Luciano Pavarotti – “Sing a Song of Sixpence”

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on January 13, 2008

Sing a Song of Sixpence

It was supposed to be a fitting final act for Il Maestro and not since Princess Diana’s death, almost exactly a decade previously, had a funeral prompted such a dramatic spectacle and a mass outpouring of public grief as that of Luciano Pavarotti in September. Thousands lined the streets outside the cathedral in Modena, throwing Pavarotti’s favourite sunflowers over barriers at the black hearse. Andrea Bocelli sang. The Italian air force provided an air show overhead. Bono, Kofi Annan and Romano Prodi were amongst the mourners and the recording of Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus with his own father brought them all to their feet, in tearful standing ovation.

And yet directly afterward, even as he lay in state, the talk was as much of the ‘warring widows’ – Pavarotti’s wife and ex-wife – as of the loss of the great man himself. Several priests objected to his grand burial, given that he was a twice married divorcee and although official reports described them as being ‘united in grief’, Nicoletta Mantovani, Pavarotti’s 37 year old widow and his ‘first family’, comprising his first wife (of 35 years), Adua Veroni and her grown up daughters, appeared anything but. They arrived separately to the cathedral and pointedly they sat apart, separated from each other by a pew of celebrities. It was the first time they had been under the same roof since the funeral of Pavarotti’s father five years previously. They did not acknowledge each other.

The maelstrom of gossip rumour and innuendo that would follow would keep Pavarotti in the headlines long after the official mourning period had ended. With talk of deathbed confessions, dramatic reconciliations and not-so-secret affairs it is a story more worthy of soap opera than grand opera. And it continues to run and run.

This should come as little surprise for Dame Rumour always seemed to outstride Il Maestro and his women. In 2003 the news of his engagement to Nicoletta was leaked and broadcast all around the world. They had openly canoodled since the middle of 1995 and despite Adua’s confident (and hilariously Italian) assertion that the corpulent tenor ‘might leave me for spaghetti, but never for a woman’ he had already begun to call Nicoletta, then officially merely his secretary, ‘amore’ (love) and, with no apparent contradiction, ‘the favourite in my harem’.

There were others before her and Adua had always turned a blind eye. According to Andrea Strata, Pavarotti’s personal dietician, ‘Pavarotti had many adventures. But then again he was a man who travelled alone a lot and fans threw themselves at his feet. Adua showed fair play.’

Pavarotti realised the emotions his union with Nicoletta would provoke in the Italian media however and in a prescient foretelling of the drama that would follow a decade later asked her if she was prepared to be seen as ‘not a very nice person.’

Nicoletta, it was said, had given Pavarotti, then in his 60s, a new lease of life. He brushed off objections that she was more than 30 years his junior and after his divorce from Adua went though, even praised the benefits of Viagra to Italian reporters. ‘Sex is good for you if your little friend asks for it’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter if it is before or after the show. The best would be on the table on the stage, during the show.’

He was the playful archetype of Italian manhood, overfed on pasta, babied by his parents and constantly flirting with women. The occasional rebuff was easy to laugh off for a man who constantly had fans throwing themselves at his feet. Opera journalists would spot him arriving early at concert halls at which point he would disappear into his dressing room with a younger female cast-member, only emerging moments before the curtain call.

Pavarotti’s three grown up daughters by Adua – Lorenza, Christina and Giuliana – were said to be mortified by these kind of antics but it was no more in Pavarotti’s nature to deny his love of women than his other great passions – food and money. The first of these, while perhaps aiding his public image as a cuddly, loveable character, would later be linked to his pancreatic cancer. A few days after his death a friend of Pavarotti recalled a Bologna restaurant owner approaching the singer to say: ‘Maestro, did you know that I make 53 kinds of starter?’ To which Pavarotti replied: ‘And do you know I can eat all of them?’ Massively overweight for most of his life, two of his best friends were a couple of dieticians, Andrea Strata and his wife, who attempted, in vain to get him to lose some weight. He, would, they say, come to stay with them when he had a fight with Adua.

