Thursday 22 February 2018

Pavarotti - the man behind the voice

As a new show on the life of Luciano Pavarotti goes into production, its director Niall Morris looks at the singer's love of younger women and the fight over his €300m fortune

Pavarotti during a concert in Moscow
Pavarotti during a concert in Moscow
The singer's second wife Nicoletta Mantovani
Pavarotti with Madelyn Renee

As Donald Trump's campaign jet landed in Cleveland airport in July, the unmistakable voice of Luciano Pavarotti was blasted onto the runway, singing Nessun Dorma, his signature aria. Trump was using it as his arrival theme, timing his entrance to coincide with the aria's climactic finish: "Vincerò, vincerò!" ("I will win, I will win!").

However, Pavarotti's young widow, Nicoletta, was not so impressed and told the Trump Organisation to stop using her deceased husband's voice on their campaign trail. In a letter co-signed by Pavarotti's three daughters from his first marriage, she wrote: "We remind you that the values of brotherhood and solidarity that Luciano Pavarotti upheld throughout his artistic career are incompatible with the world vision of the candidate Donald Trump."

But what is it about Pavarotti's timeless rendition of Nessun Dorma that still has relevance today, particularly for a Republican like Trump? Doesn't he hate foreigners? If so, why choose an Italian aria?

Nine years after his death on September 6, 2007, Pavarotti's iconic status is indisputable and his voice still resonates with millions who have no idea what 'opera' really is. For them, he is the perfect embodiment of what they think an opera singer should be: an ebullient, somewhat caricatured figure with a huge voice and a larger-than-life white handkerchief to mop his sweating brow. Pavarotti took opera into stadiums and arenas. In many ways, he brought it back to where it had started: as the pop tunes of their day, hummed in the streets by ordinary people who saved up to see a great opera singer whenever they came to town - rather like we do these days for Beyonce.

The final months of Pavarotti's life were as dramatic as the last act of any opera. At the age of 70, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only 14 months to live. His good friend of 30 years, Dr Lidia La Marca, recalled visiting him in hospital. "Luciano looked tired and it was hard work for him to talk, but he was lucid," Dr La Marca was quoted as saying in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "Then, at a certain point he surprised us all by asking everyone to leave."

Left alone with Dr La Marca, Pavarotti allegedly unleashed himself like a child. "I am in a bad way. Nicoletta is tormenting me, she makes me live alone, she speaks badly about my daughters and surrounds me with people I don't like. She thinks about money all the time and she arrives with documents for me to sign," La Marca quoted Pavarotti as saying.

Nicoletta Mantovani was Pavarotti's second wife. (His first wife of 36 years, Adua, divorced him in 2000 because of his infidelity.) She was 35 years younger than him and had started out as his secretary. In 2003, they were married on the stage of the opera house at Modena in a lavish ceremony attended by over 500 guests who were greeted with caviar and flutes of Dom Perignon. Guests included Sting, Donatella Versace, Gina Lollobrigida, Andre Bocelli and Bono.

Dr La Marca was of the opinion that Nicoletta was trying to force her husband to sign an 'American' will - a separate document from his primary Italian will - leaving the three apartments on Central Park in New York to her. She told of how Nicoletta had flown to New York desperately trying to find the deeds for the properties while Luciano was still alive. "You know how this will end," La Marca claimed Pavarotti said on his sick bed. "Either I will shoot myself or we will separate."

While Pavarotti's remarks have more than a touch of operatic melodrama, Dr La Marca has remained adamant Luciano's words were genuine. He seemingly made one final impassioned plea to her: "You must speak about this after the funeral."

Pavarotti was born in Modena, north of Florence, in 1935. He was the son of Adele, a cigar factory worker, and Fernando, a baker, and the family lived in a small two-roomed apartment. As a young man, he dreamt of only two things: to sing in opera and to play football for Italy. Who could have guessed he would bring these two very different gladiatorial sports together when he sang Nessun Dorma for the World Cup Final in Italy in 1990.

In 1963, aged 28, the handsome, athletic Pavarotti sang in Rigoletto at the Gaiety in Dublin and the amateur chorus members of the Dublin Grand Opera Society fondly recall the day they spent kicking football with him in the Phoenix Park. Pavarotti was always a 'people person', uncomplicated, unpretentious, open - and it was this natural insouciance that would win him fans around the world. As his manager Herbert Breslin put it: "Pavarotti loved music, women, food and football - in that order. "

After a series of lucky breaks, Pavarotti found himself catapulted into the frontline of the opera world, with performances in New York, Chicago, Covent Garden and La Scala, Milan, always to ecstatic audiences. But it was his chance meeting with the straight-talking New York publicist Herbert Breslin that took his career in a completely different direction. Breslin candidly wrote about their 36-year business relationship in his memoir, The King & I.

"He was the dream client," says Breslin. "He loved interviews. Here was a guy with a phenomenal voice, huge ambition, a great face and a wonderful sense of humour."

The first thing Breslin did was to take Pavarotti out of the opera house, where he knew the potential for audience-building was limited. Breslin realised that, while not everybody wanted to sit through an opera, there was an audience who couldn't get enough of the operatic 'hits'. Breslin took a gamble and booked Carnegie Hall for a recital with just Pavarotti and piano. Money was tight, so he decided to sell the tickets through his own office to avoid the percentage taken by the venue.

