The fat man stops singing. But is it over?

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The Independent Culture

He came, he sang, he wobbled a lot, but he expired on cue, with the help of a pile of beanbags to hold his famous girth and limit the strain on his arthritic knees.

He came, he sang, he wobbled a lot, but he expired on cue, with the help of a pile of beanbags to hold his famous girth and limit the strain on his arthritic knees.

Thus did Luciano Pavarotti, aged 68, say farewell to the operatic stage in an emotional performance of Puccini's Tosca at the New York Met. His once silken voice is no longer flexible or capable of racing up the scale to the high Cs, and as an interpretation of Cavaradossi, the ardent young painter who falls in love with the wrong woman and ends up before a firing squad, it was not so much an acting job - although that was never Pavarotti's strong point - as an exercise in immobility.

But no matter. Saturday night marked the passing of a operatic colossus, and the packed audience was determined to give him the send-off that his glittering 40-year career deserved. They rose to their feet when he made his first appearance, and amped up their approval into a roar after his third-act aria, E lucevan le stelle.When the opera ended they clamoured for no fewer than 10 curtain calls, including three personal bows by the master tenor.

When it was clear that Pavarotti had made his final thank-you the applause sharpened into minutes of rhythmic clapping. It was a crowd that did not want to see him go.

In truth, there were two Pavarottis on display at the Met, the opera house that he has favoured like no other since his New York debut in 1968. The first was the critics' Pavarotti, the soaring talent who outstayed his welcome. They would have been happier if he had called it a day in 1998, or even earlier.

The second Pavarotti was the singer as celebrity, the icon of popular culture who has claimed a unique hold on the world's collective imagination since he sang Nessun dorma with his fellow tenors Placido Domingo and José Carreras at the 1990 World Cup.

Of the three, Pavarotti was always most willing to promote himself as a popular artist, happy to share a stage with Sting, Céline Dion or Elton John. He, too, came closest to the public perception of what an opera singer should be, with his gargantuan proportions, his toothy smile, his ever-present white handkerchief wiping away the spittle of all the throaty romantic passion, and his voracious appetites - for life, food and the lithe younger women he referred to as his harem.

This second Pavarotti was the one that had audiences beating down the doors of the Met for tickets to his final three performances, the one who had long since left the rarefied elitist world of opera and turned himself into a superstar. As a New York Times critic put it, he performed in Tosca "with one foot in Puccini's world and the other in his own spotlight". This is the Pavarotti who would make vast pots of pasta for journalists and then polish off most of it himself, the Pavarotti who made the tabloid newspapers as he ditched his wife for his much younger secretary, and suffered as one of the twin babies he sired last year died.

The audience for this Pavarotti is ready to forgive him anything. After all, he let them down badly in 2002 - the original date set for his farewell to opera - when he cancelled two out of two scheduled performances at the Met, citing a cold. His only appearance since then was once in Berlin last June.

Rather than accept that this is the end of the road, Pavarotti's most ardent fans seem to be hoping that he will come back for more. Opera singers are notorious for their multiple retirements and Saturday night was, at least officially, only the end of his operatic career. There is talk of a revival of the Three Tenors line-up, as well as some kind of farewell tour.

Hopes may be illusory, however. Pavarotti has repeatedly said that he will definitively call it quits on 12 October 2005, the date of his 70th birthday. And he told the Associated Press the day before his finale that he regarded the occasion as his last stage performance anywhere. "I think it's time," he reflected.

Purists would certainly agree. For several years, Pavarotti has looked like a parody of himself on stage, struggling with his bad knees, his bad hips and his ballooning weight. He has delivered arias sitting down, making no attempt to play parts or interact with his fellow singers, and has been known to conceal cups of water to help him through. He admitted to AP that this was less than ideal. "In the last 10 years there are a lot of performances that are not super," he said.

Opera critics have often made the same point, less than tenderly. Just a few days ago Norman Lebrecht, author of The Complete Companion to 20th-Century Music, pondered how posterity would regard Pavarotti: "Will it be as the most exquisite lyrical voice of his epoch, or as an artist who outgrew his art by craving wealth and celebrity and conforming more to Oprah expectations than to the sensibilities of grand opera?"

Pavarotti's celebrity status has made him as many enemies as it has friends. His wife, Adua, whom he left in 1996, had been his loyal business manager as well as the mother of his first three children before she was dumped. Earlier this year Pavarotti also split from his US publicist, Herbert Breslin, who is writing a tell-all book, to be called The King And I. Breslin says it is about "a beautiful, simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar".

Luciano, watch out.

Not so retiring

Michael Jordan

The basketball great retired in 1993 to follow a dream to play professional baseball. He returned to basketball in 1995, retired for a second time in 1999 and returned again in 2001, playing for a further two years.

Frank Sinatra

Sinatra first announced his retirement in 1971, but was back in the studio within two years for his Ol' Blue Eyes is Back LP. In 1980 Sinatra performed in front of 175,000 fans in Rio de Janeiro.

Alan Clark

The maverick right-winger and sometime junior minister resigned in 1992, saying politics was becoming boring. But life at home proved too quiet and he was back for the 1997 election.