On trips to perform in china Pavarotti would ensure that the plane be loaded up with kilos of pasta, tomato sauce and truffles. ‘He wouldn’t touch Chinese food’ added strata. ‘He even brought a wheel of Parmesan cheese. An entire hotel room in Beijing would be turned into a kitchen to prepare Italian food.

His open love of money, something of a taboo in opera circles, was also controversial. Although he spoke fondly of his childhood his family had little money and the Pavarottis lived in a cramped two room flat. As his star rose in the 1960s and 1970s – he was featured on the cover of a 1977 edition of Time Magazine – he made no apology for accepting the rewards. I sing for lire not legend’, he famously quipped. When questioned by opera purists in the 1990s about his reputation for blending pop and opera – he brought Nessun Dorma to millions of non-opera lovers at the World Cup in Italy and later dueted with Bono – he was unrepentant. ‘Did Caruso ever make an American Express commercial? I did! Did Maria Callas ever sing for 20,000 people in a sports arena? I did!’ Despite this commercial chutzpah Pavarotti was also revered by opera lovers for his technical excellence and the shimmering beauty of his once-in-a-generation voice. More than once he sent a crowd into a frenzy with his 9 high Cs in the signature aria of La Fille Du Regiment.

His estate was valued at €200 million including a huge portfolio of properties around the world – lavish houses in New York, Barbados and Monte Carlo amongst them – and royalties from the sale of over 100 million albums, which would enrich the beneficiaries of his will for life.

It was the identity of these beneficiaries and the proportion of Pavarotti’s legacy that they would enjoy that was reported to be in dispute after his death. His freedom to decide what to do with his money was limited – under Italian law 50% of his wealth has to be split between his four children from his two different marriages, whilst 25% has to go to Nicoletta. The remaining 25% was apparently the subject of three different wills. The first, dated June 13 2006, split the remaining quarter evenly between Nicoletta and the four children. The second dated July 29 left all of his American assets to Nicoletta. And the third, made in December last year, in the tenors own spidery handwriting, almost cut Nicoletta out of the will entirely.

According to several friends of Pavarotti the relationship with Nicoletta had deteriorated in the period during which he was terminally ill. He had told them that she didn’t let him see his friends, that he couldn’t bear it any more and that she ignored what he said. In one Italian newspaper report entitled ‘I’ll shoot myself over greedy wife’ Dr Lidia La Marca, one of the tenor’s oldest friends and wife of a conductor with who he regularly toured, was quoted as saying that he had told her that he had considered committing suicide because Nicoletta was tormenting him. ‘My friends don’t come and see me any more. She speaks badly about my daughters and she surrounds me with people I don’t like. She thinks about money all the time. She arrives with documents for me to sign. You know Lydia how will this end? I will put a bullet in my head or we will separate.’

According to La Marca Pavarotti gave her permission to release this information after his death. And, she added, it was her moral duty to do as he wished.

At the time as this was allegedly happening, Pavarotti was allegedly growing closer to Adua, the ex-wife he had not spoken to in almost 7 years. In the spring of this year he attended a birthday party for one of their granddaughters and the two were seen to be chatting warmly. ‘You don’t just throw away 35 years of marriage’ La Marca said.

There were also reports after Pavarotti died that Pavarotti had left behind huge debts before he died – some reports detailed them as totalling over €16 million. ‘It’s very sad’, Andrea Strata said as the number of news reports began to mount. ‘He isn’t even cold in his tomb yet and all of this is coming out.’

The accusations caused worldwide scandal after Pavarotti’s death and Nicoletta fled to New York – ostensibly to be as far away from the Italian rumour mill as possible –and demanded an end to the ‘sea of accusations.’ When the accusations were repeated and reiterated she fought back. She first did a long television interview with Italy’s state broadcaster denouncing the accusations of what she called Pavarotti’s ‘so-called friends.’ ‘I’m here and I can defend myself but Luciano can’t and Alice (their daughter together) is a four year old child. I owe it to the people closest to me.’ She added that she wanted to leave behind physical proof for her daughter that she had she had not taken these attacks lying down. She refuted the suggestion that Pavarotti had left behind debts. ‘Luciano was someone who took care of everything’, she said. ‘Meaning he left enough for everyone. He was in no way mentally impaired when he made his will. His greatest wish was that we would all get on. There is no disagreement between me and the daughters.’ She did say however that the value of the New York flat could be taken off any share of the rest of the estate and that this could solve any disagreement with the rest of the family, which perhaps indicates that there was some disagreement to begin with.

