December 25, 1978 12:00 PM

Grand opera is the soccer of the arts, heretofore less popular in America than elsewhere. Then soccer here got Pelé and some TV exposure. Now U.S. opera also has an international hero to fill the screen and—since he’s dropped 85 pounds—women’s hearts. He’s Luciano Pavarotti, 43, the golden lyric tenor from Italy, whose PBS-telecast solo recital at the Met last February pulled millions of viewers.

In just the past eight years the number of opera companies across the country has grown 50 percent to nearly 1,000—and total audiences have more than doubled. Without minimizing the contribution of Beverly Sills and others, Pavarotti has boosted the cause by his ebullient appearances on Johnny Carson and by doing American Express spots (in the series that also includes Henry Mancini, Sen. Sam Ervin and Jack Nicklaus). None of this is to suggest that Luciano is just a popularizer, the Liberace of lyric tenors. No less an authority than conductor Herbert von Karajan hails Pavarotti as “greater than Caruso.”

He is cashing in, of course, meanwhile. On last month’s Billboard listing of the classical Top 40, eight, incredibly, were by Pavarotti. So Luciano sometimes asks himself the favorite question of his wife back home in his native Modena: “Why don’t I quit?” Pavarotti’s response: “I tell her that until you are 40, you fight to have a name and money. Then when you are there, you are trapped by your public. You sacrifice your life for it, stay away from family, from friends, from a lot of beautiful things you want. But I cannot say no.” (Indeed, he has allowed himself to be booked solid around the world all the way into 1984.)

Not that Luciano doesn’t also swing a little on the side these days. He is taking tennis lessons from Jim Evert, Chrissie’s father. And, if an apparently terminal hacker, he is more optimistic about his other new enthusiasm, painting. “I am, how you say, out of the closet,” he observes of that avocation. “It is awful now—there is nobody with less talent. But wait 10 years.”

Offstage Pavarotti remains accessible, extraverted, a shameless flirt—but don’t expect to read about him in the columns as the male Callas in search of an Onassis. “I am faithful to my wife, Adua, my angel,” he insists. “She never leaves me alone for more than 20 days!” Of his three daughters, aged 11 to 16, Luciano teases: “None will be singers—they have voices like horses—but I suffer to be away from them. Yet I was born to sing,” Pavarotti says of other equally large loyalties. “I love my profession. To bring good feeling into such an unpleasant world is a joy. I am an incredibly happy man.”

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