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Farewell to Pavarotti

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Political leaders, celebrities and rock stars gave opera singer Luciano Pavarotti a final theatrical tribute in his hometown of Modena. A large crowd of mourners followed the funeral on TV screens outside the city's cathedral. Pavarotti died Thursday at the age of 71 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.

(Soundbite of church bells toiling)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Modena has three claims to international fame: Ferrari, balsamic vinegar, and Pavarotti. But it's opera itself that runs in the veins of the Modena townsfolk. In most Italian cities, talk at the local cafe veers to sports. In Modena, singers are analyzed as closely as soccer players.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: At the aptly called Caffe Concerto, Concert Cafe, Umberto Cestari(ph), a professional balsamic vinegar taster, is not emotional when he speaks about Pavarotti.

Mr. UMBERTO CESTARI (Balsamic Vinegar Taster): (Through translator) We have a centuries-old opera tradition here. It was Pavarotti who popularized it in the United States. It's true, his voice was better than Caruso's, but his musical knowledge was inferior. He did not have a strong foundation.

POGGIOLI: Pavarotti made opera a household word throughout the globe. He sang with rock stars, and he had the first classical album to reach number one on the pop charts, but he wanted to be remembered as an opera singer. And that's how Modena celebrated him after his death. The entire city was pasted with Pavarotti's photograph and the words Addio, Maestro, Goodbye, Maestro. And for three days, recordings of his classical performances alone boomed across the central Piazza Grande. The most popular was his trademark aria, "Nessun Dorma," from Puccini's "Turandot."

(Soundbite of music, "Nessun Dorma")

POGGIOLI: When the mourners piled into the 12th-century Modena Cathedral, a commentator on the live TV coverage noticed that the VIP contingent leans more to pop and rock stars, including U2 front man, Bono, and less to singers from the world of opera. Yet it was classical music that dominated the ceremony.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: Bulgarian-born Rayna Kabaivanska broke out in tears as she sang the "Ave Maria" from Verdi's "Othello." The men and women of Pavarotti's life were in the front row. His second wife, Nicoletta - and a few seats away - his three daughters by his previous marriage, and their mother, his first wife, Adua.

As priests began distributing communion wafers to the faithful, one of Pavarotti's favorite young singers, the tenor Andrea Bocelli sang Mozart's "Ave Verum."

(Soundbite of Andrea Bocelli singing "Ave Verum Corpus")

POGGIOLI: The most theatrical moment of the entire ceremony came toward the end when the voices of Pavarotti himself and his father Fernando filled the cathedral and swelled out over the square. The recording of the duet was made two decades ago in this very same cathedral.

(Soundbite of Andrea Bocelli singing "Ave Verum Corpus")

The two tenors, the baker Fernando and his famous son, sang Cesar Franck's hymn "Panis Angelicus," "The Bread of Angels." The inclusion of this recording was seen as a response to protests from some priests who had complained that a funeral mass inside the cathedral for a man who was divorced was a profanation of the temple. The religious controversy was quickly put to rest, but the lasting Pavarotti legacy will continue to fuel discussion and arguments in the future.

The tenor was beloved by generations of opera goers and pop fans alike, but many opera purists disdained Pavarotti's crossover to the world of rock and pop.

Thirty-year-old Alberto Baroni(ph), a pianist and violinist, came to pay homage to the opera singer.

Mr. ALBERTO BARONI (Pianist; Violinist): I like for the classic music Pavarotti, not for pop. I like the first Pavarotti. I think, in the future, the people remember Pavarotti for the classic music.

POGGIOLI: But close by, 21-year-old Niccolo Arione(ph) appreciated the less elitist Pavarotti.

Mr. NICCOLO ARIONE (Resident, Modena): (Through translator) I belong to the world of rock. It's a very different world from opera. Pavarotti was extremely important for me not only because of his unique and extraordinary talent. I think that the man as a bridge between two musical universes: the classic and the popular.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Modena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.