Luciano Pavarotti: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the immensely talented tenor
Luciano Pavarotti: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the immensely talented tenor © Getty  /  Paul Natkin

Luciano Pavarotti: 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the immensely talented tenor

Teacher, amateur painter, and patron of young talents: the life of the very popular singer Luciano Pavarotti will never cease to surprise and amaze. Nicknamed "Lucky Luciano" and "Big P", due to his impressive stature, the tenor passed away on 6 September 2007 at the age of 71.

Along with the soprano Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti is one of the few lyrical artists whose popularity grew beyond the small world of opera and its aficionados. From the 1970s to early 2000, the tenor was everywhere: singing not only on the greatest international stages and also on the television, but also his recordings sold in every music shop and his face on the cover of countless magazines.

The omnipresent and omnipotent Luciano: between his birth on 12 October 1935 and his death on 6 September 2007, Luciano Pavarotti conquered the hearts of music fans across the world, with his jovial character and his incredible voice, warm yet powerful, and perfectly unique.

If you thought you knew everything about Big P, here are 10 (little) rarely known but fascinating facts about his personality and his life...

A tenor like father like son

For the Pavarotti family,, opera is a family affair! The father Fernando, a baker by trade, also had a fantastic tenor voice and regularly sang in small lyrical productions, and in the church choir.

Every evening, in their little apartment in Modena (Italy), the Pavarotti family would listen to the most famous airs of Italian opera on the family record player as the young Luciano fell asleep to the sounds of the great tenors such as Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli.

One hell of a nanny

Since both of his parents had to work in order to support the family, Luciano was raised by his grandmother and cared for by a nanny. This particular nanny also cared for another child, a little girl called Mirella, born only several months before Luciano.

Like her foster brother, Mirella Freni eventually became a great star of the lyrical genre, even crossing paths with Luciano Pavarotti on several occasions. They first ran into each other in the streets of their native Modena, then in Mantua, where both singers were students of the same professor, and finally at the height of their respective careers, on the stage of La Scala in Milan, and in a recording studio with Herbert von Karajan.

Miraculously saved, twice

The little Luciano was only 12 when he suddenly and inexplicably fell into a coma. One day, the boy complained of a fever, and the next day, he was entirely paralysed. He could hear everything happening around him but was incapable of reacting.  His distraught family believed their son had died, and he was therefore given the anointing of the sick. Mysteriously, the child suddenly awoke, narrowly avoiding his own burial...

Years later, in 1975, Pavarotti avoided yet again his own death: his plane returning from Milan almost crashed upon landing. Already a nervous flyer by nature, the singer sued the airline for "psychological trauma", and received in compensation the modest sum of...1 million dollars.

Après l'incident de 1975, Pavarotti ne voyagera plus qu'installé sur un siège au niveau des ailes de l'avion, là où il pense savoir que l'appareil est le plus solide.
Après l'incident de 1975, Pavarotti ne voyagera plus qu'installé sur un siège au niveau des ailes de l'avion, là où il pense savoir que l'appareil est le plus solide.  © AFP  /  Jacques Munich

Luciano the understudy

Before reaching the status of a world-renowned operatic celebrity, Luciano Pavarotti was firstly an understudy, a spare wheel. In Modena, he would sing serenades under the windows of girls before quickly hiding, allowing his friends to take his place and pretend that they were the gifted singer.

Luciano spent many years on the bench, though his patience would finally bear fruit in 1963 when he accepted to become the understudy for a production of La Bohème at Covent Garden in London.

As luck would have it, the voice of the billed tenor Giuseppe di Stefano broke during the production's first performance. Luciano was therefore called up to take his place in the role of Rodolfo. His performance of Che gelida manina resulted in a public ovation by the London public and eventually opened to Luciano the very prestigious doors of the Glyndebourne festival.

The teacher

Whereas many singers obtained their first major roles before or by the age of 25, Pavarotti was still an unknown singer. For seven long years, he studied diligently under his vocal teacher Arrigo Pola. And during this time, still dependant financially of the support of his family, his friends began gradually moving away, earning a living, and getting married.

The situation was too frustrating for the aspiring singer, who therefore decided to get a part-time job as a primary school teacher. It was here, in front of a sea of young unruly blond-haired children, that Luciano learned the key elements of his desired career: stage presence. It was necessary for him to learn how to obtain and hold the attention of his audience, whether singing an aria or teaching about subtractions or grammar.

