Nicoletta Mantovani and Luciano Pavarotti (AT Mag, November 18, 2018)
My all-consuming memory of Luciano Pavarotti is a great volcano of a man emerging from his swimming pool wearing a straw hat and a giant smile. The latter crushing and melting into terror when he noticed I was wearing a purple dress. Purple is the colour of death, or at least according to his religion or superstition.
I felt guilty. He did die a few years later in 2007 but not hopefully from my purple dress. He had pancreatic cancer. At the end he was a shadow of his former 25 stone self. People close to him say he remained optimistic, refused to see anything bad. That was what he was like. A contradiction, seeing good in bad and death in purple dresses. He always wanted to spread the love, but at the same time he was very volatile. He was one of those men who loved women. That is always a little scary – a man who loves women usually needs more than one of them.
He was married to his first wife Adua for 35 years. He had become estranged from this relationship when he met the quietly charismatic Nicoletta Mantovani. When they met she was in her early 20’s and he was 57. She came looking for a part time job to help her through her Doctorate in biology at Bologna university but Pavarotti wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to swoop her off her feet round the world and always be with him.
We are in the private dining room of the Gritti Palace in Venice and if I peer over the table centrepiece – a bowl of perfect Italian vegetables, I can take in Mantovani. She’s one of these people who seems to be able to walk around with several layers of her skin peeled off. She doesn’t care how vulnerable she is. She’s been hated by a lot of people but this small sparrow of a woman was able to set that aside and look after her husband and their daughter Alice.
She exudes caring without being overbearing. She’s interested, curious in what other people have to say but not prying. When the third course of food comes she jokes about how she and her husband’s big fights came when she tried to put him on a diet.
Theirs was an intriguing partnership. While Pavarotti had always striven to bring opera to the people, it was their concept together to bring pop to opera and she produced several successful concerts in the early 2000s – Pavarotti and Friends where popstars like Bono and Zuccero and Lionel Ritchie came to Modena to sing with the big man. She was good at these big ideas but apparently had no actual secretarial skills.
The cliché would be pretty young girl baits and tantalises multi-millionaire operatic king. She might have worn heels, tiny skirts, push up bras. That’s not who she ever was. She’s now 47 with prettily layered tawny hair, black comfortable clothes and flat shoes. Trademark cats eye glasses and strangely more attractive than the young girl who doesn’t seem to fit into her body.
She says she didn’t want to be sucked into his world. She fought it but she felt it was a coup de foudre although she says this in Italian. Coup de foudre doesn’t really translate into English.
Now she’s in the business of looking after the legacy that Luciano Pavarotti left the world. He was consistently described as the world’s greatest tenor with sales of over 100 million records. His music should live on.
Hence, we are here in the very fancy Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice with its views of the Grand Canal and its very special ravioli and Acqui di Parma products in all of the suites.
We are here because she has partnered with Decca Luxe, a new venture that is as over the top as the maestro himself. The concept is – creating a product of rare luxury and a price of £84,000. It’s for people who already have their top of the range Bentleys and their yachts and houses dotted around the world for them to sail between.
They get a box, a very special box, only ten of them will be made in the world by David Linley, Lord Snowdon. Each box would have been 1,000 hours in the crafting. The box will feature limited edition prints of Pavarotti’s paintings which are brightly coloured as naïve as they are sophisticated. You also get the Windsor and Newton oil paints from his palette – a lifetime supply. You get every note he ever recorded including newly discovered tracks in the Decca archives and a player which will give you immersive sound. Immersive sound is a thing of the future. Apparently five years ahead of its time, and in this box. Remember when people thought that VR and AR were the next big thing? Well, now it’s this. A sound so immersive you feel that the man himself is sitting in the room with you. A sound system borrowed from cinemas, the kind of which best sound editing Oscars are given. You know the ones – you’re right there in the battle, in the love, in the pain, in all of it. And then they win a best sound editing Oscar.
And as a person who doesn’t see the point of VR and AR, I was ready to dismiss it but sitting there in the Gritti Palace where Luciano Pavarotti loved to hang out, you feel wrenched emotionally when they turn it off and put on a regular stereo.
In this package called A Life in Art you also get dinner with Nico Mantovani cooked by Pavarotti’s favourite chef and you go on a Pavarotti diet and some of your money goes to his foundation. A bargain I hear you thinking. You also get flown there by private jet which means unfortunately you have to go to Luton, voted consistently Britain’s worst airport, but you soon get over that even though the plane is tiny. They give you enough booze to make you forget about it.
Mantovani was not what I expected. Certainly not the femme fatale, not the husband stealer, although there’s certainly a strength to her. She stopped the publication of Pavarotti’s assistant Edwin Tinoco’s memoir. Not because it was salacious and gossipy, but because she didn’t think he would have wanted it. It didn’t fit in with his legacy.
