ROME – He was the son of a singing baker and became the king of the high C's.
Luciano Pavarotti, opera's biggest superstar of the late 20th century, died Thursday. He was 71.
Pavarotti, who had been diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer and underwent treatment last month, died at his home in his native Modena at 5 a.m., his manager told The Associated Press in an e-mailed statement.
His wife, Nicoletta, four daughters and sister were among family and friends at his side, manager Terri Robson said.
"The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer," Robson said. "In fitting with the approach that characterised his life and work, he remained positive until finally succumbing to the last stages of his illness."
Pavarotti's charismatic persona and ebullient showmanship -- but most of all his creamy and powerful voice -- made him the most beloved and celebrated tenor since the great Caruso and one of the few opera singers to win crossover fame as a popular superstar.
"Luciano's voice was so extraordinarily beautiful and his delivery so natural and direct that his singing spoke right to the hearts of listeners whether they knew anything about opera or not," Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine said in a statement.
Fellow singer Jose Carreras called Pavarotti "one of the greatest tenors ever, one of the most important singers in the history of opera."
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 thrilling performances of standards like "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" came to represent what opera is all about.
"Nessun Dorma" turned out to be Pavarotti's last aria, sung at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin in February 2006. His last full-scale concert was at Taipei in December 2005, and his farewell to opera was in Puccini's "Tosca" at New York's Met in March 2004.
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 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.
Pavarotti, 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."
In the annals of that rare and coddled breed, the operatic tenor, it may well be said the 20th century began with Enrico Caruso and ended with Pavarotti. Other tenors -- Domingo included -- may have drawn more praise from critics for their artistic range and insights, but none could equal the combination of natural talent and personal charm that so endeared Pavarotti to audiences.
"Pavarotti is the biggest superstar of all," the late New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg once said. "He's correspondingly more spoiled than anybody else. They think they can get away with anything. Thanks to the glory of his voice, he probably can."
In his heyday, he was known as the "King of the High C's" for the ease with which he tossed off difficult top notes. In fact it was his ability to hit nine glorious high C's in quick succession that turned him into an international superstar singing Tonio's aria "Ah! Mes amis," in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" at the Met in 1972.
From Beijing to Buenos Aires, people immediately recognized his incandescent smile and lumbering bulk, clutching a white handkerchief as he sang arias and Neapolitan folk songs, pop numbers and Christmas carols for hundreds of thousands in outdoor concerts.
His name seemed to show up as much in gossip columns as serious music reviews, particularly after he split with Adua Veroni, his wife of 35 years and mother of their three daughters, and then took up with his 26-year-old secretary in 1996.
In late 2003, he married Nicoletta Mantovani in a lavish, star-studded ceremony. Pavarotti said their daughter, Alice, nearly a year old at the time of the wedding, was the main reason they finally wed after years together.
In the latter part of his career, he came under fire for canceling performances or pandering to the lowest common denominator in his choice of programs, or for the Three Tenors tours and their millions of dollars in fees.
He was criticized for lip-synching at a concert in Modena. An artist accused him of copying her works from a how-to-draw book and selling the paintings.
The son of a baker who was an amateur singer, Pavarotti was born Oct. 12, 1935. He had a meager upbringing, though he said it was rich with happiness.
"Our family had very little, but I couldn't imagine one could have any more," Pavarotti said.
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.
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.
"In my teens 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, he started lessons, selling insurance to pay for them. He studied with Arrigo Pola and later Ettore Campogalliani.
In 1961, Pavarotti won a local 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, Sutherland, in a Miami production of "Lucia di Lammermoor." 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.
Pavarotti's major debuts followed -- at La Scala in Milan in 1965, San Francisco in 1967 and New York's Metropolitan Opera House in 1968.
Throughout his career, Pavarotti struggled with a much-publicized weight problem. His love of food caused him to balloon to a reported 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 roles, such as Manrico in Verdi's "Trovatore" and the title role in "Otello."
In the mid-1970s, Pavarotti became a true media star. He appeared in television commercials and began singing 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 and widely imitated. 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 with the AP. "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 nearly roughly $12 million to the Italian state 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. 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.
Fans were still waiting for a public appearance a year after his surgery. In the summer, Pavarotti taught a group of selected students and worked on a recording of sacred songs, a work expected to be released in early 2008, according to his manager. He mostly divided his time between Modena and his villa in the Adriatic seaside resort of Pesaro.
Just this week, the Italian government honored him with an award for "excellence in Italian culture," and La Scala and Modena's theater announced a joint Luciano Pavarotti award.
In his final statement, Pavarotti said the awards gave him "the opportunity to continue to celebrate the magic of a life dedicated to the arts and it fills me with pride and joy to have been able to promote my magnificent country abroad."
He will be remembered in Italy as "the last great Italian voice able to move the world," said Bruno Cagli, president of the Santa Cecilia National Academy in Rome.
The funeral will be held Saturday inside Modena's cathedral, Mayor Giorgio Pighi told SkyTG24.