It is spring in Sydney and Australia's most populous city is enjoying a signature day: the wide blue sky is cloud free, the temperature is a balmy 28 degrees Celsius and a gentle breeze is blowing. At Circular Quay, ferries are bustling about on the harbour's sparkling blue water as a train plying the City Circle pulls into the station, the screech of brakes drowning out the traffic and the hungry squawks of seagulls overhead. Nearby, the crisp white sails of the Sydney Opera House stand to rigid attention, gleaming in the afternoon sun, while the Harbour Bridge is already showing signs of peak-hour traffic as the working day winds down. It is late afternoon and the shadows are beginning to deepen on historic Macquarie Street, a handsome, tree-lined avenue that boasts some of the city's oldest buildings. The bright sunshine of Circular Quay all but disappears behind skyscrapers during the short walk to the InterContinental hotel. In a corner suite on the 24th floor of the hotel, a cable-television crew from Ovation, Australia's only channel dedicated to the arts, is preparing for an interview. Black gaffer tape, electrical cords and silver camera cases litter the plush cream carpet. The curtains have been drawn, blocking out a million-dollar view of Sydney Harbour, and a blaze of portable television lights has been ignited, filling the room with an unflattering artificial glow. Amid the flurry of activity sits Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the world's greatest tenor. 'Maestro', as he prefers to be called, is at ease as his attractive personal assistant flutters about him, rearranging his trademark, often Hermes, silk scarf - this one is a striking geometric pattern of green, yellow, blue and red set against a white background - around the Italian's broad shoulders. It complements his choice of outfit today: an oversized green button-down shirt, casual white trousers and white trainers. Under the veneer of calm, lies a man who is very much in control. Pavarotti is staring at the television monitor across from him, his deep brown eyes alert for any flaw in his mirror image. He spots something he doesn't like and begins to direct the cameraman. 'Take away a little bit of this,' Pavarotti orders, hitting his own shoulder twice. The cameraman moves the lens slightly and Pavarotti relaxes, satisfied with the balance of his shoulders in the picture. The interviewer appears star struck. Clearly a big fan, he boasts that he saw Pavarotti perform a number of times in the 1960s and 70s. He won't - or perhaps can't - stop gushing. Even the biggest of egos have a breaking point and, unfortunately, Pavarotti has reached his. 'Be silent,' he thunders, snapping the interviewer out of his reverie. The room is suddenly quiet; the veteran art critic's embarrassment palpable. During the television interview, Pavarotti stops often to cough. He takes a sip of water and his assistant interrupts the proceedings to give him a lozenge. At one stage, he stops talking, closes his eyes and breathes deeply, as though trying to control the spasms. The seconds tick by. He begins to speak again, exactly where he left off. The producer breathes a sigh of relief; the interview will be completed. At 70, Pavarotti has reached the twilight of a remarkable 44-year career, which saw his voice peak in the 70s. Many say he has hung on for too long, that his voice has cracked. But for his legion of fans, the day the maestro hangs up his tuxedo will mark the end of an operatic genius. As it happens, that day is not so far away. Pavarotti is half-way through a global farewell tour that will see him perform in 40 cities - including Hong Kong - over two years. He had originally planned to retire when he turned 70, but is now running behind schedule, giving his fans a one-year respite from the inevitable. He is in Sydney for one of his many swansongs, having given his final performance here not at the Opera House, but at the SuperDome, in the western suburb of Homebush, the centre of operations during the 2000 Olympic Games. Despite the distance from the city, the concert was a sell-out, with 14,000 fans flocking to see their idol perform his favourite arias and songs. According to media reports, Pavarotti was seated behind a piano for the two-and-a-half-hour show and stopped often to drink water and to cough. His fans didn't seem to care, realising this was the end of an era and their last chance to see the star in action. Pavarotti has shared the stage with a who's who of the world's sopranos and tenors, has worked with a host of brilliant conductors and has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, making him the biggest selling classical and opera artist of all time. His legend was born on the night of February 17, 1972, in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. During the two-act comic opera's signature aria, Ah! Mes Amis, Pavarotti hit a remarkable nine high Cs, garnering him a record 17 curtain calls from the audience. He has sung in arenas and parks, in town squares, at the beach and with numerous pop stars, including U2's Bono, Sting, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi, Celine Dion and the Spice Girls. His collaboration with fellow tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras - The Three Tenors - introduced opera to millions of households in 1990, when they sang the theme song, Nessun Dorma, for the football World Cup in Italy. Some reports have predicted that Pavarotti's looming retirement could spell the end for The Three Tenors, but in June, Domingo hinted the trio could reunite for next year's World Cup, in Germany. While fans would be ecstatic, Domingo's announcement could be premature - The Three Tenor's website has already ceased to exist. If there is one performance that stands out for the former school teacher and insurance salesman, it is the night he made his professional debut as Rodolfo in La Boheme in April 1961, in the city of Reggio nell'Emilia, near Bologna. 'There were many nights I debuted in very important opera houses,' Pavarotti recalls. 'I met many conductors - the best in the world - and my colleagues were phenomenal. I could sing with any kind of soprano I desired: [Italian Renata] Tebaldi, [black American Leontyne] Price, [Australia's Dame] Joan Sutherland and [New Zealand's Dame] Kiri Te Kanawa. All of them made my life happy every night I was singing with them. 