When they first met, Pavarotti warned her she might be described as somebody “not nice”. All that stuff was easy when he wasn’t there to protect her. “It was harder.
“He warned me that everyone would think I was after his money. We talked about it a lot. He asked me if I was prepared to be seen as somebody not nice.”
How this operatic romantic tragedy unfolded is just far too complicated to describe as just not nice. Scrutiny was inevitable when they met because of the age gap of 34 years. Mantovani wasn’t even born when he married his first wife and Alice and his grandchild are around the same age. Yet, “Luciano always thought of me as the older one. I was more grown up.” He was middle aged, rich and famous. She was young, tiny, not rich and a student.
During their 15-year marriage, there were certainly a few knives out for her, especially at the end when people reported falsely that their marriage was over. No doubt marriage was stressed because she was dealing with her husbands’ terminal illness which he himself decided to treat with more courses of optimism than chemo. She never left his side and made sure that their then 4 ½ year old daughter was with him too so she would have the memories.
Obviously this prodigious and prodigiously rich man would have all the relatives fighting for the spoils.
Under Italian law 25% of his wealth goes to Mantovani, 50% is split between his 4 daughters, leaving another 25% in question. And questions were asked as he’d made 3 wills.
The next day we go to Modena to the house where they lived which is now a museum and restaurant and we experience first-hand the Pavarotti diet. Across the table you see her eyes are flecked with multicolours. She misses nothing. She’s not wearing make-up but the hair is good. She’s made an effort but not too much of one and you like that about her.
Endless cheese and endless sorts of salami and fried dumplings that are called called Gnocco Fritto. You eat with salty prune jam. Then there’s a large plate of buffalo mozzarella, potato, pesto and balsamic vinegar.
Modena has become one of the food capitals of the world with chef Massimo Patron with his 3 Michelin stars nearby. After this we get a Pavarotti’s personal favourite is thick al dente risotto drizzled in balsamic vinegar – he liked to drink this with red sparkling wine – Lambrusco.
Mantovani tells me, “he thought the combination of the risotto and the wine were very healthy. They made you happy so they were healing. He was obsessed with this particular wine, this particular balsamic and this particular salami and of course his own pasta so that wherever he went in the world his entourage would each have to hide the food contraband in their luggage.”
Mantovani adds that she’s not sure if she’s allowed in the US these days as she was always the one who got caught with the forbidden substances like cheese. Pavarotti’s relationship with food was integral to his being. He didn’t eat to blot out emotional pain. He ate for pleasure. He liked his size. It made women feel like they were surrendering to him.
Mantovani says, “even now I miss those hugs – like big panda hugs.”
After our risotto came a salad with strawberries and more balsamic, then an orange blossom ice cream with a walnut caramel balsamic sauce. The man who runs the restaurant sees me about to fall into a food coma and provides espresso.
Mantovani and I go upstairs, just above the bedroom that she and her husband shared. She now lives in Bologna with her parents and daughter and is strangely unperturbed by inviting the public into the home they once shared which is now a museum filled with his notes, his costumes, his paintings and his music.
“I feel it’s a place where people can relax because they can feel him. He was very happy here because he always loved life. He had a very positive presence. He was always able to take the very best out of you. I don’t know how he did it but he did it with everyone. You always felt much better to sit next to him. I tell her that last night when we had the immersion sound it made me cry and I don’t know why. It must have been really emotional for her?
“Yes. It was really strong. It was like having him here in front of me in the room, yet 11 years have passed since he left us. And when he left, part of me left with him…”
She composes herself. “We decided to do this and work with the foundation in order to bring his passions to life. He had a big passion for giving back. He did a lot of charity work, especially with refugees. Music, like sport can keep people united. We have a school in Bosnia that we founded with Bono and two schools in Guatemala. And right now. we’re helping young singers which he always did till the end of his life. He was always teaching them how to be with themselves in public, how to have not just a voice but the right attitude. He wanted his academy to be free because he never went to a conservatory. He always said, ‘a voice is like a white flower. It can grow everywhere, even in the desert but you have to look for it’. In Italy it’s very expensive to create such an academy” (there’s no tax relief for charity).
A percentage of the Decca Luxe boxes will go to the foundation. Mantovani’s English is fluent. Her emotions organised. Not at all like Pavarotti’s. They were very different. You can see also how when something troubles her it troubles her deeply.
“I think he enjoyed every minute of his life because when he was 12 he had an accident playing soccer and he got tetanus. It was during the war when people played with no shoes. He went into a coma for many days. He got penicillin and was saved but from that moment he said I’m going to be happy always. He found ways that bad things can help you become a better person.”
She slips effortlessly into nostalgia and romance. We go over that coup de foudre moment. “I’d not been working for him long and he asked me if I would leave with him for a couple of days to go to Switzerland. I said no and he said ‘come to the airport to say goodbye’, I said OK. The minute I saw him leave I took a plane. That was Culpo di fulmine.”