"I put my own address at the bottom of a huge ad in the New York Times, telling people to write to me for tickets" Breslin wrote. "A few days later, when I tried to get into my office, the door wouldn't open. There seemed to be an obstruction."

In fact, there were hundreds of envelopes on the floor, blocking the door from opening and they were all requesting tickets to see Pavarotti.

When the prestigious Juilliard School of Music invited him to conduct a series of masterclasses for TV, never one to turn down publicity, Pavarotti readily agreed. He said little of interest during the classes, but one young singer did make an impression on him. She was Madelyn Renee, a very good-looking student soprano. A few days later, Pavarotti offered her a job as his secretary and within a month, she had moved into his Central Park apartment.

His affair with Renee was apparently an open secret for eight years. Meanwhile, his wife, Adua, who was living in Italy and raising their three young daughters, seemed to be either unaware or unwilling to face up to her husband's infidelity.

Then, one day, Renee walked out. Being with Pavarotti 24 hours a day wasn't easy. His career and his personality were all-consuming and she wanted her life back. Breslin remembers how distraught Luciano was when she left him.

"He called me from New York," he says. "It was the middle of the night and I was in Chicago. He was inconsolable, threatening to throw himself out the window of his apartment. I told him to calm down and I'd call him in the morning."

The next day, when Breslin called, Luciano was sitting up in bed having breakfast. "So, Luciano, you didn't throw yourself out the window, after all?" asked Breslin.

"No," replied Pavarotti. "I tried. But I couldn't fit!"

The origin of the idea for The Three Tenors goes back to an afternoon in 1987 when Pavarotti was lying in a hammock in the garden of his Italian villa. He read in the paper that the opera singer José Carreras had been admitted to hospital in Seattle. Pavarotti had always treated him as a younger brother, unlike his relationship with Plácido Domingo, which had tended to be more competitive. Pavarotti called the hospital right away and was put through.

"You have nothing to worry about," he told Carreras. "Whatever you need, there is money for you. Whatever you want, just say."

Three years later, when all eyes were on Italy for the World Cup in 1990, the three tenors - Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti - agreed to take part in an outdoor concert to raise money for charity. What no one could have known was that it would become a gigantic hit.

At the height of The Three Tenors they were each earning $1.5m a show. But where there's a hit, there's a writ and, while further concerts took place around the world, there allegedly followed a period of squabbling about fees, royalties and unpaid taxes. Soon the concept had run its course and normal life resumed; normal, that is, if you're a superstar like Luciano Pavarotti.

During these years of phenomenal success, Pavarotti's relationships with the opera houses of the world had deteriorated. His nickname had morphed from 'King of the High Cs' to 'King of Cancellations' and he was publicly banned by the Chicago Lyric Opera for failing to show up for 26 of his 41 engagements. Reputedly, he once called in sick to Covent Garden while lying on the beach of a South Sea island, surrounded by semi-naked girls dancing in grass skirts.

He was less and less interested in the daily grind of being an opera singer. Richard Bonynge, the conductor who discovered him, eventually refused to work with him. The turning point was a production in Naples when Pavarotti arrived late, not knowing his music and proceeded to tell everyone how to sing.

Yet his fans still adored him and forgave him for his shortcomings in exchange for those thrilling vocal pyrotechnics.

Early on the morning of September 6, 2007, after a year-long battle with cancer, Pavarotti died at his home in Modena. He was 71. As his body lay in state at the cathedral, over 50,000 people filed past to pay their respects to the great tenor, lying in an open coffin. Amongst the flowers was a photograph of Alice, his four-year-old daughter from his second marriage. The words read: "Ciao, Papa."

Adua, Pavarotti's first wife and Nicoletta, his second, took their seats on opposite sides of the church. What followed was a very public battle over his €300m fortune. On one side, his three daughters from his first marriage -Lorenza, Cristina and Giuliana - suggested that Nicoletta had coerced their father into signing documents when he was of unsound mind. To add further drama and intrigue, a third will was discovered that seemed to disinherit Nicoletta in favour of his daughters, leaving her just the family home in Pesaro. There were valuable properties at stake: three villas and various properties in Italy and an apartment in Monte Carlo. Pavarotti's American assets reportedly included three Manhattan apartments, works of art by Matisse and various bank accounts. In the terms of the 'American' will, these assets had been placed in a trust for Nicoletta in June 2007. Were these the papers that Pavarotti may possibly have been coerced into signing in the months leading up to his death? An Italian magistrate in October of that year declared he would be looking into the trust after a notary present at the signing questioned the lucidity of the ailing Pavarotti.

In response, during a TV interview a month after her husband's death, Nicoletta said she was in complete agreement with Pavarotti's three elder daughters over his wealth. Finally, after two years of legal wrangling, both parties agreed to settle. Nicoletta received 50pc of the estate, under Italian law. She also received the entire contents of the 'American' will. Pavarotti's daughters, including Alice, split the other 50pc between them. Though questions remain about what actually happened during the final months of Pavarotti's life, it seemed that the singer could finally rest in peace.

'Nessun Dorma - The Life and Music of Luciano Pavarotti', a show by Niall Morris takes place at the National Concert Hall on September 24, 8pm. Tickets from nch.ie

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