'When I was singing, they called me cantanto pazzo - crazy singer - because I was yelling. I think I have explored all the possible arias in the theatre with all the sopranos and conductors. I have performed everywhere in the world [and] I have made a lot of recordings. I don't know what more I can do; [nothing] comes to my mind. '[But] more or less for an opera singer, what the people like is what I like also. So what I like is my debut, which made me pass from being an elementary school teacher to a tenor. That night was remarkable.' While Pavarotti has had his critics over the years, what cannot be denied is his effort to bring opera to the masses, through events such as his annual Pavarotti and Friends charity concert in his home town of Modena, Italy, which attracts some of the biggest names in rock and pop to aid the world's poorest children. Purists call it 'popera', but Pavarotti is unrepentant in his desire to introduce his beloved art to as many people as possible. 'Opera is a form of art. Why should we take this form of art away from the multitudes? What have they done wrong to not deserve the opera?' he argues. 'The opera is now, thanks to television, a beautiful show and everybody can see it or not. They know what it is. Before, they did not know. 'I want to be remembered for being a serious professional singer who did his job at his best and in consideration of who he was serving. He was serving the audience; he was serving the composer. I'm very pleased with the benefits my voice has [brought to others]. It is one more gift that God gave me. With the voice, I've been able to make other people happy and to take away trouble. What is better than that?' Born on October 12, 1935, Pavarotti has happy memories of his childhood, despite the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. He was a natural-born performer and joined the church choir at the age of five. He says he inherited his voice from his father, Fernando, a baker and amateur tenor, but never dreamed his talent would take him this far or sustain him for this long. 'When I was four, I jumped on the table and I made my family turn out the lights,' he says. 'I sang [a song] from Verdi's Rigoletto and I said my father was a tenor and I was a tenorino [little tenor]. It was something I never thought about. I never thought to be somebody. I always thought I would be the best to myself and, more than anything, to support my family. That was the idea at the beginning. 'Three years ago, my father died. He was almost 90. Ten days before he died, he was singing like a bird; a beautiful tenor voice. I think I took from him that instrument and I am this age now and still singing with the same instrument, [with] no force. That is the secret: no force. I had the gift from my father [and] from God.' Both his parents died in 2002 - his mother, Adele, in January; his father just four months later. It is still painful for Pavarotti to talk about them; at one stage during the interview he requests we change the subject. As a child, Pavarotti was surrounded by women, a theme that has continued into his adult years. 'I was surrounded by many [females] and they made me very happy,' he says. 'My grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mother, two sisters, then my first wife - and she has three sisters - then Nicolette and our daughter and my three daughters by my first wife. 'I have 15 secretaries, so I am surrounded by women. I was very happy and you see me very happy now, too. I am comfortable with women. They take care of you, they protect you. An artist is a baby; if you want him to produce like an artist, you should know that sometimes he is a baby.' Pavarotti, who became a grandfather in April 2002, has attracted his fair share of scandal over the years. He left his first wife, Adua, in 1996 after 35 years of marriage to be with his personal assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani. At 35, she is half his age and younger than his three adult daughters, Lorenza, Cristina and Giuliana. Adding to his woes, in 2000, Pavarotti was forced to pay 25 billion lira ($95 million at the time) in back taxes after the Italian authorities had launched an investigation into the singer's financial affairs in 1997. Despite claiming residence in Monte Carlo, the authorities found that Pavarotti spent more time in Modena. Pavarotti and Nicoletta eventually married in December 2003, 11 months after their daughter, Alice (pronounced A-lee-chay) was born. To conclude a tragic 12 months that had already claimed the singer's parents, Alice's twin brother was stillborn. Despite this, Pavarotti delights in his new circumstances, saying his young wife and daughter have given him a new lease on life. 'There are two kinds of energy: the body energy and the brain energy,' he says. 'The brain energy, yes, I take from them. The body energy, I [also] take from them, but not completely. It is more motivation. '[Alice] is a genius. She is the best and most beautiful [child] in the world. Every parent would say the same. She is charming, strong and has a big personality. What she wants, she wants it now, not later. And she screams if she doesn't [get it]. Her mother, who is just like her, understands. I was never like that. I was very aggressive, physically speaking, because I was always running. But for the rest of the time, I was a very quiet boy. 'She is beginning to talk now and she never stops talking. It is a great privilege for me. I have already three daughters, from my marriage before. But now I have more time [to enjoy what I missed].' As for his feelings about retirement, Pavarotti says he is looking forward to spending more time with Nicoletta and Alice, as well as hanging out with childhood friends to play cards and watch their beloved Juventus (football team) play. But he refuses to look beyond the next year. 'Forty-four years of career is a big piece of something,' he says. 'In one year, I will tell you what I am really thinking. 'I always said that at the age of 70, I would stop. But now I am on this tour and it has been extended. I have many things to do [when I retire]; I would like to teach very much and I would like to spend time with my wife and my daughter.' When the curtain does come down for the last time, Pavarotti will have travelled full circle: from a local school teacher in Modena, where he taught lessons to five age groups in the same room, to the world's most famous tenor and back to being a teacher, albeit as an international maestro teaching some of the world's brightest young singers. 'I am most happy at the end of a performance. It is a very difficult job, so you are always in danger if you don't concentrate. It is like a jumping competition; if you finish the last fences, then you can be happy. I sometimes had difficult performances and twice the audience booed me. 'I am a Libra and Librans are balanced. I say to myself, [the audience] were wrong to do this, but I gave them the possibility to do it. So why complain? It was my fault; twice in 44 years is not bad. I try always to be the best - my best, anyhow. And I think I did.' The Farewell Tour - Luciano Pavarotti Live in Hong Kong: December 2, 8pm, at the HKCEC; tel: 2882 1891.