Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, an icon and a legend whose titanic voice and charisma brought opera to the masses, died of cancer on early Thursday at the age of 71, Reuters reported.

His health had been failing for a year, but the death of the bearded tenor, known as “Big Luciano” because of his 280 lb bulk, saddened everyone from impresarios and critics to fans who could barely afford tickets.

“There were tenors, and then there was Pavarotti,” said Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli told Reuters.

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While past opera greats often locked themselves in a gilded, elitist world, television viewers around the world heard Pavarotti sing with pop stars like Sting and Bono in his “Pavarotti and Friends” benefit concerts.

“Some can sing opera; Luciano Pavarotti WAS an opera,” Bono said on his Web site. “I spoke to him last week … the voice that was louder than any rock band was a whisper.”

London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden said: “He introduced the extraordinary power of opera to people who perhaps would never have encountered opera and classical singing. In doing so, he enriched their lives. That will be his legacy.” Vienna’s Staatsoper flew a black flag.

Pavarotti leapt to superstardom when he and two other great tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, sang at Rome’s Caracalla Baths during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy.

Sales of opera albums shot up after the concert. The aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot”, which has the famous line “At dawn I will be victorious”, became as familiar to soccer fans as the usual stadium chants.

“He was without doubt one of the most important tenors of all time,” Carreras told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. “He was a wonderful man, a charismatic person — and a good poker player.”

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