"I remember this soprano hitting this note in this unbelievable gown," Howard said, gesturing with his arms to conjure up the scene, "There's the set, she's over here on the left in profile, and she's singing, and she turns back to the actors and everybody's going crazy, there's a big ovation. I don't know what opera it was."
Not exactly the start of a lifelong love affair with opera. But in a way that makes Howard the perfect director for the new documentary "Pavarotti," which is being released in the United States on Friday. Part biography and part greatest-hits concert, it aims to introduce Luciano Pavarotti to a new generation as well as to engage those who are already fans.
The Italian lyric tenor, who was born in Modena in 1935 and died of pancreatic cancer in 2007, was considered by many to have the most beautiful voice of his type since Enrico Caruso. He sang at leading opera houses for 40 years, sold millions of records as the "king of the high C's," and, with his endearing personality and love of publicity. became a household name in a way no opera star has since.
"I'd never seen him live, but I was well aware of his stature," Howard said in a recent interview. "My hope is the film goes a step toward that agenda of his which was to democratize the art form and broaden the audience reach."
Howard, known for his eclectic range from comedies like "Cocoon" and "Splash" to serious dramas like "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind" (which won him a directing Oscar), said he got involved in the project through producer Nigel Sinclair, with whom he had worked on a documentary called "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week."
Researching the project, Howard studied the plots of Pavarotti's signature operas like Puccini's "La Boheme" and Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" and the lyrics to his arias. That gave him an idea about how to structure his film.
"I thought, well, we might be able to use these arias to almost do an opera about Pavarotti that might give us an interesting framework," he said. "To use the music to share with people his life's journey."
And quite a journey it was — from childhood poverty in wartime Italy to a rise to fame and riches; from marriage and three children to years of philandering and finally divorce and remarriage. Artistically, Pavarotti moved from performing mainly on opera stages to singing in large arenas before hundreds of thousands of people — including as part of the Three Tenors with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras — and finally to collaborating with pop artists like Bono. And he was literally an outsize figure: With his love of food and Italian cooking, he constantly struggled with ballooning weight.
"It's a bittersweet story," Howard said. "He lived the dream, he became Caruso, his era's great example of a global superstar as an opera singer. And then he clearly lost his way emotionally. "I think he set the bar so high for himself I'm not sure he could ever live up to what his ambitions were, for all fronts — life, his art, his personal relationships," he said.
But Howard sees his film as "ultimately far more celebration than anything else, despite the turbulence that his life knew and his loved ones knew." He thinks the singer was able to "reinvent himself" when he took up philanthropic causes, starting with his friendship with Prince Diana and involvement in her work for the Red Cross.
His ex-wife, Adua, and their three grown daughters reconciled with Pavarotti before his death, and they are interviewed here. So too is his second wife, Nicoletta, who recorded never-before-seen home movies in which Pavarotti voices regrets for his failings as a husband and father. In all, the filmmakers used more than 50 interviews, both archival and new, and excerpts from more than 20 arias.
The film touches only lightly on the vocal decline of Pavarotti's later years, which some critics blamed on his loss of interest in the disciplined life of an opera singer. "He wasn't quite what he used to be," Howard said. "Some people who watched him on his farewell tour felt he was relying more on his reputation."
Howard said working on the film has "definitely" made him more interested in opera, though his tastes in music remain as varied as his choice of movie subjects. He said he grew up listening to James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel, and that bluegrass was "ingrained in me" from his days as Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show."
"Andy liked to play, and our makeup guy played the banjo," he said. "But there's nothing I get locked into. I'm always popping around. Sometimes I'll get into a jag of listening to obscure pop music from different countries."