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The life and legacy of opera star Luciano Pavarotti, according to Ron Howard


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Judy Woodruff: A new documentary on the life and art of opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, which was directed by Ron Howard, has opened nationwide.

Jeffrey Brown has a preview.

And it's part of Canvas, our continuing series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Luciano Pavarotti called his voice a gift from God. Certainly, it was a gift to millions of opera lovers, and many more who were new to the music and came to love the charismatic, buoyant, larger-than-life man making it, people like acclaimed director Ron Howard.

Ron Howard: He was so remarkable, and the music is so stunning. And when you recognize what it means to be able to perform those arias, perform -- perform in that way, the kind of commitment, I just -- I felt like the story was very fresh.

Jeffrey Brown: The result is the new documentary "Pavarotti," filled with a archival footage, interviews with family and friends and, of course, music.

There's his childhood in Modena and rise on opera stages, the worldwide phenomenon of The Three Tenors, Pavarotti, the celebrity who hobnobbed with rock stars, even as many in the opera world criticized the melding with pop, and the charity work that came more and more to occupy his time.

Director Howard was first known as a child actor, Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show, and then as a major director of films, including hit comedies like "Splash" and dramas such just "A Beautiful Mind," for which he won an Oscar for best director.

He's more recently turned to nonfiction looks at the lives of celebrated musicians, the Beatles, Jay-Z, and now Pavarotti.

And when we met recently at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, a second home to the great tenor, I asked about the Pavarotti that emerged for him.

Ron Howard: A very complicated, interesting character, which is what I'm always drawn to, whether it's scripted or in documentaries. How is this character going to surprise us?

And there are a lot of things that surprised me. I thought it was very interesting that he wasn't a prodigy, that his father was a really good amateur tenor, but couldn't make a living at it and was a baker. And he wasn't going to pursue it.

And yet his mother said, go -- really go for it. And, even after that, even being sanctioned by mom, six full years of just training before he could even begin to initiate anything that you could call a career.

Jeffrey Brown: The film was made with the support and participation of Pavarotti's family, including his first wife and three daughters.

But it also shows his infidelity and the scandal that came with his love affair and eventual marriage to Nicoletta Mantovani, many years his junior. They would spend 14 years together and have a daughter before his death in 2007.

Mantovani now heads the Luciano Pavarotti Foundation, based in Bologna, which runs a museum and helps support talented young singers.

Nicoletta Mantovani: He always said: "When you have somebody or a situation in front of you, try to look for the good part of it, because, if you always look for the bad, you become a worse person."


Jeffrey Brown: Is it possible to separate the man from the work, the man from the music?

Nicoletta Mantovani: No, impossible.

Jeffrey Brown: No?

Nicoletta Mantovani: Impossible because Luciano really lived everything he was singing, you know, inside.

Jeffrey Brown: What does that mean?

Nicoletta Mantovani: He received this big gift from God, and he knew it. So, he always said: "I'm never in competition with others, but I am in competition with myself, to honor this talent, because I have received this gift, and I have to share it with everybody."

Ron Howard: Watching him perform, watching these closeups of these performances, and, as a director, I felt it was sort of like watching like Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep or somebody, just it's -- I felt like he could express so much through the music.

Jeffrey Brown: Ron Howard says those performances helped him tell the larger story.

Ron Howard:There's so much emotion and drama in opera, and this was his medium. And it was very personal, very personal to him at times. And that was the convincer, when I felt like we could use opera to help tell the story of Pavarotti and use Pavarotti to help us understand what it means to dedicate your life to opera.

Jeffrey Brown: Passion and insecurity, love and betrayal, soaring art, it's all there, and, for Ron Howard, a more personal lesson.

Ron Howard: Man, was he courageous. I'm so impressed.

In fact, if there was a lesson for me, Ron, in all this, it was the way that, even after establishing his stardom and his career, making tremendous amounts of money, establishing that he had this earning power, he still took risks: I think I can do something for people. I think I can do something for the world, and perhaps even do something for opera. They might not understand it.

But this pressure, this drive, he felt, this excitement to be this ambassador, to democratize opera on a social level, it took guts, and he did it.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Judy Woodruff: That has to be a powerful thing to see.

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