Des années plus tard, c'est sur les plateaux télé que Pavarotti use de son charme méridional. Ici dans le "Tonight Show" de Johnny Carson, en septembre 1986.
Des années plus tard, c'est sur les plateaux télé que Pavarotti use de son charme méridional. Ici dans le "Tonight Show" de Johnny Carson, en septembre 1986. © Getty  /  Alice S. Hall

The Met and the flu

In 1968, the name Pavarotti had already began making its way through Europe amongst operatic aficionados but also important theatre directors. The tenor, however, had his eyes set on America! Following a first commitment in San Francisco in a production of La Bohème, he eventually made his way to the Met, the New York temple of lyrical music, and one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world.

However, on the night of the premiere, Luciano fell ill with a strong fever and a severe case of the flu. When on stage, he shivered due to the cold and the stress... Yet the public only saw fire and passion: Luciano sang to the end without compromise, and was showered the very next day with excellent reviews. This "ill-fated premiere" also resulted in a series of invitations to popular television shows, on which Luciano enjoyed talking about music but also Italian pasta and football.

Après ce malheureux épisode grippal, Pavarotti devient très vigilant : il ne sort plus que paré d'un chapeau et emmitouflé dans son écharpe. Ici à l'aéroport de Toronto en 1982.
Après ce malheureux épisode grippal, Pavarotti devient très vigilant : il ne sort plus que paré d'un chapeau et emmitouflé dans son écharpe. Ici à l'aéroport de Toronto en 1982. © Getty  /  Franck Lennon

The man with the nine high Cs

Pavarotti garnered fame and success with his voice, clear but powerful, but also for his ease in the higher registers. His skilled technique was made clear to all in February 1972 in New York. Whilst the audience had undoubtedly come to enjoy a performance by the soprano Joan Sutherland, lead role in Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment, it was Luciano who caught the audience's attention.

During the opera, his character (Tonio) must overcome a singular and impressive challenge: the aria Pour mon âme, whose score contains no less than nine high Cs (a particularly high note, notably for a tenor). Until then, singers were used to overcoming the obstacle by ignoring it, singing instead the formidable notes one tone below. Pavarotti, however, hit the high Cs with the greatest of ease: nine little notes which resulted in seventeen encores by the audience, and an entry in the Guinness book of World Records.

The Pavarotti Academy

Not having forgotten the start of his own career after winning a regional singing competition, Luciano Pavarotti decided in the early 1980s to launch his own platform to launch future young talents: the Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

At the end of each year, the famous tenor would sang on stage alongside the candidates for a lavish recital. Among the few lucky candidates, a young Roberto Alagna, winner of the competition in 1998 and quickly dubbed by the press “the new Pavarotti”.

A casual painter

In his holiday home in Pesaro, a small port village in the centre of Italy, wearing his famous Hawaiian shirt, Luciano Pavarotti would go on walks, cook, and...paint! The singer held his first paintbrush on stage, for the role of Mario in Tosca, an opera by Puccini. Though he pretended to paint on the canvas, with fake accessories, a friend gave the singer a real box of acrylic paints...

Pavarotti was curious and took home his artistic accessories. He took great pleasure in painting landscapes and still life, often choosing bright and sunny colours. Rather proud of his work, he even exposed his artistic creations in a New York gallery in 1979.

Pavarotti sur la scène du Met de New-York, en 2002, faignant de peindre pour le rôle de Mario Cavaradossi, dans l'opéra Tosca de Puccini
Pavarotti sur la scène du Met de New-York, en 2002, faignant de peindre pour le rôle de Mario Cavaradossi, dans l'opéra Tosca de Puccini © Getty  /  Jack Vartoogian

Duets and charitable causes

After having filled New York's Carnegie Hall (2800 seats), the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (412 hectares) and even having sung at the foot of the Eiffel tower for the opening ceremony of the football World Cup in 1998, Luciano Pavarotti launched in 1992 a series of large charity concerts in his hometown, Modena: Pavarotti and Friends.

In 2001, Pavarotti was named Messenger of Peace by the UN for the funds raised in favour of helping refugees and fighting AIDS through spectacular televised performances with countless celebrities and stars, including Elton John, Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Tracy Chapman, Grace Jones, Liza Minelli, Joe Cocker, Sting, Patricia Kaas, Céline Dion, and even the Spice Girls.