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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Herbert Breslin – The man behind Pavarotti

By Norman Lebrecht / October 28, 2004


In his first interview, Herbert Breslin tells Norman Lebrecht about his new autobiography.

"Hundreds of millions," grumbles Herbert Breslin into his smoked salmon.

"Lire, or dollars?" I tease.

"Hundreds of million of dollars," maintains Herbert morosely.

His gloom is uncharacteristic, though understandable. Herbert Breslin has lost the cause which for 36 years had him leaping out of bed each morning with a new wheeze to hustle his guy into the limelight.

Breslin, 80, was the brain and the brawn behind Luciano Pavarotti. Thanks to him, no other tenor got a look-in. Placido Domingo might have had a purer tone and better acting ability but, to millions who had no idea where to find an opera or what to wear if they found it, there was only one King of the high Cs.

Not since Caruso has a tenor commanded such universal adoration. Not since Croesus had a classical personality made such a fortune. "Hundreds of millions of dollars," groans his manager. "Low hundreds, high hundreds, no-one knows exactly."

Given that 15 grand a night is top whack in opera, and no tenor works more than three nights a week, that mint took some making. That was Breslin's doing. "Luciano knew what success was," he says. "He wanted to be the best. The idea was to find somebody who could help him do that. I didn"t create Luciano Pavarotti. He created himself. I helped to take that creation and achieve a great notoriety."

Breslin plucked his man out of the opera house, put him on television and promoted him in solo recitals across America and around the world. Everywhere Pavarotti sang, he connected. "In the dressing room before a concert he used to say, "I will bring them to their feet." And he did it, he knew how to do it, that was his secret."

Hours after singing his last aria, Pavarotti would still be shaking hands, signing records. "He appealed to women and to men with that voice of his. When he sang certain things, people swooned."

So far, so formula. The fat man beamed and his fixer was mobbed by fellow singers seeking the same treatment. Breslin, a former motor industry speechwriter, became one of the most influential figures in grand opera. He claims to have "transformed the whole fee structure," although all he did was expand the extra-mural opportunities and offer an occasional image makeover. He paraded Sir Georg Solti in a red fedora hat, Itzhak Perlman in an American Express ad. He told singers which roles to take, and where.

Then the game got out of hand. Pavarotti began demanding little extras - a horse here, a boat there. A Hungarian, Tibor Rudas, offered him a hundred grand to sing in a casino, then two million for the Three Tenors. Breslin never saw that cash; it went straight to Pavarotti.

"Luciano turns to me one day and says he wants me to go and see President Nixon. I say why? He wants me to tell the President it's unfair for opera singers to pay taxes. I say, why? He says because we have a short life. Well look at him, he's gonna be 70 years of age and he's still singing."

A note of bitterness creeps in. Breslin and Pavarotti parted company two years back after the tenor traded in his old life for an ambitious young wife, Nicoletta Mantovani. The manager has now dictated his side of the story to a music critic, Anne Midgette. Part how-to manual, part true confession, their book is the most candid and hilarious expose of operatic venality ever to make it past a lawyer's squint.

With the glee of a jilted lover, Breslin castigates Pavarotti's greed for food, for fame, for sex. Up close in the sauna, he disparages his client's manhood ("it's very hard to sit there and imagine that this is a figure capable of any great sexual prowess") while conceding that the blob could have any girl he wanted. He elicits testimonies from two long-term mistresses and Pavarotti's ex-wife, Adua, dignified in divorce. Breslin has their friendship while Pavarotti appears isolated, shunned even by his oldest mentors, Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.

Yet Luciano has the last laugh in Breslin's book - The King & I - contributing a semi-ironic interview ("Herbert was my wife in the opera") while fluttering a haughty white hankie at all those he outsang, outsmarted, outlasted. Between them, he and Breslin saw off Domingo who was the favourite tenor of music director James Levine at New York's all-important Metropolitan Opera but who always wound up somehow behind Pavarotti. "Placido never listened to me," gloats Breslin, having sacked the Spaniard as his client. "I like Placido," he insists, "but he's not very instinctive. He doesn"t have that extra something to make people stand up."

Breslin in his prime would play the media and the music business like a fairground accordionist, simultaneously squeezing and stroking to pump out hullabaloo. He could be tiresomely obscene or irresistibly comic - Puck to Pavarotti's Bottom - but there never any doubt of his driving passion. He might have made a bigger career in showbiz, but Breslin was devoted heart and soul to vocal beauty, and to Pavarotti as its supreme exponent.

That, he says, is the reason for his book. He wants to save the art, but can"t see how. None of the next line of tenors has got what it takes. Juan Diego Florez? "A tenorino." Roberto Alagna? "The Met put him on all the bus shelters but he bombed. He was always telling people how good he was before anyone even asked." Marcelo Alvarez? "Good, but no Pavarotti. The one who might have made it was Jose Cura. When he made his debut at the Met he had a very nice ass. A lot of people related to that. But these days he thinks he's a conductor. He's got no one around him to say, Jose, cut that crap."

There will never be another Pavarotti, he believes, never again that combination of angelic face, voracious appetite and a voice to die for. What Breslin wants to find is the next Herbert Breslin, someone who can spot a talent and make it a phenomenon. Breslins, too, don"t grow on trees.

He last saw Pavarotti at his limp Met farewell in March. “Since then we haven"t spoken," sighs the man who made him. "I haven"t anything I really want to say to him any more."

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001