THE KING AND I
The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend, and Sometime Adversary
By Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette
Doubleday. 308 pp. $25.95
The King and I is a vulgar, mean-spirited book that casts little credit on either the author, Herbert Breslin, or the subject, the world-renowned opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti. It also makes one wonder why co-author Anne Midgette, a respected music critic for the New York Times, would lend herself to such a project.
That said, one has to admit that this tell-all book by Pavarotti's "manager, friend, and sometime adversary" is both readable and entertaining in a bitchy sort of way. A brash New Yorker, Breslin writes as I assume he speaks (I don't recall ever meeting him) -- he is sarcastic, in your face, funny at times, and full of braggadocio. But his passionate love of music, especially the opera, also comes through.
It all began when Decca Records executive Terry McEwen told the young tenor early in his career, "Luciano, you're a nice guy. So you need a real bastard to do your publicity." And he gave him Breslin's phone number. So it was that Breslin became Pavarotti's publicist, then manager and business partner for more than 35 years.
Breslin's relationship with Pavarotti was the defining event of his life, and nothing in his recital of their years together remains sacred. Indeed, by the end of the book one has the sense that these two really deserved each other.
As Breslin describes the three stages of their relationship, the early years were those of closeness, collaboration and excitement. They were like family, and Pavarotti was a "dream client" with a natural gift for promotion. He loved interviews, charmed everyone.
In the second phase, the middle years, both were at the top of their respective professions, and they made each other rich. And finally the third phase -- the last 10 years, featuring the Three Tenors concerts all over the world and countless more arena concerts -- in which Breslin describes a very lazy divo, grossly overweight, reluctant to learn new music, willful and demanding, plus a messy, very public divorce.
While Pavarotti was his focus, personally and professionally, Breslin knew almost every luminary in the opera world and either guided the public relations or managed the careers of many of them. Despite his obvious affection and respect for their artistry, Breslin just cannot resist the occasional put-down or sarcastic remark. Richard Tucker "regarded himself as the greatest tenor in the world" (implying that no one else did), soprano Joan Sutherland was "pretty dopey" and the great beauty Elizabeth Schwarzkopf looked like a cleaning woman offstage. The uppity German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau "gave the impression that his bodily emanations, shall we say, didn't smell."
Breslin offers a great deal of information about the finances and economics of opera, and the book is full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes: "I remember Birgit Nilsson standing in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera one night when Montserrat Caballe was singing. Somebody spotted her and said, 'What are you doing here?'
" 'I am here to hear Madame Aballe,' Birgit said.
" 'Madame Aballe? You mean Madame Caballe.'
" 'No,' Birgit said sweetly, 'Madame Aballe. She has lost her C.' " (Referring, of course, to the high note that is very important for a soprano.)
Breslin tells a story about Joan Sutherland, who had come to hear Pavarotti rehearse for his Carnegie Hall debut. The tenor gave his all and was sweating profusely when he came to speak with Miss Sutherland afterward. " 'Joan, we fat people know how it is,' he said, wiping his brow. . . . 'Luciano,' she replied: 'We are not fat. You are fat. I am big.' "
This same Carnegie Hall concert was the occasion for the introduction of Pavarotti's trademark -- the white handkerchief. The reason? A bad cold. As Breslin put it, "Working with opera singers is a recipe for nervous collapse. The more carefully you make your plans, the more likely it is they'll get sick when the big night rolls around." But after that concert, Pavarotti never appeared without the hanky -- a versatile prop that he also used to wave at the crowd, for emphasis in a song, or as a hiding place for throat lozenges.
Sometimes Breslin's frankness is bewildering. Obviously Pavarotti was no picnic, but even on the first page of the book, Breslin drips with sarcasm: "Luciano Pavarotti, you see, is one of the world's leading experts on everything. He knows more about music, medicine, dentistry, the prostate, child care, legal matters, and so on and so forth than anyone else alive. The rest of us are mere incompetents. At least that's how he sees it."
Breslin says that Pavarotti was not much of a stage animal. He sang like a nightingale, but he was, "to put it tactfully, something of a lump." Later Breslin reports that "he never developed what you could call a facility for learning his music. . . . He could be a little casual about things like sticking to the notes the composer wrote." The hardest part for this tenor, according to Breslin, was remembering the words.
"Nobody argues that he makes beautiful music, and has a beautiful voice, and phrases the music he sings so gorgeously that your heart stops," Breslin says. "But when it comes to things like sight-reading, or counting time so he knows when to come in, or any of the other technical things that make up the craft of musicianship, Luciano is a little bit challenged. It doesn't help that he can't read music." Breslin adds that his client was not a great favorite with conductors: He always knew better and tried to correct the conductor's tempo.
On the more positive side, Breslin repeats like a mantra that Pavarotti was the greatest tenor in the world -- a statement with which some would argue. He also says that in all their years together, they never had a written contract. "Luciano was a straight arrow . . . he was a man of his word. As was I. And Adua, his wife, who looked after their financial affairs, ran a tight ship."
Breslin also gives us a picture of the famous tenor outside the opera house -- at home in Modena, Italy, where he was a great host, a man with a gargantuan appetite who loved to cook for his guests. He has a passion for horses. He loves to gamble and is a terrific poker player. He also had a healthy appetite for beautiful women. Adua, his wife of many years and the mother of three daughters, took this in her stride, but finally Nicoletta Mantovani, the singer's secretary, caused their divorce and became Pavarotti's second wife. (She is 34 years his junior and has given birth to a daughter.)
"Nicoletta is a cipher to me," Breslin writes. "I'm really not sure what Luciano is doing with somebody like that. She's not the most glamorous person in the world; I think she's dull as dishwater. And she doesn't seem to have any particular interest in what he's doing as an artist. She seems very interested in his fame, though, and what to do with that. She certainly has him wrapped around her little finger."
And so the book ends with the severing -- somewhat acrimoniously but by mutual consent -- of Breslin and Pavarotti's relationship, although there is, strangely enough, an epilogue by Pavarotti himself as interviewed by Anne Midgette. In general, and to his credit, he speaks kindly and generously toward Breslin, who is now 80 years old. Pavarotti concludes, "Herbert was my wife in the opera."
What a marriage! *
Selwa Roosevelt is a Washington journalist and former White House chief of protocol. Although she is a board member of the Washington National Opera, the opinions in this review are entirely hers and do not necessarily reflect the views of that company.