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Opera star Nicolai Ghiaurov dies at 74

ROME (AP) _ Bulgarian-born opera singer Nicolai Ghiaurov, one of the great basses of the post-World War II era who specialized in late 19th-century works and did wonders with Russian roles, died Wednesday of a heart attack in central Italy. He was 74.

Ghiaurov died at Hesperia Hospital clinic near his home in the town of Modena, said Dr. Pasquale Maglieri. He had been at the facility for almost three weeks.

``The world became more gray,'' said Bulgarian opera diva Gena Dimitrova. ``When a star fades away, darkness comes. He is a star that will shine forever.''

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said: ``The world opera scene became empty.''

Born on Sept 13, 1929, in the small, mountainous town of Velingrad in southern Bulgaria, Ghiaurov studied opera singing at the Sofia Musical Academy and continued his studies in Moscow.

His career got off to an auspicious start when he won top prizes at opera-singing festivals in Warsaw and Paris.

He returned to Bulgaria, where he made his debut at the Sofia National Opera as Don Basilio in Rossini's ``The Barber of Seville,'' in 1955. That same year, he was appointed a soloist at the Sofia Opera, but his sparkling career was to take him farther afield.

He performed at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Grand Opera in Paris, Milan's La Scala, London's Covent Garden and New York's Metropolitan Opera, among other houses.

His finest roles included Mephisto in Charles Gounod's ``Faust''; Philip II in Verdi's ``Don Carlos''; Don Juan in the eponymous opera by Mozart; and Boris Godounov in the opera by Mussorgsky.

In January, he was still singing, performing the role of Rossini's Don Basilio at the Malibran theater in Venice _ the same role in which he made his debut almost 50 years earlier in Sofia.

In a 1996 interview with the Bulgarian state news agency BTA, Ghiaurov compared his career to ``a jagged mountain with peaks.''

Looking back on his decades in opera, he said his drive remained as strong as ever and noted his ``ambition and desire to be perfect in what I have undertaken to do.''

Giorgio Gualerze, an opera critic in Turin who knew Ghiaurov, said ``he will be remembered as one of the great bass voices of the postwar period.''

``A great voice, in the material sense of the word _ a sumptuous voice,'' Gualerze said. ``Even when he talked the tone of his voice was beautiful. ... It was a great voice and one that does not as yet have heirs.''

Ghiaurov is survived by his wife, the Italian soprano Mirella Freni. He had two children from his first marriage to pianist Zlatina Mishakova _ a son, Vladimir, and a daughter, Elena, BTA said.

A funeral was expected to be held in Modena on Saturday.
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