MODENA, Italy (Reuters) - Legendary Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who brought opera to the masses with his powerful voice and jovial personality, died on Thursday of pancreatic cancer, aged 71.
Although his health had been failing for a year, the death of the bearded tenor, known as "Big Luciano" because of his 127 kg (280 lb) bulk, saddened everyone from impresarios and critics of to fans who could barely afford tickets.
"There were tenors, and then there was Pavarotti," said Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli.
While past opera greats often locked themselves in a gilded, elitist world, television viewers around the world heard Pavarotti sing with pop stars such as Sting and Bono in his "Pavarotti and Friends" benefits for the needy.
"He was one of those rare artists who affected the lives of people across the globe, in all walks of life," London's Royal Opera House at Covent Garden said in a statement.
"Through his countless broadcasts, recordings and concerts, he introduced the extraordinary power of opera to people who perhaps would never have encountered opera and classical singing. In doing so, he enriched their lives. That will be his legacy."
Vienna's opera house flew a black flag to mourn "a human being who had an extraordinary impact through his art and who gave endlessly to his audience," director Ioan Holender said.
Already famous in the opera world, he leapt to superstardom when he and two other tenor greats, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, sang at Rome's Caracalla Baths during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy.
"It's a great loss. He was without doubt one of the most important tenors of all time. He was a wonderful man, a charismatic person. And a good poker player," Carreras told the Swedish newspaper Expressen.
Sales of opera albums shot up after the concert. The aria "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot, which has the famous line "At dawn I will be victorious", became as much a feature of football fever as the usual stadium chants.
ROOTS IN THE PROVINCES
Pavarotti's father was a baker who liked to sing, and his mother worked in a cigar factory. The people of Modena, a provincial town in northeast Italy, mourned a man who remained attached to his hometown even as a superstar.
Venusta Nascetti, a 71-year-old who used to serve Pavarotti coffee in a local bar when he was a teenager, remembered him as being "full of joy, he had a happy spirit".
"He always loved us just like we loved him," the frail old woman, wearing dark glasses to hide her emotion, told reporters outside Pavarotti's house, where she had paid her respects.
The funeral will take place in Modena on Saturday.
Pavarotti's big break came thanks to another Italian opera great, Giuseppe di Stefano, who dropped out of a performance of "La Boheme" at Covent Garden in 1963. The house had lined up "this large young man" as a 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".
His last public singing performance was at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Turin in February 2006.
Pavarotti had surgery in New York for pancreatic cancer in July last year, then retreated to his villa in Modena. He had to cancel plans for a reappearance in public a few months later.
Pavarotti received two more weeks' treatment in hospital in Modena last month, and went home on August 25. He spent his final hours at home with family and friends nearby, his manager Terri Robson said, adding:
"He remained optimistic and confident that he would overcome the disease and had been determined to return to the stage to complete his Worldwide Farewell Tour."
Robson said that until just weeks before his death, Pavarotti devoted several hours a day to teaching pupils at his summer villa in Pesaro, on Italy's Adriatic Coast. Pavarotti opened an academy for young singers in Modena two years ago.
"He was also planning to complete a recording of sacred songs and unveil the next phase of the Pavarotti International Voice Competition," the statement said.
Although Pavarotti began singing in a church choir aged nine, his passion was football and he wanted to turn professional.
His mother convinced him to be a teacher, which he did for two years until realising his vocation and starting singing lessons.
In 2003, Pavarotti married Nicoletta Mantovani, an assistant 34 years his junior and younger than his three daughters, after an acrimonious divorce from Adua, his wife of 37 years.
As Nicoletta was bearing twins, the pregnancy ran into complications and their son Riccardo was stillborn. Their surviving daughter Alice is now 4 years old.
This great man will be missed!