deep Throat and Lucianissimo, he took a long time to let go of his career. Like Sinatra's, his farewell tour didn't seem to be a final goodbye—but after surgery for pancreatic cancer in July 2006, he never appeared in public again.

Pavarotti died, at 71, where he was born, in the Italian city of Modena, where his father had worked in a bakery, his mother in a cigar factory. His father was a tenor, too—and Luciano grew up listening not just to his father's voice but to his records of such greats as Enrico Caruso. Pavarotti sang in the Modena opera chorus, and when the chorus took first prize at a music festival in Wales, he began to seriously embrace the idea of a singing career. He took lessons, though he never had conservatory training, and it was said he couldn't really read music. His first big break came when he filled in for a sick tenor in "La Bohème" at Covent Garden in 1963. He went on to sing the role of Rodolfo in his La Scala debut and in his 1968 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where, over the course of his career, he sang 378 performances, more than he did anywhere else. In 1972 at the Met, when he sang Tonio in Donizetti's "La Fille du Régiment" opposite Joan Sutherland, he so magically hit the nine high C's in a row that audiences went crazy, and he was invited to appear on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. And a pop star of the opera world was born.

The King of the High C's, as his record company soon called him, lived large and was famous for his outsize appetites—for food, wine, sports. In 1996 he hit the gossip pages when he left his wife of 35 years—they had three daughters—for his much younger assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani, whom he married in 2003 (they have one daughter). He sang at the Met for the last time in Puccini's "Tosca" in 2004. Though most of his great roles were in Italian operas, he was never as big a star in Italy as he was abroad, where his ebullient personality had won him such a wide legion of fans. His personality—and his heft—overpowered most of his roles; late in his career, he sometimes needed furniture or the arm of a costar to help prop him up onstage. As critics pointed out, his acting was never a match for his singing. Pavarotti was always Pavarotti—and that's what his fans loved. That and the beautiful voice, which reached across the world.

Join the Discussion