A famous American Express commercial from 1986, featuring Luciano Pavarotti, opens with the great Italian tenor draped in an American flag, getting a big hug from President Jimmy Carter. It cuts to a tight shot of the singer. “What am I?,” he asks, “Am I successful, or am I famous? That I don’t know. I don’t care. I know that people recognize me on the street – very good.”
The words PAVAROTTI ON PAVAROTTI then appear on the screen – giving the lie to the idea that he doesn’t know if he’s famous. But we see the humor in it, and the commercial returns to a close-up of the artist: “But I have three daughters and one wife. And when I am at home, I know exactly who I am. Nothing.” He says this smiling, and making a circle out of his index finger and thumb, concludes: “Exactly zero…. But I am happy.”
The commercial ends with a picture of an American Express card with the name of Luciano Pavarotti on it, and a voice-over of an American narrator: “Even successful nothings carry the American Express card.”
It seems too good to be true. Could this amazingly talented artist, applauded in the major capitals of the world, have remained so well-grounded as to judge himself by his standing at home among his wife and children? It was the rule that Our Lord had recommended, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” (Mk. 9:37), and “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her,” (Mk. 10:11).
In Ron Howard’s documentary film on the life of Pavarotti  – at least for the first half – we can believe it is true. It gives a winning image of the goodness of an ordinary Italian family just after World War II.
Pavarotti, we are told, was by chance the first male child in several years to be born to anyone in the large building where his parents dwelt. Consequently, the little lad was surrounded by girls and women who were enchanted by him and wanted to spoil him. He sang in the church choir with his brother and his father, a gifted tenor himself (“his voice was even better than mine,” Pavarotti says).
After he fell in love with and married his young bride, Adua, the children came quickly, three daughters in four years. We see lots of pictures of a strong and noble-looking young man, playing with his daughters, while his swooning wife looks on.
Pavarotti the rising star carried into his professional life this humor, warmth, capacity for friendship, and simple piety shown by all his acquaintances in Modena. Pavarotti and everyone else regarded his voice as a gift of God. There was a unity of life between his developing that gift and his Catholicism. (A narrator asks him why like other Italian artists he superstitiously always carries a bent iron nail in his pocket when he performs: “Yes, I’m a Catholic. But I’m a little superstitious too, just in case,” he says, smiling and winking.)
But in the second half of the film, something becomes unhinged. Was it the mistake, perhaps willful, of taking on tour as his personal assistant a beautiful young soprano he met when giving a master class at Juilliard? The life of a touring musician poses challenges enough without one’s deliberately creating them. She says she didn’t anticipate the relationship would become romantic. Could he really have been as foolish as to think the same? She eventually leaves him. The film leaves room for us to infer there were other such “assistants.”
His career seems to lose its seriousness. At some point, we are told in passing that Pavarotti is estranged from his wife and children. The film does not mention it, but he became known for canceling opera performances. He begins to throw himself into charity concerts of doubtful musical value with rock stars like Bono and Sting, sending big checks to war-torn Sarajevo and other such causes. “I saw war when I was a child, and so I want to help the children,” he says.
And yet Pavarotti thrived not because people were sending big checks to Modena, but because of love in his family and their strong faith. The whirlwind of charity we suspect externalizes some crisis of conscience.
A few years before his death he falls in love with another assistant, Nicoletta Montovani, thirty years his younger. He says this time it’s “the real thing” – or is he forced to think that because she gets pregnant? The paparazzi catch them in pictures. Parvarotti’s hometown, we are told, is scandalized and rejects him. (Interview with a woman on the street: “You can’t trust men these days.”)
His wife is humiliated. Pavarotti “marries” Montovani in a non-religious ceremony, which takes place on the stage of an opera house. Then a series of disasters: She nearly dies from a strange neural disease. The pregnancy is twins, but one dies stillborn. Pavarotti himself is soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passes away, not yet an old man. (The “two tenors” Domingo and Carreras are still with us).
The man whose feet had apparently been on the ground looks to be lost in the end and a “zero” in a different sense.
Yes, near the end the documentary contains the obligatory scene of a sad Pavarotti making himself up as a clown before singing Vesti la giubba. But it does not, as it might have, powerfully depict Pavarotti’s life as a disastrous tragedy. It allows Bono to be the authoritative interpreter of Pavarotti as someone who generously devoted himself to charity and found endearing new love. Pavarotti’s broken commitments and abandoned family are nowhere in sight.
Pavarotti’s life spanned a period of remarkable rising prosperity, when Christian Europe and America largely failed to realize, in a successor generation, the love and faith of humble Christian households. If we look carefully, we can see in the tragedy of Pavarotti our same failings writ large.
*Photo: Pavarotti at the Kennedy center honors, Washington D.C. 2001 [John Mathew Smith/Flickr]