Tuesday, 14 January 2014

My husband, Pavarotti

As a new collection of Pavarotti's work is released, his wife opens up about life with the world's greatest tenor, losing him, and how she finds comfort in his voice

Written by Fiona Hicks
When I think of Luciano now, the first thing I picture is his smile,’ says Nicoletta Mantovani. Six years ago she lost her husband, and the world lost its most beloved tenor: the incomparable Pavarotti. ‘His smile said everything,’ she recalls. ‘He was always positive, always so happy.’

Nicoletta was Pavarotti’s second wife. The fact that he was previously married to Adua Veroni for more than three decades, and that Nicoletta was 34 years his junior, made it easy for the press to dismiss their relationship as frivolous when it became public. But hearing Nicoletta reminisce about how they met, her depth of feeling is evident. ‘Sometimes life leads you in a strange way,’ she says philosophically, ‘and for us it was a case of the wrong door.’

Every year, Pavarotti organised a horse show in his hometown of Modena, and as a young student, Nicoletta applied for a summer job helping with administrative tasks. She had intended to go on holiday with her boyfriend, but at the last minute decided to be sensible and earn some money. Little did she know how that decision would transform her life.

Arriving for her interview, ‘For the first time in my life, I opened the door without knocking,’ says Nicoletta. Rather than the female interviewer she was expecting, she was confronted with Pavarotti himself. She was embarrassed to have intruded, but they began talking. ‘An hour and a half later, the interviewer came.’ She got the job and every day that summer, ‘Luciano was in my office. Little by little we got to know each other.’

At this point, Pavarotti was well established as the world’s most famous tenor. Surely she was already familiar with him? ‘I knew who he was, but I was not an opera fan. That was the exchange in our relationship, I think. He taught me things and I gave him a fresh perspective.’

She speaks with a mellifluous Italian accent, which lends romance to the tale, but she also lights up when she talks about him. What was it about him that made her fall in love?

‘It wouldn’t be love if you were able to give an explanation,’ she smiles, sounding even more Italian. ‘Sometimes you just feel an attraction – a soul finds another soul.’ She does, however, concede that it was his rare brand of charisma that really hooked her in. ‘He had eagerness for everything. What generally happens in life is that at a certain point you become cynical and lose your enthusiasm, and think that perhaps the world isn’t such a great place to live. Luciano wasn’t like that. He always kept the enthusiasm of a child. He was able to appreciate everything.’

They spent a decade together, in which Nicoletta accompanied him on his world tours. It sounds glitzy, and yet she insists it was a very simple life. ‘We spent all our time together, and did very basic things: playing cards, listening to music, reading, laughing, talking… always talking.’ The third person in their relationship was, of course, Pavarotti’s voice. ‘He dedicated his whole life to music; it was really his first love. He always took care of his voice, making sure he didn’t go outside too frequently. In many ways it was a life of sacrifice.’ Pavarotti-Widow-00-Quote-590
It was his sense of passion and positivity that sustained her after his death in 2007. ‘The first two years were really bad,’ she admits. ‘I felt lonely and I had to raise a child by myself [the couple’s daughter, Alice, was born in 2003]. Then I remembered his words. He said, “You have to enjoy every minute of life, don’t spare a moment in being desperate.”

‘After three years I opened my heart and was lucky to meet a fantastic person.’

Nicoletta’s new partner is Italian theatre director, Filippo Vernassa. ‘He is very clever to manage everything because it is not an easy situation. Luciano will forever be a part of my life.’

Nicoletta speaks softly but gesticulates broadly, frequently pausing to hitch her glasses back up her nose. She projects an impression of being youthful yet worldly; just as she praises her late husband for ‘having nothing fake about him’, she comes across the same way. The reason she is talking to press is because Decca Records (the label Pavarotti remained with during his entire career) has recently released a new compilation of his songs, including one of the firstknown recordings of his voice.

Nicoletta came across the cassette when she was going through his archives, and was spellbound. ‘His voice is young, but it was already brilliant. You can hear his friends and family in the audience too, cheering him on.’ The recording captures Pavarotti, aged 26, in a make-or-break competition. He’d lost out many times before and had said to himself that if he didn’t succeed this time, he’d go back to working in an insurance company. This time, he won and his prize was a debut in La Bohème.

‘He was the singer who brought opera to everyone,’ she says proudly. ‘But he never considered himself as having arrived. He always thought he could do better, could always improve his technique. It was the flame that kept him alive until the very end.’

The image of the smiling, larger-than-life Italian in an immaculate tuxedo endures to this day. His was a powerful voice and a powerful character but, as Nicoletta reveals, it enclosed a soft heart. ‘As a man, he was very protective. He strongly believed in women too. He was raised by many women – his mother, grandmother, sister, cousins. He thought the world should be ruled by women.’

It’s fitting then, that Nicoletta continues to oversee the work of his foundation, which encourages a new generation to keep the opera world thriving. ‘We want to bring on his dream. He was taught for free when he was starting out and he never forgot that. He wanted to give back what he had received.’

As for Nicoletta, she can no longer enjoy the company of the man, but she can take pleasure in his voice. ‘He had such a special voice. A voice from another dimension. You can listen to many tenors, but when he sings you know instantly it’s Pavarotti.’

Pavarotti: The 50 Greatest Tracks is out on Decca Records, priced £10


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