She announced that she was taking lawsuits against both La Marca and Franca Corfini Strata, the wife of Andrea Strata – she is suing them for $22 million each and has said that she will give the money to charity if she wins. No court date has been set as yet and neither woman has been available to comment on the actions.

Intriguingly Nicoletta also revealed that another famously vilified widow had been in touch. ‘Yoko Ono wanted to express her solidarity, she was very kind. I think she understands absolutely what I’m going through.’

In the interview she also dramatically revealed that she was suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, saying it was diagnosed just six months into her relationship with Pavarotti.

The daughters and Adua also released a statement backing up Nicoletta’s claim that there was no dispute or ill will between her and the family. They called the loss of their father a ‘lacerating tear’ and expressed their indignance at speculation on his huge wealth. The statement, read by Christina Pavarotti, said that the family had been helped by the ‘sincere statements of love and support that have come in from all over the world.’ The Italian state broadcaster indicated that the portion of the statement that it did not broadcast indicated that the will finally be opened in the next few months. It was finally opened and revealed that half of Pavarotti’s estate would go to Mantovani with the other half to be divided between his ex-wife and daughters, which to most observers sounded fair.

‘What’s happened’, an Italian tenor who spoke on condition of anonymity told me, ‘is that the family has closed ranks. They’ve realised that it’s to nobody’s benefit to air their dirty laundry in public. They’re not all the best of friends and they never will be. But the picture of Nicoletta as some kind of money grapping usurper is probably inaccurate as well. The maestro was eccentric. He had his ways. She understood them. Even if there is some kind of dispute I would imagine, from what she’s said, that she’d be somewhat flexible and conciliatory.’

In opera circles many wonder about the plausibility of ‘friends’ who would publicly attack two different widows in the weeks after their husband died (Strata and La Marca also criticised Adua for apparently not spending enough time with Pavarotti during his illness). While it’s certainly possible that he was reaching out to these people for help would this great man, who valued honour so highly, really want all of these heart rending stories – none of them to his credit – to be pored over by the world’s media in the months after he died?

And there seemed to be other holes in their story. Wasn’t their assertion that during visits to him he had complained that Nicoletta didn’t let anyone near him a bit contradictory? If she was indeed so suspicious and paranoid how had they managed to sneak in under her baleful glare? Strata’s criticism that Nicoletta allowed Pavarotti to eat anything with its implication that like some fairy tale witch she was simply fattening the tenor up, is indefensible. What wife would deny her terminally ill food-obsessed husband the opportunity to stuff his face to his heart’s content? (Whatever her efforts Pavarotti’s body was a shadow of its former self by the time he was in his casket). No amount of carrot juice and probiotic yogurt was going to save him from the ravages of pancreatic cancer.

The whereabouts and legal standing of the mystery handwritten will, if it ever existed, is still in question. But it’s clear that Nicoletta is despised in the way that the partners of powerful, charismatic men often are (look at Heather Mills or Hillary Clinton) and the sea of gossip and innuendo has fed into that. As the Diana inquest is showing us, reliance on the evidence of people who consider themselves good friends of a deceased person is difficult at best. Once Nicoletta became the younger, prettier wife nothing she did would ever be right again. The motives of a woman who would marry a morbidly obese man 34 years her senior will always be in doubt but it was a free union and from the smile on his face in the pictures with her from when he was well, you could see that the pleasure ran both ways. And yet still words like ‘home-wrecker’ ‘money-grabber’ and ‘conniver’ would permanently hang over her head. She knew she was in for that when she married him – he did warn her after all – but that can’t have made it any easier after he died. She has behaved with considerably more decorum than the Strata and La Marca. And in the end they proved their own claim that Il Maestro sometimes failed to exercise the best judgment.

