Nicoletta Mantovani: The woman who won Pavarotti's heart profiled in new Ron Howard documentary

Mention Luciano Pavarotti’s second marriage, to Nicoletta Mantovani, and the average Italian seems to have an opinion.

As in many scenarios involving an older married man and a young woman, those opinions seem more based on Adam and Eve than actual events. However, 12 years on from Pavarotti’s death, Ron Howard’s documentary about the world-famous tenor offers some interesting insights into the man, his life, his work and that second marriage.

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Nicoletta Mantovani will be 50 in November, but she really does not look it. She does look unassuming, a little over five feet tall, blonde, wearing no make-up, and in a simple dress and flip flops, she apologises in that charmingly accented English for being late.

We are in the house that her late husband designed just outside his hometown of Modena. He toured 10 months a year for 40 years, and his stays elsewhere taught him a lot about living spaces – and this knowledge went into his home.

Nicoletta describes the four-storey house as “all Luciano. He told me that if he had not been a singer, he would have been an architect.”

There is a glass and gold padded lift through the middle of the house and his love of light and colour means the roof is glass. The kitchen units and fridge are all yellow, he picked out the design of the ornate iron light sconces, he left the wood on the floor unwaxed because he said stains would be memories.

The house is built on the site where they first met but in the end, they didn’t get to live in it too long. They moved in when their daughter Alice was just born, in 2003.

“At the beginning here, it was really happy times because we had our chickens and every morning with Alice we would go to collect eggs for breakfast. We had goats and then one of the stables Luciano converted into an indoor swimming pool, and Alice always had lessons with Luciano. It was a happy time, we had a couple of really beautiful years here.”

In early 2006, Pavarotti was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a year a half, in the house he had designed.

Nicoletta’s voice goes quiet as she describes how she and Alice stayed in the house for two years after he died, “But it was really, really difficult. It was a very tough time. I always say that when Luciano passed away he didn’t pass away alone, half of me went with him. And I always thank God that Alice was with me because I don’t know [what would have happened] without Alice…” she trails off before musing that it seems “like life gives you a deep joy then unfortunately it must give something bad. I don’t know why but it is like that quite often.”

They certainly lived both extremes of emotion.

The popular version of their story is that Pavarotti, then 57, was married to his first wife Adua Veroni with whom he had three adult daughters.

Nicoletta, who was 23, was his assistant. They started an affair and when they were photographed together in Barbados, he left his wife. All sorts of assumptions were made as to the motive on both their parts.

The version that Nicoletta tells is that she was a student of Natural Science at Bologna University, and she had heard there were jobs going in the large stables where Pavarotti held his annual international showjumping competition.

She opened a door and there was Pavarotti, alone, watching the horses.

“Luciano was alone and Luciano was never alone, there were always people around him. I don’t know why he was alone, destiny, I suppose.”

He kept talking but she was embarrassed, “I asked such stupid questions like, for example, we saw this horse jumping and I said, ‘so, do you like horses?’ and he said ‘of course, and now your next question can be if I like singing’.”

She got a job anyway and Pavarotti would pop by every evening, Nicoletta couldn’t work out why.

When he put her in charge of organising a concert programme, she refused. However, she agreed to take dictation but she had to keep going back because he kept changing the programme. She thought it was an opera thing.

“But then of course at a certain point, there was a kiss. There was the story.”

It was a story she was sure would end with the summer so when he asked her to accompany him on a short European trip, she refused. “But I went to say goodbye, convinced that was it. No more. But I took the plane and we started the story.”

For six months, they lived a passionate romance but that idyllic time ended when, at 24, Nicoletta was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She kept falling over, went blind for two weeks and was told that she would be in a wheelchair within years.

“When you are 24 you think okay, life is over. It was tough because you are in the middle of a beautiful love story, going around the world, happy, and then boom. Finito. Not finito only the love story but finito the life.”

But she says, the MS diagnosis made them stronger.

“After MS, we became one thing because he said, I will be with you always. You have to rely on me and together we will win. He didn’t let me cry over myself. He said, ‘stop it, you have to see it as an opportunity to improve yourself’. And in a way, he was right because little by little, I changed my priority list and everything else.”

It also changed how she saw the inevitable judgment about their relationship when they were caught by photographers in the sea in Barbados.

“In fact, we were not hiding at all, we always behaved in a normal way.”

But their relationship made headlines and in the documentary there is footage of angry people on the street denouncing them.

“Oh yes, we knew in advance that that would be [the case] but you know, when you are so much in love, you are ready to face everything. You are in another dimension.”

His manager Herbert Breslin once said: “Pavarotti loved music, women, food and football – in that order.” And in the documentary US soprano Madelyn Renee talks about her eight-year relationship with the tenor; it was an open secret in opera circles. Also in the documentary Pavarotti’s first wife says she heard the rumours about his trysts with other women but that when asked, Luciano would deny everything most convincingly.

It would seem that what was different with Nicoletta was that she was the woman with whom he was prepared to go public.

The Catholic Church refused them permission to marry in a church so they married in the Teatro Communale in Modena in 2003 – in a theatre because it was “the church of the artists, I still don’t know if it was Bono or Luciano who created this name”, says Nicoletta.

It was a lavish wedding, a happy day.

“We lived something, I can’t say it was once in a lifetime because it wasn’t for him, but it was very special and when I said before that half of me died with him, that is the reality. Before [we went public], he said ‘Are you ready?’ I said ‘Yeah, I am always ready with you by my side.

