I thought it would be easy to say something about this amazing man, but when the subject is an artist upon whom every superlative in the world has (rightfully) been heaped for over forty years, it's hard to come up with anything that isn't already a cliche.
The terms "diva" and "divo" are too lightly and too often tossed around these days, but with Pavarotti, the divinity was palpable. Unquestionably, he was one of the most gifted human beings of all times.
His gifts were such that it didn't matter that he couldn't read music well, had difficulty singing in any language other than Italian, and rarely ventured out of the canon of 19th century Italian opera. But he was a master. That voice. It was gold.
I count myself exceedingly blessed to have heard him perform a couple of times. The first would have been a Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1994, shortly after my arrival in New York. I'm afraid he kind of phoned that one in; his Tosca, Ghena Dimitrova, didn't seem to inspire particular passion in her tenor. However, I caught another Tosca a few years later, with Carol Vaness in the title role and Sherrill Milnes as Baron Scarpia, and THAT was electric. They were all glorious that night, but Pavarotti was especially thrilling. That will remain my favorite memory of him.
I also heard him do Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (he struggled that night) and Giordano's Andrea Chenier (he sang well, but was having knee problems and was rather inert). Still, I feel lucky to have witnessed those nights. He also came here to Portland to do a New Year's Eve concert at the Memorial Coliseum in 1998 (I think that's the year). I can't really imagine a less glamorous venue than the Trailblazer's cavernous, boxy old home, but it accommodated the thousands of Portlanders who wanted to go, and it gave me the opportunity to hear him sing two of the arias for which he was most famous: "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme and of course, "Nessun dorma," from Turandot.
Somewhere, in all these piles of unpacked boxes I brought with me from New York, is a budget CD of "Opera Highlights" my mother got me when I was still in high school. It's a pirate recording -- snippets of radio broadcasts or secretly taped performances put onto a CD and sold for $3.99. It includes a recording of Pavarotti singing La Boheme in Italy in 1969, as I recall, back when he was still young (34!) and not yet the great international superstar. The audience literally gasps after the aria's high C. I wish I could find it now.