Luciano Pavarotti Dies at 71

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Ira Nowinski / Corbis

Luciano Pavarotti before a recital.

Luciano Pavarotti, the bearded opera legend, died early Thursday after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. With his noted girth and cheeky duets with pop singers, the 71-year-old tenor was that rare maestro of classical music who was as instantly recognizable around the world as superstars from MTV and the movies.

Pavarotti died at 5 a.m. local time at home in the northern city of Modena where he was born. As word of his death spread, the singer was remembered both by experts and ordinary folks for reinvigorating and reinventing (some critics would say, ruining) the classical art form of opera, or la musica lirica, that was born here in the 17th century. "Like Ferrari, he was the symbol of Italy in the world," said noted music critic Mario Luzzato Fegiz. "He was admired for his talent, for his capacity to be a tenor without pretensions, to be close to the people."

Pavarotti burst onto the scene in the mid 1960s, getting his big break on an American stage in one of those typical show business tales of being in the right place at the right time when in 1965 he stepped in alongside Joan Sutherland on the stage of the Miami-Dade County Auditorium when the scheduled tenor fell ill. Just three months later, he debuted at Milan's La Scala in La Bohème — and never looked back. His fame multiplied with major televised performances in the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually his teaming up with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to form the Three Tenors.

Adored for his knack for the spectacle, Pavarotti was ultimately admired most for the sheer splendor of his voice. Said Domingo in a statement from Los Angeles after his singing partner's death: "I always admired the God-given glory of his voice — that unmistakable special timbre from the bottom up to the very top of the tenor range." Back in Italy, Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli concluded that, "Luciano Pavarotti was a giant of the 20th century. His unrivaled and imposing vocal power, like his stage presence, made him one of the top protagonists of the Italian opera tradition."

The son of a Modena baker, himself an amateur opera singer, the young Pavarotti grew up dreaming instead of a career as a soccer player. Decades later, he would sing his signature tune Nessun Dorma at the inauguration of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which by many accounts may have been his most widely seen peformance by hundreds of millions of television viewers. His last major appearance was singing at the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

He was both a perfectionist and a born showman, as his status as cultural icon was sealed by unprecedented duets with rock and pop music singers, from Bono to Stevie Wonder to Celine Dion. Some opera purists will never forgive the tenor for these Pavarotti and Friends performances, which he acknowledged in one of his final interviews last year with Italian journalist Ettore Mo. "There were polemics because I'd thrown myself into a completely different genre," Pavarotti noted. But in the same interview, just a few months after cancer surgery, Pavarotti was counting his blessings. "I am and have been a lucky man," he said. "I will be an optimist to the death." In more recent years, especially in Italy, Pavarotti received more coverage for his personal than professional endeavors. He was forced to make a multi-million dollar payout to Italian tax police in the 1990s, and later was criticized for leaving his wife of 30-plus years to marry his young assistant.

Gemma Luzzi, 65, a retired high school Italian teacher from Rome, recalled how Pavarotti's early performances gave new impetus to the classical form. But she wondered if the singer grew too attached to his fame. "He had a grand voice, but maybe he didn't have the strength to retire when he was on top. Maybe I'm a purist, but I never liked these duets (with pop singers). It kept him in the spotlight, so I guess he had fun doing them."