When love strikes someone like lightning. “That was him. When you let yourself be open to any experience you don’t put any limit on them. He had no borders. No borders in music or in life. As Bono said, ‘he didn’t just sing opera – he was opera’. He was never bothered if he didn’t have a nice review. He would just say, ‘people are free to think what they want.’ Like when he was criticised in the British Press for hugging Princess Diana because it wasn’t Royal protocol. The papers said ‘shame on you’ and he said ‘I was very happy that I got to hug her’.”
When Mantovani and Pavarotti met she was studying biology and completely unable to sing. “We were strangers, completely different kinds of people. Maybe we knew each other from a past life. Everyone was asking him to explain what it was he really liked about me and what happened. He would say ‘if you can explain love, it’s not love’. He would say to me was I ready? Was I prepared? But he was my guardian angel, protecting me from what everyone said. We were always together. It’s different now although I still feel him as a different kind of guardian angel. And now people have stopped talking bad about me, I mean after so many years.”
But what about the rumours that he was about to get back with his first wife on his deathbed and give her all his money?
She sighs, quietly dismissing it. “‘When you are a public figure, you have to accept everything bad and good’ he would say. You cannot play a game where everyone is on your side. You cannot be loved by everyone. I wonder if he left us now, after all this social networking how different it would be.”
Would he have had an Instagram account? “No. he liked to exhibit himself for sure but he was never vain, narcissistic. The engine of his life was that he was always open to new experiences. He was curious – always wanted to try something. He was the first in mixing pop music with opera (his crossover Pavarotti and Friends concert in the noughties).”
Opera was his pop music. “So that’s why he had the idea to bring it to the people even if he was attacked by the purists of opera lovers.”
The moment where he decided to paint came after he played Cavaradossi, a painter in a Tosca opera in the eighties and someone gave him a box of paints.
“He said suddenly he was acting at painting and then he was painting. He painted for one week and didn’t eat and that was a big thing for him.” We laugh. He didn’t like to go long without food so he must have really been obsessed.
She shows me a painting that he and Alice painted together when she was really tiny. Very sweet. It’s blues and yellows, sky and sunshine. She shows me a picture on her phone of the now 16-year old Alice who was four and a half when he died. She looks very rock n roll but has her father’s eyes.
“I don’t think she has a memory of him but she has a lot of stories that have been told to her. She has a deep sense of justice that Luciano had. he was always fighting with his whole self to protect people. Luciano was a very pure soul. Some people think he was childish but he never had any prejudice and always saw the good in people and I think it’s genetic.
“He would always ask a lot of questions. He was never afraid to ask anything like ‘why do you like that science stuff?’ The basis or our relationship was always talking. 24 of hours of the day talking and trying to understand each other’s deepest thoughts and we were always so different. It seemed to give him energy. He would always say ‘you are the eldest of us. You are the old one’ and even if I was 25 he would say ‘could you stop being so old.’”
The first turning point in their relationship came when Mantovani went to a doctor and was diagnosed with MS and the doctor said ‘in a few years you’ll be in a wheelchair.’
“That made Luciano crazy because it’s a terrible thing to say to a young girl and thank God they’ve made lots of progress with the treatment. When we had this response from the doctor I told Luciano I couldn’t stay with him anymore because I would be a big weight. He said ‘until now I loved you but from now on I adore you and the two of us together will win’. I cried and he said ‘no, don’t cry. We’ll make it’. He was really my engine.
First off, Mantovani was given drugs that had side effects so bad she decided to quit them. Recently, she saw a doctor called Zamboni where she had surgery to substitute a vein. He’s based in Ferrar.
“It’s very controversial and some neurologists don’t think it’s right. Worldwide it is recognised that there is a sickness created in the vein block but it’s not necessarily recognised as working for MS. It’s not for everyone – there are so many different kinds of MS but it seems to be working for me.
“In the beginning of my diagnosis Luciano would say ‘it’s not a bad thing. From now on you will change your priorities. Now you won’t take the flowers for granted’. He said this because the MS made me lose sight for two weeks.”
There are two basic types of MS. One intermittent and one progressive. She was told that she may not be able to get pregnant but of course she did. She actually had twins but Alice’s brother Ricardo wasn’t as strong.
“They were both born premature at 7 months. She was a tiny, tiny girl and unfortunately her twin brother had died before. I have beautiful memories of Luciano carrying her around. He was the one who fed her. He came at her with the bottle when she didn’t have enough power to suck and he’d cry ‘you eat! And he made it fun for her.”
Did he really eat like this every day – the cheese, the meats, the risotto, the ice cream, the wine, the dumplings?
