When Pavarotti Retired
It was in June 2002 that Luciano Pavarotti first put a date on his retirement, when he told American TV interviewer Connie Chung that he’d hang up his bow tie for good on his 70th birthday.
"No, I am not scared of retirement," he declared. "I will stay in the world of music. I think I will be a teacher to some good talents. I established the Pavarotti International singing competition for young singers, and there are almost 100 of them around the world, including Roberto Alagna, who have won."
Between March 2003 and March 2004 Classic FM shadowed the maestro during the making of a film called Pavarotti – The Last Tenor. We followed him as he sang his final opera performances, we attended his wedding to Nicoletta Mantovani and the christening of their baby daughter Alicia, and we lurked in the wings as he reunited with the Three Tenors in Bath. We bagged our first footage of him as he performed an arena concert in Los Angeles…
The Staples Center, in downtown Los Angeles, is a basketball arena that has recently hosted shows by Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones, but on March 11 Pavarotti comfortably fills the building. The superstitious maestro doesn’t seem to notice that the seats are upholstered in purple, his unlucky colour. The sold-out concert is a benefit for the Los Angeles Opera, whose artistic director is Pav’s old mate, Plácido Domingo.
Domingo is out of town, so a spontaneous Two Tenors performance is not possible, but Pavarotti rattles the rafters with favourite arias by Puccini and Leoncavallo, and duets playfully with soprano Cynthia Lawrence in Verdi’s Libiamo. Backstage, Luciano sprawls imperially in a huge armchair and browbeats pop crooner Lionel Richie into appearing at his forthcoming concert in Modena.
We’re scheduled to interview Luciano at Pav Mansions in the old part of Modena, his hometown. Half an hour beforehand, he suddenly decides we must bring an extra TV monitor so he can see exactly how he looks on screen. Although it’s lunchtime in Italy, doors spring open at the mention of the name "Pavarotti" and we track down a monitor in the nick of time. Luciano realises we’re only going to shoot his head and shoulders, so he does the interview in his boxer shorts. He talks about his new pop album, Ti Adoro. "I really enjoy doing charity work very much, except I hope this album is a charity for me," he beams…
It’s the annual Pavarotti & Friends all-star charity knees-up, and this year’s proceeds will help Iraqi refugee children. Pavarotti sings Nessun Dorma with Deep Purple and Holy Mother with Eric Clapton but the event is dominated by Queen and their overbearing entourage, and by Liza Minnelli injuring her knee and having to sing from her hospital bed in Bologna. The next evening, an exhausted Pavarotti recuperates by watching his favourite football team, Juventus, on TV as they take on arch-rivals AC Milan in the Champions’ League final. However, Juventus lose on penalties. "Now you have seen me suffer," sighs the maestro, gloomily.
Pavarotti sings the role of Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. It’s the last time he will appear in a complete opera in Europe. This is not the most convincing performance he has ever given, and it isn’t helped by soprano Carol Vaness cancelling at the 11th hour. In Berlin, where he stays in the same suite at the Adlon hotel favoured by Michael Jackson, he is interviewed by New York Times writer Anne Midgette for a forthcoming book by his ex-manager, Herbert Breslin. Breslin promises the book, called The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti’s Rise to Fame, will be "everything you wanted to know about Luciano Pavarotti but were afraid to ask".
In Bath’s Royal Crescent, the Three Tenors make one of their increasingly rare appearances. The event has been paid for by Malaysian entrepreneur Francis Yeoh, who owns Wessex Water. Tickets are given away free (hence the side-splitting pre-show publicity about the ‘Free Tenors’), although the Tenors are rumoured to be sharing £3 million between them. The downside? Mr Yeoh insists that the Tenors sing the turgid hymn It Is Well With My Soul for an encore, which rather takes the bloom off their climactic rendition of Nessun Dorma.
Pavarotti sings at the Albert Hall, and fits in an appearance on Parkinson to plug the Ti Adoro album. Our plans to film Pav at the Albert are scuppered by Musician’s Union regulations which dictate that we would have to pay a minimum of £4,035.09 plus VAT. The cost of filming him rehearsing is equally wallet piercing. Then it’s back to Italy for the christening of Luciano’s daughter in Modena cathedral, an intimate occasion attended by close family and friends.
At short notice, Luciano and Nicoletta Mantovani have announced that they will marry in Modena’s Teatro Comunale. As a Catholic, the divorced Pavarotti cannot marry again in church but in his speech to an audience including José Carreras and Bono and The Edge from U2, he refers to the theatre as the “church of the artists”. As the mayor of Modena ties the knot, Andrea Bocelli sings Ave Maria, and a London gospel choir whoops it up with Oh Happy Day.
It was his brilliant performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the late 60s that announced Pavarotti’s arrival as the top international tenor, and his three appearances in Tosca will mark his farewell to the house. Two years earlier, he cancelled some Toscas at short notice and a few New Yorkers haven’t forgiven him. After a preview warning operagoers to expect little, the New York Times review of the opening night is headlined “Pav Turns Up”, though elsewhere his performances are greeted enthusiastically. The Metropolitan Opera Guild puts Pavarotti’s career in perspective at a gala lunch at the Waldorf Astoria, and a cavalcade of opera stars, including soprano Beverly Sills and baritone Thomas Hampson, turns out to wish him well. Ex-mayor and opera lover Rudi Giuliani compares Pavarotti to Caruso, and hopes that maybe he won’t really retire after all.