As professional accomplishments go, there can’t be many things more difficult than singing your way to the top of the opera world. Having a naturally beautiful voice and a gift for music are prerequisites, of course, but that’s only the beginning. The aspiring opera star must also have the will to undergo years of intensive vocal and stylistic training and the discipline to memorize one taxing role after another, many of them written in a foreign tongue. He (or she) must have the stamina, physical and mental, to be onstage for hours, relying on a fragile pair of vocal cords to command a vast hall. To move listeners to tears requires the soul of a poet; to withstand the mercilessness of opera buffs and critics, the hide of an elephant. Exceptional luck and good health come in handy, too.
Also crucial, if we’re to believe Herbert Breslin, is the backstage presence of a mastermind who’s available 24 hours a day to open new worlds for the singer to conquer and to prevent him from going off the rails. Indeed, according to The King and I (Doubleday), Mr. Breslin’s new memoir of how he masterminded the career of Luciano Pavarotti, the supreme professional accomplishment, actually, is steering the world’s most beloved tenor to the top and keeping him there.
Mr. Breslin, now 80, is coming to the end of his career as a publicist and manager for some of the leading classical singers and musicians of our time. It’s a calling that has earned him a fortune in 10 percent fees and a reputation as the biggest mouth in the business. In a world where the pretense of gentility is a rule of thumb, Mr. Breslin is, in the parlance of Hollywood (where he would be less distinctive than he is on West 57th Street), a “screamer.” He’s also, as those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of his screams know, inordinately persistent, funny and knowledgeable about the nuts-and-bolts of the classical music world. The King and I, whose co-author is New York Times music reviewer Anne Midgette, is an informative, entertaining and ultimately rather creepy scream. If the story has a parallel in the opera world, it’s Faust. In this retelling of the old medieval fable about a world-weary genius who sells his soul to the Devil, the tables are turned: It’s the Devil who howls, not the genius.
Mr. Breslin wears his Mephistophelean scowl from the beginning. Testily, he lets us know that he’s got the great Pavarotti’s number: The King of the High C’s is a know-it-all. (“I call him Signor Cervello. Mr. Brain,” the agent sneers.) This Devil preens about his devilish reputation: “I’m supposed to be brash, rude, mercurial, ruthless, money hungry …. For all I know, I eat babies for dinner. When you’re successful, people say all kinds of things about you. Well, screw them.” His boastfulness is unfettered: “I kept [Pavarotti] in front of the public with one performance, one event, one ‘first’ after another …. I shifted the attention of the opera world from rampant diva-dom to a tenor. Then I brought that tenor out of the opera house and into the arms of an enormous mass public. Those were my ideas. Nobody else had ideas like that.” World-shaking.
The portrait of the agent as a young man (he was a Renata Tebaldi nut toiling as a lowly speechwriter for the Chrysler Corporation in Detroit) is more appealing. But once Mr. Breslin moves to New York and becomes a publicist for the singers he adores, he pulls the stiletto out of his tights: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf “was known as a great beauty, and indeed she was—onstage. Offstage, she looked more like a Putzfrau, a cleaning woman.” Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau “gave the impression that his bodily emanations, shall we say, didn’t smell.” This sort of thing is just a warm-up for what he does with the singer he professes to have most adored—the husky schoolteacher-turned-tenor from Modena with the manner of an “eager puppy” and a voice that “sent goose pimples up your arms.” The equally eager, less puppyish agent writes that he “loved the guy”—and you have to believe that he did.
When Luciano and “Herbertino”—as the tenor, when he was feeling affectionate, called Mr. Breslin—are creating all those brilliantly masterminded so-called “firsts” (“First to give recitals, first to broadcast live from the Met,” etc.), the singer’s shrewd charm and life force are sketched with genuine amusement. Mr. Breslin deftly recalls how his client disarmed a hard-headed executive at Decca Records, who insisted on calling the tenor “Mr. Pavalotti,” by simply laughing out loud at the man’s condescension. And how Luciano, the foodaholic, arrived for dinner at the Breslins’ house in the Hamptons and had his chauffeur drive across the lawn and stop at the front porch so that he could more easily unload all the pasta, olive oil and cheeses he had brought. Then the stiletto: “Luciano can be an overwhelmingly generous person, but in this case I think his motives were less sharing than self-serving. Literally.”
As his celebrity grew, so did the tenor’s appetites (not only for pasta but for a succession of pretty young “secretaries”), and the money grew (and people started giving him not just concert fees of $100,000 but what Mr. Breslin calls a “giftola”—in more than one instance, a thoroughbred horse). And Mephistopheles grew increasingly exasperated with the monster he’d labored so hard to create. There was the tenor’s increasing disinclination to learn new parts or to bother with stage direction. (“He couldn’t have cared less about a director’s vision of the piece. His primary interest was ensuring his maximum comfort.”) There was the increasing propensity to cancel performances. There was the vanity, which led Mr. Pavarotti to darken his beard and bald spot with burnt cork. (“It didn’t endear him to the hotels he stayed in … because all his sheets and pillowcases were black from the stuff every morning.”)
Sexual envy thickens the bile in a passage that eerily echoes another opera (Verdi’s Otello): “I’ve sat with Luciano in the steam room at the New York Athletic Club and, believe me, it’s quite a sight … put it this way: He’s hardly the answer to a maiden’s prayer.” What, one wonders, did the outsized man whom so many women found irresistible think about the figure of naked Herbertino?
By the time of the “Three Tenors” phenomenon in the mid-90’s, which was launched by Mr. Pavarotti as a way to help the Spanish tenor José Carreras emerge from his battle with leukemia, the relationship had become downright sour. One problem was that Mr. Pavarotti had separated from his wife of many years and taken up with Nicoletta Mantovani, a woman 34 years younger and from a banking family that seemed ever more involved with the handling of his fortune. (Mephistopheles is more than peeved: “I think she’s dull as dishwater.”)
In 2002, the two men parted ways in a genuinely operatic scene at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, where the big man was occupying an enormous suite, propped on pillows on a sofa, draped in towels, his face covered with makeup—”a sick king.” Mr. Breslin was seized by a sense of failure— his failure: “And this pathetic figure was the person I had worked with for thirty-six years,” he writes. He took a seat by one of the windows, and then the tone shifts: “It happened to be the same window Michael Jackson had dangled his baby from a few months before. Somehow it’s not surprising that Michael Jackson and Luciano Pavarotti stay in the same suite when they’re in Berlin.”
That knife thrust isn’t quite the end of it. In a brief, closing chapter entitled “The Fat Man Sings,” the most stirring voice of our time—a voice generated solely by the man who was born with it, who trained it and who moved countless millions of listeners with it—is allowed to give something like his version of the Faustian bargain. Speaking elusively, in broken, tape-transcribed English, Mr. Pavarotti agrees that the long partnership with his agent was “very important”: “Because spending thirty-six years together is an important thing. Thirty-six years in which we were completely synchronized.” After more, similarly vague remarks about what exactly Mr. Breslin did for him, the world’s greatest tenor—who recently obtained the divorce that allowed him at last to marry Nicoletta—has the last, highly ambiguous word: “Herbert was my wife in the opera,” he says.
Make of that what you will.