It was supposed to be a fitting final act for Il Maestro and not since Princess Diana’s death, almost exactly a decade previously, had a funeral prompted such a dramatic spectacle and a mass outpouring of public grief as that of Luciano Pavarotti in September. Thousands lined the streets outside the cathedral in Modena, throwing Pavarotti’s favourite sunflowers over barriers at the black hearse. Andrea Bocelli sang. The Italian airforce provided an airshow overhead. Bono, Kofi Annan and Romano Prodi were amongst the mourners and the recording of Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus with his own father brought them all to their feet, in tearful standing ovation.

And yet directly afterward, even as he lay in state, the talk was as much of the ‘warring widows’ – Pavarotti’s wife and ex-wife – as of the loss of the great man himself. Several priests objected to his grand burial, given that he was a twice married divrcee and although official reports described them as being ‘united in grief’, Nicoletta Montovani, Pavarotti’s 37 year old widow and his ‘first family’, comprising his first wife (of 35 years), Adua Veroni and her grown up daughters, appeared anything but. They arrived separately to the cathedral and pointedly they sat apart, separated from each other by a pew of celebrities. It was the frist time they had been under the same roof since the funerla of Pavarotti’s father five years previously. They did not acknowledge each other.

The maelstrom of gossip rumour and innuendo that would follow would keep Pavarotti in the headlines long after the offical mouring period had ended. With talk of death bed confessions, dramatic reconciliations and not-so-secret affairs it is a story more worthy of soap opera than grand opera. And it continues to run and run.

This should come as little surprise for Dame Rumour always seemed to outstride Il Maestro and his women.In 2003 the news of his engagement to Nicolletta was leaked and broadcast all around the world. They had openly canoodled since the middle of 1995 and despite Adua’s confident (and hilariously Italian) assertion that the corpulant tenor ‘might leave me for spaghetti, but never for a woman’ he had already begun to call Nicolletta, then officially merely his secretary, ‘amore’ (love) and, with no apparent contradiction, ‘the favourite in my hareem’.

There were others before her and Adua had always turned a blind eye. According to Andrea Strata, Pavarotti’s personal dietician, ‘Pavarotti had many adventures. But then again he was a man who travelled alone a lot and fans threw themselves at his feet. Adua showed fair play.’

Pavarotti realised the emotions his union with Nicoletta would provoke in the Italian media however and in a prescient fortelling of the drama that would follow a decade later asked her if she was prepared to be seen as ‘not a very nice person.’

Nicoletta, it was said, had given Pavarotti, then in his 60s, a new lease of life. He brushed off objections that she was more than 30 years his junior and after his divorce from Adua went though, even praised the benefits of Viagra to Italian reporters. ‘Sex is good for you if your little friend asks for it’ he said. ‘It doesn’t matter if it is before or after the show. The best would be on the table on the stage, during the show.’

He was the playful archtype of Italian manhood, overfed on pasta, babied by his parents and constantly flirting with women. The occasional rebuff was easy to laugh off for a man who constanlty had fans throwing themselves at his feet. Opera journalists would spot him arriving early at concert halls at which point he would disappear into his dressing room with a younger female cast-member, only emerging moments before the curtain call.

Pavarotti’s three grown up daughters by Adua – Lorenza, Christina and Giuliana – were said to be mortified by these kind of antics but it was no more in Pavarotti’s nature to deny his love of women than his other great passions – food and money. The first of these, while perhaps aiding his public image as a cuddly, loveable character, would later be linked to his pancreatic cancer. A few days after his death a friend of Pavarotti recalled a Bologna restaurant owner appraching the singer to say: ‘Maestro, did you know that I make 53 kinds of starter?’ To which Pavarotti replied: ‘And do you know I can eat all of them?’ Massively overweight for most of his life, two of his best friends were a couple of dieticians, Andrea Strata and his wife, who attempted, in vain to get him to lose some weight. He, would, they say, come to stay with them when he had a fight with Adua.