“The problem was when he wasn’t there. The thing that I remember most is when I was lost in his arms, that kind of hug is really what I miss because that was the full protection.” And her eyes well up.

Even their longed-for parenthood was bittersweet as the pregnancy was molar (where a benign tumour grows in the uterus.) It was a twin pregnancy but when the babies were delivered at seven months, the boy, Riccardo, did not survive.

Alice, who was just four and half when her father died, is now 16 and apparently not only looks like her father but has his character.

“She has the same sense of justice as he had,” her mother says, “and I can see the same pureness in a way that Luciano had, a kind of pureness that rarely you meet in people.”

She says, however, that Alice does not have her father’s voice. “Alice took after me! But maybe it’s better than singing with that last name.”

Her own voice can’t be that bad, surely? She laughs again, “Luciano was fascinated because he never heard somebody so bad. He said, everyone in the world has a voice, it just needs training. Then after a long, long time, he said you know what, every rule has an exception.”

In 2009, Nicoletta decided to move back to her native Bologna and to open the Modena house as a museum. It was initially just for a short time but then she felt that such a social man would enjoy sharing his home with his fans.

In the bedroom they shared, there are still family photographs around the bed, drawings Alice made for her dad. Pavarotti’s own paintings hang downstairs. The cards he played Briscola with, the music scores and letters he collected over time. He kept his costumes and the more famous ones are on display upstairs. In the basement, there is the fan mail and art that still arrives to this day.

There is no question but that Nicoletta seems most animated and happy when talking about the 14 years she had with Pavarotti. In the same spirit of sharing, she welcomed the idea of doing a documentary when she was approached by Decca Universal to see if there was an archive they could use.

She has an extensive archive, much of which features in the documentary. “I liked very much the idea that all the people who deeply loved Luciano and that Luciano loved back would be asked to give their opinion. I’m sure that the Luciano I met was different from the Luciano maybe of the first marriage. I thought that was really important to have a total view of what happened and what was the journey.”

Told chronologically, it begins with his early years and the tetanus-induced brush with death he had at 12 that changed his entire outlook on life. He decided to look on the bright side and to see opportunity in everything. It’s not in the film but in 1963, he sang in Rigoletto in the Gaiety Theatre and was remembered fondly by members of the Dublin Grand Opera Society who played soccer with him in the Phoenix Park.

Of the finished film, she says: “I knew my part but then to see all the other parts together was really interesting for me.”

She laughs remembering the story that Bono recounts about how Pavarotti, whom he calls “one of the great emotional arm wrestlers”, persuaded him to write a song in the middle of recording an album.

“That I remember very well!” she says. For the third Pavarotti and Friends concert in 1995, she suggested her idols, U2.

Pavarotti called but Bono said he couldn’t write a song, he was in the studio. “But Luciano said God will inspire you. And Bono laughed and said ‘Sure’.”

Pavarotti kept calling, befriending the Hewson housekeeper Teresa who happened to be Italian and enlisting her help.”

Whether it was God or Teresa is unclear but the result was Miss Sarajevo, and Nicoletta flew with Pavarotti to Dublin to record it.

“Luciano and Bono started a great huge friendship because they were quite similar, because you know Irish people and Italian people have many things in common,” she says. “This open attitude towards life and even in a way being so real, so honest.”

Pavarotti was criticised by opera purists but he was always very clear that what he wanted to do was to bring opera back to the people, as it had been in his childhood.

“Luciano said opera was composed for people, it was not composed for rich people. So he started with arenas, then big stadiums, then parks, the Three Tenors, then pop music but the idea was always to widen the audience. I was an example,” she adds.

“I was not an opera lover at all, I was a rock lover and he said you don’t like opera because you don’t know opera and we made a bet. Because he was very afraid of insects and my studies were on entomology, I said, ‘you don’t like insects because you don’t know insects’. But he won because in the end I loved opera and he didn’t love insects.”

There was an estimated €300m fortune left after Pavarotti died and it became the source of a lot of gossip, dispute and legal wrangling. It was settled out of court after two years.

Financial wrangling aside, Nicoletta and Pavarotti’s three adult daughters Cristina, Lorenza and Giuliana co-signed a letter to stop Donald Trump using his Nessun dorma at campaign rallies in 2016. In it they 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.”

Throughout his life, Pavarotti had done a lot of charity work, “He was conscious that he received so much in life,” Nicoletta explains, “And he was really thankful to God and he was really religious.”

She says she is religious too but it has not been easy.

“I went through a big journey but faith is something I think you can’t impose on yourself, it’s a gift. After Luciano passed away, I understood that the only possible way for me to have faith was to let me go to Jesus’s arms. But I quite often still need to speak with a priest or a religious person to exchange opinions and points of view.”

For her MS, she had a still controversial vein replacement treatment that she says has taken away most of her symptoms. As to whether she has managed to find happiness again, she just laughs.

“Happiness is a big question.”

And are people kinder? She says that really only in Modena and at the beginning did she encounter hostility,

“Now generally the people that I see are always kind to me.” She believes in another dimension and she still talks to her Luciano.

“Luciano is inside me and will always be there. And even now if I have to take a decision, especially that involves him, I ask him.”

She thinks he would like the movie.

Preview of Pavarotti with exclusive satellite Q&A with Nicoletta this Saturday; playing nationwide from July 15. See film review, Cinema, Page 16. Official soundtrack and ‘Pavarotti: The Greatest Hits’, Decca Classics.

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