Growing up in postwar Italy at age 12, Luciano Pavarotti fell ill with tetanus and sank into a coma for two weeks. When he woke, he thought that if only God would grant him recovery, “I will enjoy life, I will enjoy the sun, the sky, the trees, everything.”
Few promises have been kept so exuberantly: Pavarotti lived a life of joy, at operatic scale. In the hundreds of still photos the director Ron Howard displays in his unspeakably beautiful documentary Pavarotti, the tenor is smiling vastly in almost all of them (albeit suffering and soon to perish in the ones taken of him performing on the stage, where he died hundreds of times). An Italian flutist remembers Luciano telling him to pack a suitcase full of tortellini and prosciutto and other delights when joining the singer on tour. In a 1979 TV appearance, the daytime talk-show host Phil Donahue corners Pavarotti as the tenor demonstrates his spaghetti-cooking prowess: “Can we agree, sir, that it is fattening?” Donahue presses, the self-appointed pasta policeman. Pavarotti replies: Why, yes, Phil Donahue. Yes it is! A daughter recalls, at age eight, being asked to describe what her father did in an essay. “My father is a crook,” she wrote confidently, citing the following evidence: He would steal away at night and had a mysterious case full of fake beards and mustaches.
A career in opera, like an evening at Tosca, requires patience. When Pavarotti made his stage debut in La Bohème in April of 1961, the subjects of Howard’s previous music documentary were playing for £2.50 a night each in Hamburg. The Beatles came back to London, started recording, became worldwide sensations, remade their medium, broke up, and entered middle age before you knew the name Pavarotti. His future girlfriend Madelyn Renée says she had never heard of him when they met while she was studying singing at Juilliard in the late 1970s.
Pavarotti has soccer to thank for one of his great breakthroughs. In 1990, a one-off concert to celebrate the finale of the World Cup in Italy brought him together with Plácido Domingo and José Carreras in the first of what became known as the Three Tenors concerts. Singing in the remains of Roman baths, the trio exhibit a fraternal, frolicsome energy — opera with the looseness of rock. They go into a huddle to choose an encore on the spot: the conductor, Zubin Mehta, mimes the sleepy-time gesture to his orchestra, and they’re off with “Nessun Dorma,” the greatest of all arias. The concert recording became the best-selling classical album of all time and launched a new populist era in marketing classical recordings. At 54, Pavarotti had realized his dream of bringing opera to the people. Purists thought he went a bit too far, performing with the likes of the Spice Girls and Jon Bon Jovi. As is often the case, the purists were right. But opera music hadn’t enjoyed such a high profile in decades.
Howard’s film is, in the spirit of opera and very much not in the spirit of most contemporary movies, wide-open to the passions. In a new interview, Domingo notes that “voice” is a feminine noun in Italian, Spanish, and French. The voice is beautiful but she is volatile and jealous. The voice is high-maintenance. The relationship with her is tempestuous, and the more thrilling for it. Considering that, why not live a life of the heart? Pavarotti luxuriates in beauty and pain, savoring everything. It’s not just an introduction to its subject; it shows us how to live. In the 1980s the tenor bonded with Princess Diana when, during a drenching rain in a London outdoor concert, he asked her and everyone else in the audience to put away their umbrellas and accept a soaking. Her celebrated coif sits in meltdown atop her skull as she meets him backstage in a laughing, what-the-hell mood. As the two became friends, he took up her charitable habits con gusto. He discovered he could open a school by opening his mouth.
Pavarotti developed a mania for charity and dragged U2’s Bono with him. He demanded that the Irishman write a song for him and leverage it to benefit the children hurt by the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Bono blanched at the prospect, plus he was busy recording in Dublin. Pavarotti kept calling. “Is God at home?” he would say. He chatted up the Italian housekeeper so she would hound Bono as well. “The technique is humility, which is of course a very mischievous trick,” Bono recalls. Then the great tenor showed up on Bono’s doorstep, with a camera crew, or rather, in Bono’s words, a “f***ing camera crew.” The resultant hostage-video style footage of Bono is priceless: He grudgingly commits to a charity performance with Pavarotti in the latter’s hometown of Modena later that year. On, er, what date? “September 12,” his captor dictates. “September 12,” says Bono. The song finally created, by Bono and his fellow son of a tenor, the Edge, was the gorgeous “Miss Sarajevo,” which uses Pavarotti’s voice like an appeal from heaven.
As Pavarotti devoured life, however, he left some around him emotionally famished, and to Howard’s credit he spends a considerable portion of the film weighing the damage of philandering. Adua Veroni, the tenor’s wife from 1961 to 2000, reflects on dealing with Pavarotti’s many affairs, and his children were aghast when he took up with Nicoletta Mantovani, a woman 34 years his junior. Yet towards the end there was reconciliation if not quite forgiveness. Terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life in 2007, Pavarotti explains his deepest regrets: He wishes he had been a good husband and father. A man who had millions in the bank and the adulation of the world neglected the most basic duties, and that’s a life lesson as well.