Salvatore Licitra, Italian tenor, dies at 43

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, whose powerful operatic voice landed him in leading opera houses around the world and led some to hail him as the next Luciano Pavarotti, died Sept. 5 at a hospital in Catania, Italy, from head and chest injuries suffered in a motor scooter accident. He was 43.

Mr. Licitra had been in a coma since the Aug. 27 accident near the Sicilian town of Ragusa, the Associated Press reported. He lost control of the scooter after apparently suffering a stroke.

Mr. Licitra burst into the consciousness of American opera-goers in 2002 when the Metropolitan Opera flew him in on the Concorde as a standby cover for Pavarotti in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.” The performance was to have been Pavarotti’s final appearance at the prestigious New York opera house.

The aging tenor canceled a half-hour before the show; Mr. Licitra, who had spent the afternoon strolling in Central Park, rushed to the theater and delivered a performance that won huge ovations and the putative title of Pavarotti’s heir.

“If this was not to be the farewell of a faded superstar,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, “then at least it would be the starry anointing of a potential successor.”

Mr. Licitra, for his part, saw his overnight success as having already happened. He debuted in 1998 in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” in Parma, Italy. Later that year, he appeared in the same opera at the Arena of Verona, the Roman amphitheater that is a summer opera mecca.

The next year, he sang at Milan’s La Scala, the leading house in Italy, in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” under the baton of renowned conductor Riccardo Muti.

The quick ascension to Verona and La Scala, Mr. Licitra said in an interview in May, was the true beginning of his career.

His Pavarotti-style success at the Met catapulted him to Pavarotti-style celebrity. Some critics said he wasn’t quite ready. In 2003, his record label launched a Three Tenors-style stadium tour and album called “Duetto,” featuring Mr. Licitra and Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez. Neither had the same cachet or vocal excitement as Pavarotti, Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras, and their inexperience showed in a rather long and lackluster series of performances.

Mr. Licitra, however, remained in the upper echelons of the opera world, appearing regularly in the most important theaters of Europe, Asia and North America in leading roles. He sang in a concert performance of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” at the Washington National Opera in 2008.

Within a few years, he was no longer regularly hailed as the next great tenor as he was after his Met triumph, but his personal warmth and ebullience carried into his performances and helped him maintain a popular following.

In the interview in May, he said he had nearly lost his life in a 2009 car accident that left him with chronic back problems that caused a few cancellations — although he was not, he pointed out, a singer who canceled often.

Salvatore Licitra was born in 1968 in Bern, Switzerland, and grew up in Milan, where his Italian family settled.

He came to opera late in life. He was working as a graphic artist when his mother overhead him singing and encouraged him to enroll in music lessons.

He studied in Parma, where he would make his debut, and under Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi in Busseto. To pay tuition, he sold his motorcycle.

Survivors include his parents and a brother.

If the opera world lost some of its excitement about him in the years after his ascendancy, he felt the same way about it.

“The field, it’s a big mess,” he said in May. “As long [as] you are good looking and you have a good figure to sell, it doesn’t matter if you have a real talent.”

He added that the duration of a singer’s career, not the gossip of the opera world, is the best testament to achievement.

“I already have 13” years, he said. “My plan is to keep going — try to imitate Domingo and Pavarotti: a long career.”

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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