“He had pasta every day for sure and he had a lot of butter on food and I was always trying to put him on a diet. We always had fights over that but it was fun and he could also ask me if I could avoid singing to Alice because my voice was so bad and he said I was destroying her ears. He tried to teach me for the longest time because he said at the beginning ‘everyone can sing’ and then he said ‘every rule has an exception and you are that one’. We spent some time where he would perform the soprano role and I would perform the tenor and he would imitate my very bad voice.”
“At the very beginning of our relationship he lost weight then gained it back. Up again down again like a rollercoaster. He used food as his medicine. It gave him a sense of protection.”
Does she mean he wanted a layer of fat to protect him from the world? “It could be but he was not insecure. He had a taste for good food and he was very serious about it.”
I wondered when he was sick from cancer and on chemo if he was still able to enjoy his food? “Not really. He realised he was sick but he was positive for the future. On the one hand he accepted his situation saying ‘I’ve had such a lucky life, a fantastic career, I’ve explored my passion, I’ve helped others and I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful family and 3 daughters before that. He felt lucky.”
She tells me how he worked up until the very end planning his future as if he would go on forever. When he was sick he could still sing. His students would say ‘when he is sick I can hear his technique even better’ and he loved that. he could still sing because he had a fantastic vocal technique and when he was sick he was forced to use it even more. He had the surgery to remove a tumour and then he did the chemotherapy.”
Did he accept that he was dying? “I think he always thought he had a positive future.”
It must have put a strain on your relationship, you knowing how sick he was and him trying to unknow it?
“We were always trying to be positive together because Alice was very young. We coped with his illness as we did with mine. He was always strong for everybody else. I always saw him like a lion so he was….” Her voice drifts at this change of dynamic. “When he was a lion I was a lion with him.”
And when he wasn’t? At this point something really strange happens. For no reason, my tape recorder and my phone fling themselves off the little table between our two creamy leather armchairs. It was as if he was there with us and he didn’t like any talk of sickness or weakness. She composes herself.
“Until the very end he was positive and teaching and surrounded by friends. He was the strong one. He was actually trying to make a new album.
It must have been an excruciating shock to go through the world where they were together all the time, even reading the Harry Potter books to each other, to be without him. Certainly the idea of working with his foundation, opening up the museum is her idea to keep him alive in the world.
“Yes, I miss him and the thing I miss most are his hugs like a panda. This house was too big for just me and Alice so I decided to open it to the public and go and live with my parents in Bologna. He loved this house so much but it was too big for me and Alice.”
Mantovani herself doesn’t find it as easy as her husband did to be happy. These past few years she says have been “heavy” for her. There was a relationship that didn’t work out because the man lied to her and was seeing someone else at the same time. She almost lost her faith in humanity until she refocused into doing so much for the foundation.
“I don’t think there will ever be anyone else. One big love in life is enough, don’t you think?”
Not really. Pavarotti had two great loves, two wives.
“He was more open than me. More curious and more genuine. I’ll try my best but it’s not easy.”
Instead, she wants to take me downstairs to another room in the house where we can see messages from all over the world about how much Pavarotti affected people. The room is called the man who creates emotion.
“because he was always able to create big emotions. Not just for opera lovers.”
He was also able to cause a drama. One time they were in New York and they had a fight, Mantovani insisted she was leaving and going back to Italy but Pavarotti had called the head of Alitalia to stop her getting on the plane and to tell her he’d broken his arm.
“I got home and in full dramatic mode he said ‘you left me alone and look what happened. My world collapsed’. We were having dinner and I was kissing his arm and a couple of hours after the dinner ended I said are you OK? He said ‘of course I’m ok’ and whipped his arm out of the fake bandage.”
We laugh. What did they fight about? “We were always fighting because there was fire in us, fire is passion. But he also did big things for me. When I took my exams in the university of Bologna I went to dinner with my family and heard his voice in my ear. He’d taken a plane from Tokyo where he was performing Tosca just to say he loved me and flew back to Tokyo the next day.”
It’s no surprise that all this drama is to be made into a movie and a stage show. First up it’s a documentary from director Ron Howard and then a West End show. John Berry, British opera producer has bought the rights to his life.
Mantovani herself is producing another movie. It’s about an important figure in the Italian gay and lesbian movements in the seventies. Of the musical she says, “This is a very important project for the West End. There are many ideas so far and I don’t know which way we’ll go. His life was so immense.”
She takes me downstairs to a golden coloured bedroom, sunlight streaming in. the presence on his side of the bed is palpable. This is where he lived, loved, died. In the bathroom which is ensuite, there’s a large set of scales. She tells me sometimes she goes in there and for no reason the scales tip to Pavarotti’s weight and then go down to zero again, back and forth. Perhaps he’s telling her that he’s still here and oddly, the subject they fought most about – his weight, is still the metaphor for an enduring passion.