Israeli colleagues mourn Pavarotti - tenor, philanthropist... and chef

Legendary opera singer dies at 71

September 6, 2007 23:49

Luciano Pavarotti, who died in his home in Modena, Italy, on Thursday morning, was more than the most acclaimed tenor of his time. His voice and charisma brought opera to worldwide popularity it had not seen in over a century. He was more than a philanthropist who in the early 1990s was made an honorary citizen of Sarajevo for his efforts. Pavarotti, as remembered here in Israel, was also the best spaghetti Bolognese chef in town. He first brought his tremendous stage presence, and his pasta, to Israel in 1979. After performing with the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv - a bill replete with classic favorites from Verdi's "La Traviata" and Mozart's "Don Giovanni" - Pavarotti returned to the Philharmonic's guesthouse to enjoy a party in honor of his debut visit. When one of the hosts offered to prepare a midnight snack for the Maestro and assembled guests, Pavarotti himself swung on an apron and said, "No, no, no, no: I'm going to cook for you." Ya'acov Mishori, principal horn player of the Israel Philharmonic at the time, still remembers the thrill of being in Pavarotti's presence, and the perfection of his cooking, almost three decades later. "We were astonished because it was so good," Mishori said on Thursday. "We asked him where he found the time to learn how to cook. He said, 'Cooking is like singing: If you have no talent for it, no teacher can help you. You must simply have talent, because it cannot be learned from books.'" The party, Mishori recalled, lasted almost till dawn, as Pavarotti regaled the guests with jokes about his showdowns with other performers. "It was not difficult to bring this great artist to Israel. He himself said that he loved the Holy Land and wanted to perform here, and Zubin Mehta was one of his best friends. He was a very kind man, not a schvitzer [braggart] as we say in Yiddish ... He was ready to learn from anyone, always ready to hear advice and to ask questions - even about music," remembers Mishori, who then broke into song, recalling some of his most favorite moments of Pavarotti's career. Mehta, conductor for the Israel Philharmonic, remembered a more personal connection than the cooking. "I've lost a great friend, a friend of many years, but I console myself with the fact that his art will live on," Mehta said in a phone interview from Italy, where he is currently touring with the Philharmonic. He dedicated Thursday night's performance to Pavarotti's memory. "[Pavarotti's] voice was as big as his heart," said Mehta. "The combination of both created a very positive aura about him. He only spread those positive vibes around him ... He has started a new life today." Pavarotti, 71, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and underwent treatment as recently as August. His funeral will be held Saturday inside the cathedral in Modena. He was surrounded by close family and friends at the time of his death. "He will be gravely missed for sure. He was certainly an Italian hero," said Mehta. For serious fans, the unforced beauty and thrilling urgency of Pavarotti's voice made him the ideal interpreter of the Italian lyric repertory, especially in the 1960s and '70s when he first achieved stardom. For millions more, his charismatic performances of standards like "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" came to represent what opera was all about. Instantly recognizable from his charcoal-black beard and tuxedo-busting girth, Pavarotti radiated an intangible magic that helped him win hearts in a way Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - his partners in the "Three Tenors" concerts - never quite could. "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," Domingo said in a statement from Los Angeles. "I also loved his wonderful sense of humor, and on several occasions of our concerts with Jose Carreras, we had trouble remembering that we were giving a concert before a paying audience, because we had so much fun between ourselves," Domingo said. The tenor, who seemed equally at ease singing with soprano Joan Sutherland as with the Spice Girls, scoffed at accusations that he was sacrificing his art in favor of commercialism. "The word commercial is exactly what we want," he said, after appearing in the Three Tenors concerts. "We've reached 1.5 billion people with opera. If you want to use the word commercial, or something more derogatory, we don't care. Use whatever you want." As a boy, Pavarotti showed more interest in soccer than his studies, but he also was fond of listening to his father's recordings of tenor greats like Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Jussi Bjoerling and Giuseppe Di Stefano, his favorite. Among his close childhood friends was Mirella Freni, who would eventually become a soprano and an opera great herself. The two studied singing together and years later ended up making records and concerts together, according to Elvio Giudici, an Italian opera critic. In his teens, Pavarotti joined his father, also a tenor, in the church choir and local opera chorus. He was influenced by the American movie actor-singer Mario Lanza. "I used to go to Mario Lanza movies and then come home and imitate him in the mirror," Pavarotti said. Singing