MODENA, Italy (Reuters) – Legendary Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who brought opera to the masses, died on Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 71.

“The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti died today at 5 a.m. (11 p.m. Wednesday EDT) at his home in Modena,” his manager Terri Robson said in a statement. “The Maestro fought a long, tough battle against the pancreatic cancer which eventually took his life.

Although his health had been seriously failing for a year, the death of the genial, bearded tenor known as “Big Luciano” saddened everyone from stars, impresarios and critics of ‘bel canto’ 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 like Sting and Bono in his famous “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,” said Covent Garden.

Already famous in the opera world, he rocketed to planetary superstardom when he, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras sang at Rome‘s Caracalla Baths during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy.

Sales of opera albums shot up after the concert and the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, which has the famous victory line “At dawn I will win,” became as much a feature of soccer fever as the usual stadium chants.

ROOTS IN THE PROVINCES

Born in 1935, his 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 went to pay her respects.

The tenor’s funeral will take place in Modena on Saturday.

Pavarotti shot to fame with a stand-in appearance at Covent Garden in 1963 and soon had critics gushing. His big break came thanks to another Italian opera great, Giuseppe di Stefano, who dropped out of a London performance of “La Boheme” in 1963.

Covent Garden had lined up “this large young man” as a possible 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.

FINAL ACT

In July last year, Pavarotti underwent surgery in New York for pancreatic cancer and retreated to his villa in Modena. He had to cancel his first planned public reappearance a few months later.

Pavarotti was taken to a hospital in Modena last month and treated for more than two weeks. He was released on August 25, and spent his final hours at home with family and friends nearby, the statement said.

“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,” his manager said.

Robson said that up 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 launched 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 soccer and he wanted to go professional. But his mother convinced him to be a teacher, which he did for two years until realizing 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.

He is survived by Nicoletta, their four-year-old daughter, Alice, as well as three daughters from Pavarotti’s first marriage.

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