Opera star Pavarotti dies, aged 71 (+photos, video)

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Italian opera star Luciano Pavarotti, hailed by many as the greatest tenor of his generation, died on today after a long battle with cancer, manager Terri Robson said.

"The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti died today at 5am (3pm NZT) at his home in Modena," Robson said in a statement. He was 71.

"The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life.

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

Family and friends of the rotund, black-bearded tenor had earlier gone to his home - in Modena, northern Italy - to be near the singer.

Like most Italian boys, Pavarotti used to dream of being a soccer star. Instead, he rose to opera stardom and entranced stadium audiences with his singing voice rather than his soccer skills.

He shot to fame with a stand-in appearance at London's Covent Garden in 1963 and soon had critics gushing about his voluminous voice.

Perhaps his biggest gift to the music world was when he teamed up with Spanish stars Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras at the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy and introduced operatic classics to an estimated 800 million people in TV coverage around the globe.

Sales of opera albums shot up after the gala concert in Rome's Baths of Caracalla and strains of Puccini's Nessun Dorma became as much a feature of soccer fever as the usual more raucous stadium chants.

Earlier in his life, Pavarotti's parents wanted him to have a steady job and for a while he worked as an insurance salesman and teacher.

He started singing on the operatic circuit and his big break came thanks to another Italian opera great, Giuseppe di Stefano, who dropped out of a London performance of La Boheme in 1963.

Covent Garden had lined up "this large young man" as a possible stand-in and a star was born.

In 1972 he famously hit nine high C's in a row in Daughter of the Regiment at New York's Metropolitan Opera, which he referred to as "my home".

Thirty years later, Pavarotti was still one of the highest paid classical singers even though his public performances were fewer and further between.

Medical problems beset Big Luciano in the final years of his career, forcing him to cancel several dates of his marathon worldwide farewell tour.

In July 2006 he underwent surgery in New York for pancreatic cancer and retreated to his Modena villa. He said he hoped to resume the tour soon but had to cancel his first planned public appearance a few months later.

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

On the few occasions he performed in the past decade, Pavarotti was criticised for his lack of mobility, sometimes seating his large frame centre stage to belt out the arias.

He was also criticised for dropping out of operas diva-like at the last minute and for failing to hit all the notes, prompting critics to say his voice no longer had the stamina to perform more than a few pieces at a time.

In 1992, he admitted miming to recorded music during what was supposed to be a live concert because he had not prepared. He offered to pay the BBC the full cost of the broadcast.

But fans never stopped praising him.

"Pavarotti is the last great charismatic figure of our times. Lovers of `bel canto' feel a sort of endless admiration for him," singer Andrea Bocelli said in July 2007.

In 2003, Pavarotti married Nicoletta Mantovani, an assistant 34 years his junior and younger than his three daughters, after an acrimonious divorce from his wife of 37 years.

As Nicoletta was bearing twins, the pregnancy ran into complications and their son, Riccardo, was stillborn.

Distraught at losing his only son, Pavarotti lavished his love on his new daughter, Alice, and recorded his first solo album in 15 years for her - this time soft pop rather than opera - calling it Ti Adoro (I Adore You).

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.

Pavarotti was known fondly as Fat Lucy but reducing his round girth was a battle he kept losing. Weighing about 175kg brought on the need for knee and hip operations and put a strain on his voice.

Other strains came from his complex finances, which caught the tax man's attention. In 2000, he settled a four-year dispute and paid more than US$12 million ($17.7 million) in Italian back taxes.

- REUTERS

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