Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cancer closes curtain on the biggest star

LUCIANO Pavarotti, the world's most revered tenor, died yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Tributes poured in from around the globe after the 71-year-old died at his villa in Modena, Italy, at 5am local time in the company of family and close friends.

"I have had everything in life . . . And if everything is taken away from me, with God we're even and quits," he said in one of his last interviews.

The larger-than-life opera star, who helped bring his art to the masses, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and had further treatment last month.

Pavarotti was loved around the globe for his huge voice and exuberant showmanship.

"The maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life," manager Terri Robson said in a statement announcing the death.

"In fitting with the approach that characterised his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness."

Pavarotti first found fame in the '60s and '70s with the natural beauty of his voice and interpretations of the Italian lyric repertory.

His energetic performances of standards such as Nessun Dorma helped open the opera house door to the masses.

Even to non-opera fans he was instantly recognisable by his trademark black beard and tuxedo-busting girth, earning him the nickname "Fat Lucy".

The Three Tenors concerts, which saw Pavarotti join fellow tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, created a buzz and excitement that rivalled the biggest of rock bands.

An estimated 800 million people tuned in to watch them perform at the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy. It was the perfect stage for Pavarotti who, as a youth, earned local fame as a member of Modena's soccer team.

Pavarotti's parents wanted him to have a steady job and for a while he worked as an insurance salesman and teacher. His big break came when he replaced another Italian opera great, Giuseppe di Stefano, at a London performance of La Boheme in 1963.

In 1972 he famously hit nine high Cs in a row in Daughter of the Regiment at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

In 1992, he admitted miming to recorded music in a BBC concert because he had not prepared.

His weight, which ballooned to 175kg, forced him to undergo knee and hip operations, and put a strain on his voice.

His few performances in the past decade drew criticism that his voice no longer had the stamina for more than a few songs at a time.

His last public performance, singing Nessun Dorma, was at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February last year.

Pavarotti refused to sing at home, "not even in the shower", and said he could not bear hearing recordings of himself because as a perfectionist he heard all his wrong notes.

"My idea of a nightmare is being invited to dinner and someone putting on a recording of me. It would put me right off my food," he once told an interviewer.

In 2000, Pavarotti settled a four-year dispute and paid more than $14.6 million in Italian back taxes.

In 2003, he divorced his wife of 37 years and married Nicoletta Mantovani, an assistant 34 years his junior, and younger than his three daughters. The couple had one daughter, Alice.

When Pavarotti arrived in Melbourne, his days as a nobody were numbered. It was here in 1965, in a six-week season at Her Majesty's Theatre, that he kissed anonymity goodbye and began his rapid rise to superstardom.

"Melbourne is always going to be my first love because I came here to be a real singer," he told the Herald Sun in 1999, recalling in detail the performances with Joan Sutherland. "I spent one month here . . . at the beginning of my profession. There is a lot of memory."

Sutherland said yesterday she was saddened to hear of his death. "I'm very sorry to hear he's gone. God bless."

There was "no question" his voice was one of the best. "It was incredible to stand next to it and sing along with it," said Sutherland, 80. "The quality of the sound was quite different -- you knew immediately it was Luciano singing."

There was much more memory yesterday, as Australian colleagues recalled the artist who was spellbinding on stage, modest and diligent in rehearsal; who drew out his exhaustive career far too long but was without doubt the greatest tenors of the past 50 years.

He was also one of the few people ever to have a grand piano hoisted through a hotel window. That was in 1997, on the famous Three Tenors tour when Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras checked into the Grand Hyatt.

The concert at the MCG, with its mix of blokey camaraderie and glorious sound, drew 68,000 people and grossed $18 million. Pavarotti later attended a VIP party where he met Prime Minister John Howard and then premier Jeff Kennett.

"He was a very charming man, and very humble," producer Kevin Jacobsen said.

"He popularised opera and presented opera to people who didn't know anything about it."

Conductor Gerald Krug, music director for the 1965 JC Williamson tour, recalled the unknown 29-year-old as easily a match for Sutherland, by then an international star.

"He was very young, but the minute he opened his mouth at the first rehearsal people were absolutely flabbergasted because the beauty of the voice was unique," he said. "Everybody knew immediately he was going to be a world-beater."

Mr Krug conducted Pavarotti and Sutherland in La Boheme, Lucia di Lammermoor and The Elixir of Love in Melbourne and Sydney, and said the Italian boy from Modena -- a town until then noted for only its balsamic vinegar -- settled in easily with his Australian colleagues.

"He was just the perfect age to start an international career. Within a couple of years of that tour he was hitting headlines at Covent Garden. He was very humble, worked well with everybody, and he could not believe the reception that he got -- or the fees that he was earning either!"

The vocal combination of Pavarotti with Sutherland was "magical", Mr Krug said.

"He is the greatest tenor of the past 40 or 50 years. In my mind he is superior to Domingo as far as quality of voice is concerned."

Colleagues at Opera Australia and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra agreed, but feared the singer ruined his voice and health by refusing to retire.

"I am absolutely heartbroken. He was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century but he never knew when to quit," said MSO managing director Trevor Green, who brought the singer and orchestra together for Pavarotti's farewell concert in 2005.

"The 2005 tour was a sad shadow of the great, great artist he had been. Occasionally you would hear the magic in his voice, but a lot of it had gone. He could not walk off stage . . . there was a time to go and it had passed."

But Mr Green said none of today's leading tenors could match Pavarotti at his peak.

"I don't think there are tenors alive now who can get the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up," he said.

Mr Green suspected the singer eventually became a casualty of commerce.

"His last world tour was worth $US60 million to him . . . When you see him playing big arenas, to 20,000 people, you begin to wonder where the art of the artist ends and the commercial pressures begin."

Former premier Steve Bracks was a great fan of Luciano Pavarotti and was saddened to hear of his death.

"He was one of my great idols," Mr Bracks said.

"I'm going to go home tonight and I'm cooking, so I'm going to turn on Pavarotti and cook a great meal.

"I know people will say this . . . but it's true, he was larger than life, both physically and his personality too."

Former head of music staff at Opera Australia, Sharolyn Kimmorley, said Pavarotti's brief 1983 visit became an enormous money-spinner for the national opera company.

Pavarotti sang just three performances as Rodolfo in La Boheme opposite his then protege, soprano Madelyn Renee, at the Sydney Opera House. For the rest of his stay he dutifully attended gala dinners and fundraising events.

"We did have a big scare with him; before he arrived we received a message saying he could not sing in La Boheme because the Opera House had ventilation problems and he had developed an allergy to dust . . . but he did turn up, and he sang amazingly."

Unlike singers of earlier centuries, Pavarotti was blessed by an eager recording industry that ensured his voice would be immortal.

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