The meticulously elegant German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf looked like a "cleaning woman" when she wasn't onstage. An equally celebrated soprano, Joan Sutherland, was really "pretty dopey" if you had to talk with her. And Placido Domingo? "In his dreams, Placido never had a voice like [Pavarotti]."
It will likely be one of the most talked-about musical books of the fall season; it will certainly be one of the nastiest. Moreover, this rancorous "dish" comes not from a Metropolitan Opera standee (from whom caustic commentary is expected) but from one of the most successful businessmen in classical music.
Herbert Breslin, who has served as publicity agent or manager to a cast of clients that includes all four of the aforementioned artists, as well as Marilyn Horne, Itzhak Perlman, Leonard Slatkin and the late Georg Solti, has written his autobiography, in collaboration with New York Times music critic Anne Midgette.
Slated for publication in October by Doubleday, Breslin's book is titled "The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary." An advance copy was obtained by The Washington Post, and it offers considerable insight into the fiercely competitive world of opera, grand and not so.
Pavarotti was Breslin's most celebrated client -- they were professional associates for more than three decades -- but since their unusually public split two years ago, the tenor seems to have turned into Breslin's great white whale, to be harpooned whenever possible. Breslin calls the book "the story of a very beautiful, simple, lovely guy who turned into a very determined, aggressive and somewhat unhappy superstar," and his portrait is a devastating one.
The tenor is presented as a petulant child who calls his associates "stupido" and other terms of endearment; who denounces Domingo as a "black marketeer" over supposed cruelties to Jose Carreras; who insists upon being chauffeured a single block from his New York apartment to his dentist. Fearful of the food he will be served on a tour of China, he packs up an entire restaurant and has it flown over to feed him during his visit.
He forgets (or never bothers to learn) words, approximates phrases and lip-syncs concerts when he is tired. The Pavarotti in Breslin's memoir is a boorish lecher, one capable of describing Nicoletta Mantovani (who would become his second wife) to the press as "the favorite in my harem."
According to Breslin, Pavarotti "has to have gained and lost more than 5,000 pounds" over the course of their years together. In his disastrous screen debut, the romantic comedy "Yes, Giorgio" (1982), Pavarotti was so concerned with decorum that he "wouldn't do anything that could make people laugh at him. Since he was cast as the lead in a comedy, this became quite a problem." Breslin describes a climactic scene in which Pavarotti and his co-star, Kathryn Harrold, end up dumping pasta and cheese all over each other. "Very few people would think of trying to play a food fight seriously, but Luciano did."
Breslin has never suffered from false modesty (indeed, at one point, he says he is more concerned about finding the "next" Herbert Breslin than the "next" Pavarotti -- a priority few will share with him). "Nobody knows classical music and the business of classical music better than I do," he informs the reader in the preface. "You want proof? I guided Luciano Pavarotti's career, the greatest career in classical music, for 36 years."
The two men began working together in 1967, at a time when Pavarotti was already singing with the honeyed sweetness that would win him world fame. But he was awkward and ungainly onstage, woefully naive about the music business and virtually unknown outside opera circles. In the trade, it was said that Pavarotti was such a nice guy that he needed a tougher personality as an agent, and Breslin, just building his stable of artists, was happy to comply.
Over time, Breslin would raise Pavarotti's fee from as little as $5,000 a night to $1 million and more for such events as "The Three Tenors" (with Domingo and Carreras), radically changing the economy of classical music in the process. Breslin takes special pride in having placed Pavarotti in venues other than opera houses -- on American Express commercials, "The Tonight Show" and in arena concerts at places such as Madison Square Garden.
Through a spokesman, Domingo declined last week to respond to Breslin's negative comments. Curiously, Pavarotti seems all-forgiving -- the book concludes with a private interview with Midgette in which the tenor says affectionate and admiring things about his onetime mentor -- but who knows what he will think when (and if) he sits down to read the whole book?
In his prime, he was, after all, a very great musician, something even Breslin will admit. "I helped make Luciano Pavarotti," Breslin wrote. "But I couldn't make another Pavarotti. It takes a Pavarotti to make a Pavarotti. And no other Pavarotti is going to come along."