Music world mourns Pavarotti

'God-given glory of his voice' goes to rest at tenor's Italian home

A worldwide chorus of mourning greeted news of the death Thursday morning of Luciano Pavarotti, as the glorious voice that made him the most famous opera singer in history fell silent.

He died of pancreatic cancer in Modena, Italy, the town where he was born 71 years ago.

President Bush expressed condolences to the Pavarotti family and hailed his "perfect pitch and charismatic interpretations."

Pavarotti arguably was more successful than any other postwar classical performer in straddling both the worlds of opera and pop culture, especially through his association with fellow singers Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras as the Three Tenors, as well as charity work with such pop icons as U2 and Mariah Carey.

"The whole world will be listening today to his voice on every radio and television station, and that will continue. And that is his legacy. He will never stop," said conductor Zubin Mehta, who directed some of Pavarotti's Three Tenors concerts.

"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," said Domingo, now musical director of the Los Angeles Opera. "I also loved his wonderful sense of humor."

Said Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, "The world has lost a remarkable artist and incredible humanitarian, but his life's work will leave an indelible mark on our culture."

An outstanding soccer player in his youth, the farm boy, as Pavarotti liked to call himself, was drawn into the world of music by his father, a fine singer in his own right who only reluctantly acknowledged his son's musical superiority.

"My career began well, and that was a good sign," Pavarotti recalled. "My voice was a little thread, fine for that little theater" in Modena. "I was very proud, of course, but my father said, 'Nice, but Gigli and Schipa don't sing like that — you must work some more.' "

The farm boy made his grand opera debut in "La Boheme" in Italy in 1961, and after making a name for himself in Europe, he premiered in the U.S. in a 1965 performance of "Lucia di Lammermoor."

The Italian music industry paid tribute to the singer. "Luciano Pavarotti wasn't only an extraordinary artist and interpreter, he also made a great contribution to the development of the record industry," said Enzo Mazza, president of labels body FIMI. "We mustn't just think of him as an Italian artist; he represented a patrimony for music the world over."

Pavarotti's American stardom began alongside Joan Sutherland in a famous 1972 production of Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, when that glorious voice hit a daunting string of high Cs with an aplomb that left everyone gasping. "To stand next to him and hear him take off" was an experience that made her tremble, Sutherland said Thursday.

"I will never forget the sheer magic of that voice," said James Levine, the Met's music director, "but I will also remember the warm, generous and exuberant spirit of the man."

For sports fans around the world, his signature aria, "Nessun dorma" (from Puccini's opera "Tosca") is now forever associated with soccer's World Cup thanks to Pavarotti's appearance at the 1990 event.

As a recording artist, the tenor had stunning success. He won numerous Grammys and also received the Grammy Legend Award. Over the course of his career, he was featured on about 110 releases, including 18 albums that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Chart.

Pavarotti shared a particular triumph with Carreras and Domingo in a 1990 performance in Rome that gave birth to the Three Tenors concept, in which opera selections were alternated with more lighthearted fare. Both the audio and video versions of that performance, which the trio repeated on tour for years after, sold in the millions, far surpassing any previous classically oriented recordings.

In 1995, Pavarotti turned heads by collaborating with Irish rock band U2 and producer Brian Eno for the track "Miss Sarajevo," which was released under the moniker "Passengers."

Pavarotti's last album, 2003's "Ti Adoro," was a more pop-oriented affair that featured an homage to tenor Enrico Caruso, to whom he was frequently compared. "In Caruso's day, every line had to rhyme," Pavarotti told Billboard in 2003. "So always there were more trivial ideas, rhyming 'amore' (love) with 'cuore' (heart). These were noble sentiments but staple ideas of the genre. But here, now, there is more drama. Love is there, always, but there are more surprises, more kinds of stories."

In that Billboard interview, Pavarotti was asked whether he planned to still make the occasional performance as the concert element of his career wound down. "Maybe once I retire," he mused, "I'll sing in the shower. I've never done that before."

He won an Emmy for his "Great Performances" appearance in 1972, and his programs were nominated for seven others. But the singer's foray into the cinema world ended in a critical disaster, with the release of "Yes, Giorgio," starring Pavarotti as an opera singer, in 1982. Despite an $18 million MGM investment, an Oscar-nominated song by John Williams, Alan and Marilyn Bergman as well as a book by Norman Steinberg, the man who wrote "My Favorite Year," it came up with three Razzies and a resounding thumbs down from the late Gene Siskel, who called it "one of the most unintentionally hilarious films I've ever seen."

Pavarotti's success began to dissipate in his later years.

He was booed when he missed a high note in a 1992 production of Verdi's "Don Carlo" at La Scala, and he lip-synched a televised concert that same year, an offense for which he was sued by the BBC.

Superstitious about retiring but in poor health and hardly able to walk, he regularly canceled appearances in his later years.

Pavarotti gave his last opera performance on March 13, 2004, at the New York Metropolitan Opera. He sang the role of Cavaradossi in "Tosca," after which he received a 12-minute standing ovation. In December of that year, he embarked on a farewell tour, but many dates were scrapped because of his failing health.

He was healthy enough to sing at the 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Turin, Italy, but required surgery that July to remove a pancreatic tumor. He made no further public appearances.

Pavarotti is survived by wife Nicoletta Mantovani, four daughters and a granddaughter.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a contributor to Billboard. Tony Gieske in Los Angeles and Billboard's Mark Worden in Milan contributed to this report.