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Profile: Luciano Pavarotti

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Luciano Pavarotti, the most famous opera singer of our time, died early this morning at his home in Italy. He was 71 years old. And he'd been suffering from pancreatic cancer.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Pavarotti was a dominating physical presence on stage, and of course he had a dominating voice.

Here's opera critic Anne Midgette speaking in 2004.

ANNE MIDGETTE: Pavarotti himself will often say he has an unmistakable sound, but it's true that if you hear a Pavarotti recording and you immediately know it's Pavarotti. Even if you don't know opera that well, you can hear the quality of the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

MONTAGNE: Pavarotti used his voice to bring opera to a mass audience.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY: Millions of people associate opera with two words: Luciano Pavarotti. That name alone sounds like a mini aria, albeit without one of the maestro's signature high C's.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

ULABY: Many of Luciano Pavarotti's fans grew to love opera through listening to his voice, but Pavarotti did not share that pleasure, or so he told NPR's Susan Stamberg in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF NPR BROADCAST)

SUSAN STAMBERG: Do you like listening to yourself, your own recordings?

PAVAROTTI: No. I hate.

STAMBERG: Why?

PAVAROTTI: Because I just feel the defect, never the quality.

ULABY: By the end of his career, others shared his reservations. Anne Midgette is a critic for The New York Times who co-wrote a tell-all book about the singer with his former manager, but she says at Pavarotti's peak the brilliance of his voice was incomparable.

MIDGETTE: There's a brightness to it. There's also a very legato quality, a wonderful, lissome quality, a softness to it. There's this seductive sensuousness to the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

ULABY: Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy. His father was a baker and his mother worked in a cigar factory. As a young man, Pavarotti sold insurance to pay for voice lessons. He became internationally famous in the early 1960s, thanks in part to soprano Joan Sutherland. Sutherland was an imposing diva, substantially taller than many of her co-stars. She appreciated Pavarotti's talent and his five-foot-nine-inch frame. The two performed together throughout their careers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI AND SUTHERLAND SINGING)

ULABY: Luciano Pavarotti arrived on the scene at a moment when the opera world was experiencing a dearth of strong tenors. Opera News editor Brian Kellow told NPR in 2002 its major stars had for years been women, like Sutherland and Maria Callas.

BRIAN KELLOW: There was no one in the decade or two before Pavarotti came along who captured the public imagination to the degree he did. He really was a phenomenon unto himself.

ULABY: The singer's name on a bill created what another critic called Pavarotti Pandemonium. His popularity swelled after increasing his repertoire to include tunes by Henry Mancini and Italian folk songs.

Pavarotti's multiple Grammys, commercial concerts and television appearances led perhaps inevitably to the big screen. In "Yes, Giorgio," Pavarotti played an opera singer pursuing a lovely American throat doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YES, GIORGIO")

KATHRYN HARROLD: (As Pamela Taylor) Do me a favor, Giorgio. Go to the airport, get on that plane, and fly out of my life forever.

PAVAROTTI: (As Giorgio Fini) Do you think I do this for my own pleasure? Believe me, I do this for your own good.

HARROLD: Believe me, it's for a fling. No?

PAVAROTTI: This too, but more.

ULABY: The movie flopped. But Pavarotti was in general a shrewd self-promoter. As the Three Tenors, he, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras sold out stadiums around the world. And Pavarotti also raised money for children in war-torn countries by performing with fellow celebrities like the Spice Girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIVA FOREVER")

ULABY: Still, Pavarotti's propensity to cancel at the last minute irritated promoters and fans. In 1989, the Lyric Opera of Chicago banned him from the stage. In 1992, he was caught lip-syncing, badly, during a concert broadcast by the BBC.

Critics accused Pavarotti of coasting on his fame and his performances lost their luster. He began to be booed. But Pavarotti's voice still sets the standard against which young tenors are measured. Juan Diego Florez is a rising Peruvian opera star who says Pavarotti remains his idol.

JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ: Completely my idol. If I want to hear some tenor arias, I put Pavarotti. There's no other way around.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

DIEGO FLOREZ: I wish I would have his voice, really, and I prefer to have his voice than his charisma.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

ULABY: Luciano Pavarotti's vocal chords have been described as being kissed by God. But the singer told Susan Stamberg his voice really didn't need much care.

(SOUNDBITE OF NPR BROADCAST)

PAVAROTTI: I try to keep away from cold weather and maybe food, spicy foods. Well, the voice doesn't need much more than taking very good care to the body.

STAMBERG: I love how you call your voice her.

PAVAROTTI: Her, she's a person. She's a lady who made me straight. She puts me under her dominion.

ULABY: And that voice did the same for many millions of opera and non-opera fans around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVAROTTI SINGING)

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Luciano Pavarotti. You can hear him sing Verdi at our website, npr.org, where you can also hear Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland talk more about Pavarotti's voice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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