was still nothing more than a passion while Pavarotti trained to become a teacher and began working in a school. But at 20, he traveled with his chorus to an international music competition in Wales. The Modena group won first place, and Pavarotti began to dedicate himself to singing. With the encouragement of his then-fiancee, Adua Veroni, he started lessons, selling insurance to pay for them. He studied with Arrigo Pola and later Ettore Campogalliani. In 1961, Pavarotti won a local voice competition and with it a debut as Rodolfo in Puccini's "La Boheme." He followed with a series of successes in small opera houses throughout Europe before his 1963 debut at Covent Garden in London, where he stood in for Di Stefano as Rodolfo. Having impressed conductor Richard Bonynge, Pavarotti was given a role opposite Bonynge's wife, soprano Sutherland, in a Miami production of "Lucia di Lamermoor." They subsequently signed him for a 14-week tour of Australia. It was the recognition Pavarotti needed to launch his career. He also credited Sutherland with teaching him how to breathe correctly. In the following years, Pavarotti made a series of major debuts, appearing at La Scala in Milan in 1965, San Francisco in 1967 and New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1968. Other early venues included Vienna, Paris and Chicago. Throughout his career, Pavarotti struggled with a much-publicized weight problem. His love of food caused him to balloon to a reported high of 396 pounds in 1978. "Maybe this time I'll really do it and keep it up," he said during one of his constant attempts at dieting. Pavarotti, who had been trained as a lyric tenor, began taking on heavier dramatic tenor roles, such as Manrico in Verdi's "Trovatore" and the title role in "Otello." Pavarotti often drew comparisons with Domingo, his most notable contemporary. Aficionados judged Domingo the more complete and consistent musician, but he never captured the public imagination like Pavarotti. Though there appeared to be professional jealousy between the great singers, Pavarotti claimed he preferred to judge himself only against his earlier performances. In the mid-1970s, Pavarotti became a true media star. He appeared in television commercials and began appearing in hugely lucrative mega-concerts outdoors and in stadiums around the world. Soon came joint concerts with pop stars. A concert in New York's Central Park in 1993 drew 500,000 fans. Pavarotti's recording of "Volare" went platinum in 1988. In 1990, he appeared with Domingo and Carreras in a concert at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome for the end of soccer's World Cup. The concert was a huge success, and the record known as "The Three Tenors" was a best-seller and was nominated for two Grammy awards. The video sold over 750,000 copies. The three-tenor extravaganza became a mini-industry. With a follow-up album recorded at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1994, the three have outsold every other performer of classical music. A 1996 tour earned each tenor an estimated $10 million. Pavarotti liked to mingle with pop stars in his series of charity concerts, "Pavarotti & Friends," held annually in Modena. He performed with artists as varied as Ricky Martin, James Brown and the Spice Girls. The performances raised some eyebrows, but he always shrugged off the criticism. Some say the "word pop is a derogatory word to say 'not important' - I do not accept that," Pavarotti said in a 2004 interview. "If the word classic is the word to say 'boring,' I do not accept. There is good and bad music." It was not just his annual extravaganza that saw Pavarotti involved in humanitarian work. During the 1992-95 Bosnia war, he collected humanitarian aid along with U2 lead singer Bono, and after the war he financed and established the Pavarotti Music Center in the southern city of Mostar to offer Bosnia's artists the opportunity to develop their skills. He performed at benefit concerts to raise money for victims of tragedies such as an earthquake in December 1988 that killed 25,000 people in northern Armenia. Pavarotti was also dogged by accusations of tax evasion, and in 2000, he agreed to pay roughly $12 million to the state of Italy after he had unsuccessfully claimed that the tax haven of Monte Carlo rather than Italy was his official residence. He had been accused in 1996 of filing false tax returns for 1989-91. Pavarotti always denied wrongdoing, saying he paid taxes wherever he performed. But, upon agreeing to the settlement, he said: "I cannot live being thought not a good person." Pavarotti was preparing to leave New York in July 2006 to resume a farewell tour when doctors discovered a malignant pancreatic mass, his manager said at the time. He underwent surgery in a New York hospital, and all his remaining 2006 concerts were canceled. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most dangerous forms of the disease, though doctors said the surgery offered improved hopes for survival. "I was a fortunate and happy man," Pavarotti told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published about a month after the surgery. "After that, this blow arrived. And now I am paying the penalty for this fortune and happiness," he told the newspaper. AP contributed to this report.

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