Pavarotti was born in Modena on October 12, 1935. While his mother labored in a cigar factory, his father worked as a baker and sang as an amateur tenor. The young Pavarotti soon grew fond of listening to his father's record collection of operatic tenors, and often stood before a mirror imitating matinee idol Mario Lanza. He formed a close childhood friendship with another Modena resident, future soprano Mirella Freni, with whom he later starred on many occasions. His youthful excellence in soccer perhaps contributed to his future willingness to take opera into sports arenas, where his sometimes-televised, sold-out solo and Three Tenors concerts brought opera to tens of millions, and millions more dollars to his pockets.
First Triumphs: Pavarotti began serious vocal studies at age 19. After winning a local voice competition, he made his professional operatic debut in 1961, in the small northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia, as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème. The sheer beauty of his voice, and his ability to sing both the classic tenor roles of Puccini and Verdi and the lighter, soaring bel canto repertoire, led to his debut at Covent Garden two years later. His US debut followed in 1965, when he sang for the first time with coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland in a Miami production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Pavarotti's association with Sutherland, who had made sensational debuts in Lucia a few years earlier at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, helped further propel him into the spotlight. Debuts in La Bohème at La Scala, the San Francisco Opera, and the Met followed from 1965 to 1968.
By June 1968, when the legendary Christopher Raeburn produced what became Pavarotti's first solo recital, released on Decca/London, he had already recorded two complete operas with Sutherland: Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment and Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. The recital disc finds him in glorious voice. Had he only included some of the classic Top 10 tenor arias from Rigoletto, La Traviata, La Bohème, Tosca, and the like, instead of lesser-known repertoire by Verdi and Donizetti, I expect Pavarotti's fame would have immediately peaked. Instead, it was not until 1972, when he undertook the role of Tonio in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment at the Met and, night after night, effortlessly emitted nine ringing high C's in the aria "Ah! Mes amis," that the public sat up and took notice. From then on, Pavarotti was dubbed the "King of the High C's," a title he had increasing difficulty living up to as the years progressed.
At the start of his career, Pavarotti's immediately recognizable sound was irresistible. Bright, healthy, virile, and blessed with Italianate "ping," his essentially lyric, quintessentially Italian voice grew more open and exciting as it ascended the scale. Listen, for example, to his rendition of "Nessun dorma" in the famed 1972 studio recording of Puccini's Turandot, which also stars the incomparable Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Where any number of tenors sound pinched as they ascend into head voice, Pavarotti blazes upward to a full high B as if no division of registers exists. As he repeats the aria's final word, "Vincerò! Vincerò!" (I shall win! I shall win!), the voice embodies the sound of victory over impossible odds.
This thrilling performance immediately affirmed his rightful place in a line of supreme tenors that includes Caruso, Gigli, Björling, Corelli, and di Stefano. Björling may have perfected the ability to extend and linger over high notes in a more compelling and musical manner, the animalistic Corelli had a better grasp of how to bend tempos and milk phrases for all they were worth, and Pavarotti's near contemporary Plcido Domingo brought (and continues to bring) more nuance and imagination to his portrayals—but only the Grinch who stole Christmas would fail to cheer as Pavarotti proclaims his determination to win the heart of the ice princess Turandot.
Pavarotti's greatest recordings were made in this early period. Often partnered by Sutherland or Freni, his recordings of L'Elisir d'Amore, La Favorita, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, Tosca, the Verdi Requiem (specifically the fabulous DVD conducted by von Karajan, which also features Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Ghiaurov), I Puritani , La Sonnambula, and the previously mentioned La Fille du Regiment, Beatrice di Tenda, and Turandot—all find him in glorious voice.
Maturity and Decline: As Pavarotti's career proceeded and his voice naturally darkened, he began to take on heavier roles. Eventually, as the instrument began to falter and his performances became hit and miss, his ever-expanding girth, diets, foolhardy ventures, and downright fiascos became fodder for the press. It often seemed that for every triumph, such as the publicly acclaimed but critically derided Three Tenors concert with Domingo and José Carreras—say what you will, it produced the best-selling classical album of all time—there were undertakings that caused eyebrows to rise and arms to fold. These included the failed feature film Yes, Giorgio (1982), the lip-syncing concert fiasco in Modena, straining for and missing high notes, transposing downward, increasing immobility onstage combined with an unwillingness and inability to learn new roles, forgetting words and losing his place during performance, a series of cancellations that tried the patience of house managers, leaving his wife of 30 years for his 26-year-old secretary (whom he married in 2003), and a series of Pavarotti and Friends charity concerts and recordings with Elton John, Sting, Bono, and others that contributed far more to worthwhile causes than to Pavarotti's artistic stature.
Thankfully, his early recordings endure. Captured in his prime during the era when analog LPs ruled and recording executives did not hesitate to commit large sums to complete recordings, Luciano Pavarotti continues to sing with rare commitment and beauty. As with Maria Callas, it is now to LPs, CDs, and DVDs that we must turn, rather than to gossip columns, to truly understand what all the fuss was about.