MODENA, Italy (Reuters) - Legendary Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose unique, pristine voice and charisma brought opera to the masses, died of cancer on Thursday aged 71.
“There were tenors, and then there was Pavarotti,” said Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli.
His health had been failing for a year, but the death of the bearded tenor, known as “Big Luciano” because of his 127 kg (280 lb) frame, saddened everyone from impresarios and critics to fans who could barely afford the tickets to his concerts.
Although past opera greats often locked themselves in a gilded, elitist world, television viewers round the world heard Pavarotti sing with pop stars like Sting and Bono in his “Pavarotti and Friends” benefit concerts.
“Some can sing opera; Luciano Pavarotti WAS an opera,” Bono said on his Web site. “I spoke to him last week ... the voice that was louder than any rock band was a whisper.”
London’s Royal Opera House said: “He introduced the extraordinary power of opera to people who perhaps would never have encountered opera and classical singing. In doing so, he enriched their lives.” Vienna’s Staatsoper flew a black flag.
Pavarotti leapt to superstardom when he and two other great tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, sang at Rome’s Caracalla Baths during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy.
Sales of opera albums shot up after the concert. The aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot”, which has the famous line “All’alba vincero’” — “At dawn I will be victorious” — became as familiar to soccer fans as the usual stadium chants.
At the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London, the band played the aria in honor of the opera star who died on the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s funeral.
Diana had been one of his biggest fans.
Mourners applauded as a hearse carrying Pavarotti’s white coffin arrived at the cathedral in Modena. His body will be on display until his funeral at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Saturday.
In the 12th century cathedral, a stream of mourners passed the open coffin, pausing to glance at Pavarotti — dressed in a black tuxedo, his hands holding a handkerchief and rosary — as his wife and other family members grieved in silence nearby.
“He was without doubt one of the most important tenors of all time,” Carreras told Sweden’s Expressen newspaper. “He was a wonderful man, a charismatic person — and a good poker player.”
U.S. President George W. Bush called him a “great humanitarian” who used his great talent to help the needy.
Pavarotti’s father was a baker who liked to sing and his mother worked in a cigar factory. The people of Modena, a town in northeast Italy, mourned a man who remained attached to his home town even as a superstar.
Venusta Nascetti, a 71-year-old who used to serve Pavarotti coffee in a local bar when he was a teenager, remembered him as being “full of joy”.
“He always loved us just like we loved him,” she told reporters outside Pavarotti’s house.
Pavarotti’s big break came when another Italian opera great, Giuseppe di Stefano, dropped out of a performance of “La Boheme” at London’s Covent Garden in 1963. The house had lined up “this large young man” as a stand-in — and a star was born.
In 1972, he famously hit nine high C notes in a row in “Daughter of the Regiment” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which he referred to as “my home”.
His last public performance was at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin in February 2006.
Pavarotti had surgery in New York for pancreatic cancer in July 2006, then retreated to his villa in Modena. He received two more weeks’ treatment in hospital in Modena last month and went home on August 25.
He spent his final hours at home with family and friends by his side, said his manager Terri Robson.
Up until a few weeks before his death, Pavarotti was devoting several hours a day to teaching pupils at his summer villa in Pesaro, on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, Robson said.
Although Pavarotti began singing in a church choir aged nine, his passion was soccer and he wanted to turn professional.
His mother persuaded him to be a teacher, a job he did for two years until he realized his true vocation.
In 2003, Pavarotti married Nicoletta Mantovani, an assistant 34 years his junior and younger than his three daughters, after an acrimonious divorce from Adua, his wife of 37 years.
As Nicoletta was bearing twins, the pregnancy ran into complications and their son Riccardo was stillborn. Their surviving daughter Alice is now four years old.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi, Philip Pullella, Stephen Brown and Phil Stewart in Italy, Jeremy Lovell and Paul Majendie in London and Claudia Parsons in New York