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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Radio stations across Italy today aired the unmistakable voice of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUCIANO PAVAROTTI (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

NORRIS: Pavarotti's body is in repose at the cathedral of his hometown, Modena. The funeral is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and tributes are pouring in from all over the world. But while Modena mourns the passing of a favorite son, elsewhere in Italy, people are voicing mixed opinions about the king of the high C's.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: In a telegram to Pavarotti's family, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi gave the singer a last grateful applause, thanking him for bringing to the world the most authentic artistic image of our country. Prodi and Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli will head a government delegation to Saturday's funeral. And TV stations have been giving saturation coverage to international tributes to the opera superstar. Pavarotti is being hailed as the greatest tenor of his generation, perhaps the greatest since Caruso. But musicologists, opera critics and other highbrow commentators have been noticeably absent from Italian TV and radio airwaves.

Gianluigi Melega, an opera lyricist, says that ever since Pavarotti joined forces in 1990 with fellow tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, for concerts that alternated famous arias with Neapolitan folk songs and pop music, the Italian singer lost his luster at home.

Mr. GIANLUIGI MELEGA (Opera Lyricist): It was a sort of cheapening of opera mystique. He somehow stepped down a little bit from the high stool of opera singer to please a commercial instinct in the public, which, of course, loved the three tenors.

POGGIOLI: In the Italian collective imagination, Pavarotti's image as a beloved family man was tarnished when he left his wife of 35 years and mother of their three daughters and took up with his 26-year-old secretary in 1996. He married Nicoletta Mantovani seven years later in a lavish, star-studded ceremony. Pavarotti was also dogged by accusations of tax evasion. But he turned the charges into a moment of grand theater. When trailed by TV cameras, he went to the office of the Italian minister of finance to hand over a check for $12 million.

Pavarotti popularized opera around the world and made it accessible as no one has in modern times. But in a country where opera evolved into something of a secular religion, it's unlikely Pavarotti's passing will have an impact similar to that of Giuseppe Verdi in 1901. As the 88-year-old maestro lay dying, the people of Milan covered the streets with straw to muffle the noise from horses' hooves and carriage wheels. In a sign of respect, shops and theaters closed for three days and newspapers issued black-bordered editions.

Lyricist Gianluigi Melega says that was a time when opera was the number one entertainment, both popular and highbrow.

Mr. MELEGA: Operas at that time were absolutely the top expression of the artistic world. This went on up to Puccini in the 1920s. After that, the cinema came, the television came, and so opera has receded the perception of the public as something to go by.

POGGIOLI: Matia Chetolzo(ph) is a young Italian scholar whose taste lean toward experimental rock. He's convinced Italian critics never forgave Pavarotti's crossover, blending pop and rock with bel canto classics.

Mr. MATIA CHETOLZO (Scholar): I think he was mostly a singer, popular culture than actually called tradition. And that's the way Italian public think of Pavarotti.

POGGIOLI: Pavarotti always dismissed this type of criticism. He always wanted to be remembered as an opera singer. And the last message he left on his Web site was, I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent. And this is what I have devoted my life to.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

NORRIS: You'll find extensive audio and video from Luciano Pavarotti's career, along with reflections on his voice and his personality from colleagues, Placido Domingo and soprano Joan Sutherland, at our Web site. That's at npr.org.

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