When I first heard Pavarotti live, in Tosca at the Met in 1992, he was already past his prime, but I still got a generous helping of the honeyed timbre, the liquid legato, the pinpoint diction. Then entering his global-pop-star, hanging-with-James Brown period, Pavarotti was increasingly implausible on stage, the theatrical illusion punctured the moment he lumbered into view, in the manner of a politician doing a cameo on a comedy show. There was no hunger to succeed. You had to go back to the classic recordings of the seventies — three of the best are L'Elisir d’amore, Turandot, and La Bohème, all on Decca — to understand why he caused such a stir when he came on the scene. The finest singers not only hit the notes but erase the difference between notes and words. Singing is most thrilling when it becomes a kind of heightened talking. That’s what happens in Pavarotti's “Che gelida manina” or “E lucevan le stelle” or "Una furtiva lagrima": the beauty of the sound envelops you, but you’re not conscious of the artifice of art. It’s as if someone were making conversation in a dialect of dreams.
On television and through greatest-hits collections, Pavarotti entranced millions who may never have given thought to opera before. The pity is that the Three Tenors and the crossover projects that followed had nothing to do with opera as theater. It became a matter of a big man hitting high notes with a smile. Some people have argued that the Three Tenors may actually have harmed opera: for a lot of younger people, the art form ended up looking like Eurokitsch, not something to be taken seriously. Then again, the tremendous growth in opera around the world — American companies have proliferated into the hundreds in the past several decades — couldn't have been hurt by the Pavarotti phenomenon.
Was he the “last opera star,” as some have declared? By no means. He was sui generis. We don't lack for starry singers at the moment. Plácido Domingo seems indestructible. Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, and Angela Gheorghiu are grabbing headlines with diva/divo antics; younger tenors such as Juan Diego Flórez, Rolando Villazón, Marcello Giordani, Ramón Vargas, Salvatore Licitra, and Giuseppe Filianoti are winning ovations. The Met, which underwent prolonged financial struggles during the period when Pavarotti was its biggest draw, now sells out night after night. Opera seems to be getting along fine without its most gigantic presence; indeed, we may be moving into a period where platinum-selling vocal celebrities are no longer needed. But a handful of bel canto arias will always belong to Pavarotti.
For international reactions, see Opera Chic.