On trips to perform in china Pavarotti would ensure that the plane be loaded up with kilos of pasta, tomato suace and truffles. ‘He wouldn’t touch chinese food’ added strata. ‘He even brought a wheel of parmesan cheese. An entire hotel room in Beijing would be turned into a kitchento prepare Italian food.

His open love of money, something of a taboo in opera circles, was also controversial. Although he spoke fondly of his childhood his family had little money and the Pavarottis lived in a cramped two room flat. As his star rose in the 1960s and 1970s – he was featured on the cover of a 1977 edition of Time Magazine – he made no apology for accepting the rewards. I sing for lire not legend’ he famously quipped. When questioned by opera purists in the 1990s about his reputation for blending pop and opera – he brought Nessun Dorma to millions of non opera lovers at the World Cup in Italy and later dueted with Bono – he was unrepentant. ‘Did Caruso ever make an American Express commercial? I did! Did Maria Callas ever sing for 20,000 people in a sports arena? I did!’ Despite this commercial chutzpah Pavarotti was also revered by opera lovers for his technical excellence and the shimmering beauty of his once-in-a-generation voice. More than once he sent a crowd into a frenzy with his 9 high Cs in the signature aria of La Fille Du Regiment.

His estate was valued at €200 million including a huge portfolio of properites around the world – lavish houses in New York, Barbados and Monte Carlo amongst them – and royalties from the sale of over 100 million albums, which would enrich the beneficiaries of his will for life.

It was the identity of these beneficiaries and the proportion of Pavarotti’s legacy that they would enjoy that was reported to be in dispute after his death. His freedom to decide what to do with his money was limited – under Italian law 50% of his wealth has to be split between his four children from his two different marriages, whilst 25% has to go to Nicoletta. The remaining 25% was apparently the subject of three different wills. The first, dated June 13 2006, split the remainign quarter evening between Nicoletta and the four children. The second dated July 29 left all of his American assets to Nicoletta. And the third, made in December last year, in the tenors own scrawly handwriting, almost cut Nicoletta out of the will entirely.

According to several friends of Pavarotti the relationship with Nicoletta had deteriorated in the period during which he was terminally ill. He had told them that she didn’t let him see his friends, that he couldn’t bear it any more and that she ignored what he said. In one Italian newspaper report entitled ‘I’ll shoot myself over greedy wife’ Dr Lidia La Marca, one of the tenor’s oldest friends and wife of a conductor with who he regualrly toured, was quoted as saying that he had told her that he had considered committing suicide because Nicoletta was tormenting him. ‘My friends don’t come and see me any more. She speaks badly about my daughters and she surrounds me with people I don’t like. She thinks about money all the time. She arrives with documents for me to sign. You know Lydia how will this end? I will put a bullet in my head or we will separate.’

According to La Marca Pavarotti gave her permission to release this information after his death. And, she added, it was her moral duty to do as he wished.

At the time time as this was happening, Pavarotti was allegedly growing closer to Adua, the ex-wife he had not spoken to in almost 7 years. In the Spring of this year he attended a birthday party for one of their grand-daughters and the two were seen to be chatting warmly. ‘You don’t just throw away 35 years of marriage’ La Marca said.

There were also reports after Pavarotti died that Pavarotti had left behind huge debts before he died – some reports detailed them as totalling over €16 million. ‘It’s very sad’, Andrea Strata, Pavarotti’s dietician said as the number of news reprts began to mount. ‘He isn’t even cold in his tomb yet and all of this is coming out.’

The accusations caused worldwide scandal after Pavarotti’s death and Nicoletta fled to New York – ostensibly to be as far away from the Italian rumour mill as possible –and demanded an end to the ‘sea of accusations.’ When the accusations were repeated and reiterated she faught back. She first did a long television interview with Italy’s state broadcaster denoucning the accusations what she called Pavarotti’s ‘so-called friends.’ ‘I’m here and I can defend myself but Luciano can’t and Alice (their daughter together) is a four year old child. I owe it to the people closest to me.’ She added that she wanted to leave behind physical proof for her daughter that she had she had not taken these attacks lying down. She refuted the suggestion that Pavarotti had left behind debts. ‘Luciano was someone who took care of everything’, she said. ‘Meaning he left enough for everyone. He was in no way mentally impaired when he made his will. His greatest wish was that we would all get on. There is no disagreement between me and the daughters.’ She did say however that the value of the New York flat could be taken off any share of the rest of the estate and that this could solve any disagreement with the rest of the family, which perhaps indicates that there was some disagreement to begin with.

