Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s brash and profane manager, dies at 87


Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette, authors of "The King and I," an account of Breslin's career managing opera legend Luciano Pavarotti. (Olivier Wilkins)

Herbert Breslin, the fast-talking, foulmouthed, street-savvy classical music publicist and manager who oversaw Luciano Pavarotti’s career for 36 years, died May 16 in his hotel room in Nice, France, after an apparent heart attack. He was 87.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Carol.

Mr. Breslin was a controversial figure in a field that is no stranger to colorful characters. Many people cordially loathed him. He cultivated a brash persona that included lots of expletives, uncouth telephone manners and a blunt way of stating facts that was not calculated to win friends.

He was also extremely successful.

When he was starting out as a classical music publicist in the late 1950s, his first clients were Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, three of the major female opera singers of the 20th century.

After hearing a recording of the pianist Alicia de Larrocha, he engineered her New York recital debut in 1966 and took over her career as her manager, even presenting her himself at Carnegie Hall in New York. She ultimately became one of the world’s most acclaimed pianists, and she and Mr. Breslin continued their association to the end of her career.

But no one could match Pavarotti, whom he shepherded from their first meeting in 1967. The callow, gifted, clumsy tenor was already being touted as someone to watch. “You’re a nice guy,” Terry McEwen, head of Decca Records, allegedly told Pavarotti. “You need a bastard to manage you.”

Mr. Breslin was happy to play that role to the hilt, as well as coming up with all kinds of ideas about how to get his client better known. At the time, many saw these moves as crass selling out: American Express commercials (“Do you know me?”), arena concerts and an absolutely terrible Hollywood movie (“Yes, Giorgio”). Today, such tactics would hardly raise an eyebrow. Mr. Breslin was not, however, responsible for the Three Tenors juggernaut, the joint performances of Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras; that was the brainchild of the Hungarian impresario Tibor Rudas.

“Marketing an artist is basically like marketing a bar of soap,” Mr. Breslin said in “The King and I,” his 2004 memoir (co-authored with this writer) about his years with Pavarotti.

“You think that’s too commercial?” he added. “If you ask me, one of the biggest problems with classical music today is that it’s not commercial enough. Nobody knows how to promote anything . . . nobody knows how to get people to want to hear this stuff.”

Like many of his assertions, it was a tough but accurate statement of things people in the business don’t really want to hear.

“The King and I” — subtitled “The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti’s Rise and Fame by His Manager, Friend, and Sometime Adversary” — was as controversial as most things surrounding Mr. Breslin. It depicted Pavarotti chasing a girlfriend down a New York street when fully costumed as Otello and devouring a kilo of high-end caviar at Mr. Breslin’s expense and then accusing his manager of trying to kill him with rich food.

Few of the readers who complained about the unflattering portrait of Pavarotti stopped to consider that Mr. Breslin allowed the book to paint an equally unflattering portrait of himself.

“ ‘The King and I’ isn’t a mere stab in the back,” the music journalist Matt Dobkin (now editorial director at the Metropolitan Opera) wrote in New York magazine in 2005. “What it does is burnish the joint Breslin-Pavarotti legend, on the eve of both men’s retirement.” He also observed, accurately, that Mr. Breslin cared more about getting in the news than about protecting his own reputation.

Herbert Henry Breslin was born Oct. 1, 1924, in New York. His lifelong love of opera began at 8, when his father, an insurance under­writer, took him to a performance of “Carmen” at the New York Hippodrome.

After service in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, Mr. Breslin received a degree in business administration from the City College of New York and a masters’ degree in education from Columbia University under the G.I. Bill.

In 1954, he married Carol Gluck. Besides his wife, survivors include two children, Eric Breslin and Andrea Jaffe; and four grandchildren.

After an early job writing speeches in Detroit for the Chrysler Corp. (“misery!”), Mr. Breslin moved his family back to New York and struck out on his own as a publicist, promoting clients from dry cleaners to haberdashers while donating his services to the fledgling Santa Fe Opera.

Eventually, Colbert Artists Management asked if he would work with Schwarzkopf, who was tainted by her alleged associations with Nazi Germany. They “probably thought it couldn’t hurt Elisabeth to have a Jewish publicist,” Mr. Breslin said.

It was the beginning of a quick rise for Mr. Breslin’s own career, which in those early days centered around getting classical artists on television variety and talk shows — something that is nearly impossible today. The experience honed Mr. Breslin’s ideas about ways to get artists attention beyond the opera house.

Once Pavarotti came onto the scene, he quickly became the focus of Mr. Breslin’s activities. How­ever, his office continued to manage other singers — some for many years, some for short periods followed by long seasons of acrimony — and remained one of the biggest powerhouses on the opera scene. His client roster reads like a Who’s Who of opera: Renee Fleming, Renata Tebaldi, Christa Ludwig, Aprile Millo, Jessye Norman, Leonie Rysanek and others.

Mr. Breslin did a lot to get Pavarotti out of the opera house, but he was disappointed to see the level of the tenor’s performances in the opera house wane as Pavarotti’s career in his later years took on more of a pop-star bent. This was, in part, influenced by the tenor’s second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, and there was little love lost between her and Mr. Breslin.

Mr. Breslin formally ended his working relationship with Pavarotti in 2002, and though he was less active after that, he continued to represent a few clients, notably the soprano Natalie Dessay. He was somewhat surprised that Pavarotti never forgave him for “The King and I,” which Mr. Breslin was quite sure the tenor never read. Pavarotti died in 2007, at 71.

Mr. Breslin would have been annoyed to be upstaged in death by another former client, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the towering German baritone who died May 18. In his book, Mr. Breslin quipped that Fischer-Dieskau “gave the impression that his bodily emanations, shall we say, didn’t smell.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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