A Last Honor for Pavarotti?

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Luciano Pavarotti

The announcement of a special Italian government prize for Luciano Pavarotti is the clearest sign to date that the ailing opera legend is indeed fighting for his life. Diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer, Pavarotti, 71, spent much of August in the hospital in his hometown of Modena, and rumors about his condition — both dire diagnoses and reports of miraculous recoveries — have swirled all summer in the Italian gossip press. But when Italy's Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli on Tuesday said that Pavarotti would be awarded the first-ever "Excellence in Italian Culture" prize, he spoke solemnly of the bearded tenor's "battle for life."

"In these days, one of the greatest of Italians is conducting a major battle against illness with the same determination ... as he showed in his formidable career," said Rutelli. "In light of everything, we didn't want him to miss formal recognition."

Pavarotti burst onto the opera scene in the mid 1960s, building a reputation as one of the great performers of the century, noted for his impassioned style as he hit the high C's and gripped his ever-present white dinner napkin. He achieved worldwide fame with live television appearances, both of classical operas and duets with such singers as Stevie Wonder and Celine Dion. He is also one-third of the Three Tenors, alongside Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.

In more recent years, Pavarotti has been dogged by run-ins with the Italian tax police and hounded by the gossip pages for his divorce to his longtime wife and marriage to his much younger assistant. The singer has repeatedly announced his retirement, only to be called out for one last concert and curtain call. Most recently, though, plans for a farewell tour were put off after he was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery in July 2006, and has undergone repeated rounds of chemotherapy, and has not been seen in public in more than a year. Pavarotti released a statement in July saying he was recovering well, following a report that quoted one of his daughters saying that her father "is dying." On Aug. 8, the singer checked in with a fever to a Modena hospital, where he remained for nearly three weeks of treatment.