Just 23 years old when she first met the operatic titan, Nicoletta Mantovani was a university student at her home town of Bologna when she fell in love with Pavarotti, living in nearby Modena.
The couple’s 35-year age difference – and the fact that Pavarotti was still married at the time – caused a major scandal, knocking some of the shine off his status as the man who brought opera to the masses, “the tenor of the century”.
Wed for five sweet years, the couple had a daughter, Alice, now 16, prior to Pavarotti’s 2007 death from pancreatic cancer, aged 71.
“I’m afraid Alice has not inherited her father’s singing talents,” Nicoletta says with a smile. Not that Mantovani wishes to whitewash their affair or remove any of the spotlight from Pavarotti’s 39-year marriage to first wife Adua Veroni and their three daughters, all of whom appear in Howard’s documentary.
When FilmInk meets with Mantovani at the Zurich Film Festival, she presents a sympathetic figure, a woman who has never fully recovered from the untimely death of her great love 12 years earlier.
Truly indebted to Howard, she summarises his Pavarotti documentary as “describing the man and the singer in a very special way”.
A double Oscar winner for his 2002 film A Beautiful Mind – Pavarotti marks a third time Howard has taken on a musical icon and the mythology behind it, previously directing films about The Beatles and Jay-Z.
Accessing Pavarotti’s previously unseen archives, the director also conducted more than a hundred interviews, utilising family photos, video clips and concert recordings to unveil a moving journey through Pavarotti’s extraordinary career, both behind the scenes and in front of them.
“Ron Howard was not a great opera expert, so he really went on a journey to make this which was perfect, because it was also Luciano’s dream to bring opera to the masses,” Mantovani says.
The documentary shows his collaborations with Bono and Sting and how even Princess Diana was seduced by the big man’s charms, working together to raise money for various charities.
“I was lucky enough to have dinner with Princess Diana twice. She came to Modena and also when Luciano performed at the Red Cross charity. For both of them, giving back was a great gift of life.”
Princess Diana and Pavarotti, she says, were very similar people. “They had the same connection with people which came from their open hearts. This is such a rare quality in a person – when they really love other people. They were not doing things to obtain something; they just did what they felt. They were both true souls who recognised each other for this shared attitude towards life.”
Howard’s documentary shows the special bond between the princess and the opera singer and how when umbrellas at Pavarotti’s rain-lashed 1991 London charity concert in Hyde Park obstructed the audience’s views, it was Diana who led a mass movement to unfurl umbrellas by folding up her own brolly – despite the fact that she got soaked.
Mantovani says that the princess knew about hers and Pavarotti’s love, even before the rest of the world caught up.
“Oh yeah, she knew,” she smiles. “She knew it and she was very nice.
“Love and passion were so important to Luciano who was always such a curious person and wanted to learn something new every day.”
Howard’s documentary charts Pavarotti’s humble origins as the son of a baker through to global stardom, regularly traveling with a full kitchen, preparing his own pasta wherever he was. “It is hard for me to cook for myself to this day because he spoiled me so much,” she laughs.
If the world wished to portray Mantovani as a gold-digger when their romance first hit the headlines, then she presents the same humble, unvarnished image today as she did at the time.
Bespectacled, her hair in a pony tail, she wears no make-up, dressed in a black blazer and pants, politely shaking your hand when we meet at Zurich’s Baur au Lac Hotel.
Asked if it was difficult to re-experience the pain of Pavarotti’s death through the documentary, she hesitates, “It’s a mix. The first time I saw the movie, I cried all the way through it. But now, going all around the world to promote it, it’s like I’m still working for him. So, it’s almost like he’s still alive in a sense.”
To this day she is surprised how fast and hard she fell for him, “Love is something mysterious, so when you start, you just enjoy what you are living, without even projecting how it might go.”
The age difference, she says, was never an issue: “Luciano had such a youthful spirit that he would joke that he was the youngest in the couple. And it was true. He really was a child at heart.
“Sometimes when you are rich and have reached a certain age, you think you already know everything. But Luciano never felt that way.”
Ron Howard’s film documents how the Italian press and Pavarotti’s fans turned away from the singer in the ensuing scandal following the revelation of his affair with Mantovani while still married to Adua, his wife of four decades.
“Luciano protected me throughout that time. We were so much in love that we lived in our own micro-world, together 24 hours a day traveling around the world as he performed. Every three days we were changing cities. Of course there was a lot of criticism, but Luciano found humour in everything,” she recalls, detailing an encounter with an American woman at a party in the U.S. during one of Pavarotti’s many concert tours.
“This lady had organised everything for us and when she entered the room she came over to me and asked, ‘Tell me, how is it to have such a special father?’ I felt sorry for her so I replied, ‘You know what? My father is fantastic – but even my companion is not so bad.’ Only then did she realise. Luciano and I laughed for ages about that.
“When things like that happened, the only way to react is with a smile. He would say: ‘For all the people who want to create a fuss and talk badly about us, we should make one wish – that they could also feel the same happiness that we feel. And, if they could feel this happiness, then they would no longer criticise.’
“At the beginning there was great passion which became a great love, but we tried to never think about tomorrow or the day after,” she says. “It was just such a wonderful journey that we made together. So, there was never a precise moment where I said, ‘Oh, my life has completely changed’. We were so happy, and he was so special which is what I miss the most. He made every day special and that is something that is not easy to find. He was so joyful that even the bad moments became good moments. I miss his contagious smile every day.”
She insists there was no difficulty in getting Pavarotti’s first wife and three daughters to collaborate for Howard’s documentary. “We have a relationship now with the daughters. One of the daughters has a daughter the same age as Alice and they see each other through social media.”
It was crucial, she says, to have Pavarotti’s first family fully on board. “We wanted this to be a tribute to his entire life and they were a big part of that. It was important to see Luciano through the eyes of everyone.”
Pavarotti is in cinemas October 24, 2019