Pavarotti: Ron Howard describes the great operatic tenor as ‘boyish’

8 July 2019, 22:19 | Updated: 15 July 2019, 17:12

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Ron Howard has made a compelling documentary about the life of Luciano Pavarotti. Ahead of its UK release, we caught up with the director to find out what he learned about the great operatic tenor.

Pavarotti, a new biopic by Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, Apollo 13), is an intimate portrayal of the ‘king of the high Cs’.

If, like us, you already know and love Pavarotti for his voice, Howard’s film gives you exactly what you want. There’s unseen footage of the tenor backstage before performances and you get to see clips of him performing ‘Nessun dorma’, both as a soloist and with The Three Tenors.

But the film also provides a seldom-seen insight into the tenor’s impish character.

Luciano Pavarotti with his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani
Luciano Pavarotti with his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani. Picture: Getty

How did Pavarotti become such a global phenomenon?

Pavarotti started his career as a tenor in regional Italian opera houses, making his debut as Rodolfo in La bohème at the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia in April 1961.

But by the 1990s, Pavarotti would become a global pop-culture icon, duetting with the greatest stars of the moment including The Spice Girls, Céline Dion and Frank Sinatra.

“He never thought of opera as something that was elite or exclusive,” Howard told Classic FM.

“Growing up in Modena, it was popular culture – and he was influenced by [Enrico] Caruso and others before him who were huge stars. So, I think in the beginning, he just wanted to make a living out of it.”

Luciano Pavarotti Performs at The Three Tenors Concert at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
Luciano Pavarotti Performs at The Three Tenors Concert at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. Picture: Getty

It took Pavarotti years to refine his craft – and his fame certainly didn’t happen overnight.

“From the moment he committed himself to it, when his mother said go ahead, he was an elementary school teacher. It was still six years before he could even begin to make. Living out of it. And to then see it grow, I think was something that just surprised the hell out of him.

“But he had a big appetite, so of course he would go for more and more and more.”

How does Pavarotti the tenor compare to Pavarotti the man?

“It’s very interesting, because we wouldn’t have made the movie without the cooperation of the family,” Howard told Classic FM.

“[It includes] private home movies, which were much more pensive, they revealed insecurity, regrets, things that he would never really express when he was on a talk show.

“But, given that, talking to over 50 interviewees, that spirit is something that was very natural to him. So I’m not sure there was a huge difference between the performer and the man.”

Pavarotti greets Diana, Princess of Wales
Pavarotti greets Diana, Princess of Wales. Picture: Getty

From his friendship with Diana, Princess of Wales to his successful concert series Pavarotti & Friends, it was clear that Pavarotti was by no means lacking in friends.

There’s a fantastic moment in the film, in which Bono remembers the time Pavarotti persistently called him at his home in Dublin, demanding U2 write a song and perform at one of his concerts.  

“Our housekeeper Teresa, he just got to know her,” Bono says in the movie. “He would ring up and say ‘Is God at home?’. His technique was one of humility, which was of course a very mischievous trick. He had turned our housekeeper into his consigliere. At breakfast dinner and tea, she was like, ‘Have you got that song done for him?’”

Howard continues: “The people who knew him loved that spirit. It was almost boyish, and he never lost that fascination and appreciation for the world.”

The film was released in UK cinemas on Monday 15 July.