She announced that she was taking lawsuits against both La Marca and Franca Corfini Strata, the wife of Andrea Strata – she is suing them for $22 million each and has said that she will give the money to charity if she wins. No court date has been set as yet and neither woman has been available to comment on the actions.

Intriguingly Nicoletta also revealed that another famously villifed widow had been in touch. ‘Yoko Ono wanted to express her solidarity, she was very kind. I think she understands absolutely what I’m going through.’

In the interview she also dramatically revealed that she was suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, saying it was diagnosed just six months into her relationship with Pavarotti.

The daughters and Adua also released a statement backing up Nicoletta’s claim that there was no dispute or ill will between her and the family. They called the loss of their father a ‘lacerating tear’ and expressed their ignance at specualtion on his huge wealth. The statement, read by Christina Pavarotti, said that the family had been helped by the ‘sincere statements of love and support that have come in from all over the world.’ The Italian state broadcaster indicated that the portion of the statement that it did not broadcast indicated that the will will finally be opened in the next few months.

‘What’s happened’, an Italian tenor who spoke on condition of anomyity told me, ‘is that the family has closed ranks. They’ve realised that it’s to nobody’s benefit to air their dirty laundrey in public. They’re not all the best of friends and they never will be. But the picture of Nicoletta as some kind of money grapping usurper is probably inaccurate as well. The maestro was eccentric. He had his ways. She understood them. Even if there is some kind of dispute I would imagine, from what she’s said, that she’d be somewhat flexible and conciliatory.’

In opera circles many wonder about the plausibilty of ‘friends’ who would publcily attack two different widows in the weeks after their husband died (Strata and La Marca also criticised Adua for apparently not spending enough time with Pavarotti during his illness). While it’s certainly possible that he was reaching out to these people for help would this great man, who valued honour so highly, really want all of these heart rending stories – none of them to his credit – to be pored over by the world’s media in the months after he died?

And there seemed to be other holes in their story. Wasn’t their assertion that during visits to him he had complained that Nicoletta didn’t let anyone near him a bit contradictory? If she was indeed so suspicious and paranoid how had they managed to sneak in under her baleful glare? Strata’s crticism that Nicoletta allowed Pavarotti to eat anything with it’s implication that like some fairy tale witch she was simply fattening him up, is indefensible. What wife would deny her terminally ill food-obsessed husband the opportunity to stuff his face to his heart’s content? ( whatever her efforts Pavarotti’s body was a shadow of its former self by the time he was in his casket). No amount of carrot juice and probiotic yogurt was going to save him from the ravages of pancreatic cancer.

Until the will is finally opened we cannot be sure of anything. But it’s clear that Nicoletta is despised in the way that the partners of powerful, charismatic men often are (look at Heather Mills or Hillary Clinton) and the sea of gossip and innuendo has fed into that. As the Diana inquest is showing us, reliance on the evidence of people who consider themselves good friends of a deceased person is difficult at best. Once Nicoletta became the younger, prettier wife nothing she did would ever be right again. The motives of a woman who would marry a morbidly obese man 34 years her senior will always be in doubt but it was a free union and from the smile on his face in the pictures with her from when he was well, you could see that the pleasure ran both ways. And yet still words like ‘home-wrecker’ ‘money-grabber’ and ‘conniver’ would permanently hang over her head. She knew she was in for that when she married him – he did warn her after all – but that can’t have made it any easier after he died. She has behaved with considerably more decorum than the Srata and La Marca. And in the end they proved their own claim that Il Maestro sometimes failed to exercise the best judgment.

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.

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