A man with a famous appetite for living, Luciano Pavarotti clung to what he loved most even as he battled a terminal illness. Until July, he was still giving voice lessons in his hometown of Modena, Italy, and talked of resuming his 40-city farewell tour. And consider this request, phoned this summer to his old friend Cesare Clo: “I am not a pregnant woman,” the food-obsessed tenor told Clo, “but I have a craving—for cherries.” It was 11 o’clock at night, but Clo got dressed, snuck into an orchard and purloined the cherries for the Maestro. When he presented the fruit, Pavarotti hugged him, saying, “You’re the best.”
For his millions of fans around the globe, it was Pavarotti who was, quite simply, the best. Indisputably the biggest and most beloved opera star of his time, Pavarotti, 71—who died Sept. 6 of pancreatic cancer—had serenaded the world for 46 years, performing not only at Milan’s La Scala but at stadiums, the Olympics, even on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. With one of opera’s most beautiful voices—bright, sensual and infused with joy—he created a style that was his alone. “You can recognize his voice from the first note he sings,” says tenor Andrea Bocelli.
The son of a baker who loved to sing, Pavarotti—who had three daughters with first wife Adua and a fourth with Nicoletta Mantovani, the young assistant he married in 2003—was a regular on the European opera circuit when he secured his stardom in America in 1972 by nailing nine high Cs in an aria from La Fille du Regiment in New York City, a feat that brought down the house and earned him the nickname “The King of High Cs.” But highbrow fame was only part of his dream. His Three Tenors collaborations with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, first conceived as entertainment for the 1990 World Cup, led to millions in record sales. At his Pavarotti & Friends charity concerts, he sang duets with Sting and Bono. Purists scoffed at his commercial pursuits—his 1982 Hollywood debut, Yes, Giorgio, was a clunker—but Pavarotti told PEOPLE, “These are things that will bring this little world of opera to a larger audience, and I don’t care how we do it.”