My friend and coauthor Herbert Breslin, who managed Luciano Pavarotti’s career for 36 years, died on Thursday in Nice of a heart attack at the age of 87.
Herbert was one of the more controversial figures in a field that sees its share of controversy. Reviewing our book, The King and I, in Opera News, Brian Kellow said something along the lines of, “I’d always thought of Herbert Breslin as a foul-mouthed, money-hungry old windbag. Now that I’ve read “The King and I,” I think he’s a lovable, foul-mouthed, money-hungry old windbag.” Leave off the “lovable" part and you have a good idea of how most of the field felt about a man who routinely screamed expletives into the telephone before slamming it down, cut various financial corners, and made gleeful use of his star client’s fame to manipulate journalists and other artists. When in 2002 an offer to write a book with this character fell into my lap and I began sounding out people in the business about it, I started to get the impression that he was universally hated.
But there was a lot more to Herbert’s story than that.
Herbert was that rare case of an opera fan who actually gets to be a player in the business; and he was a great player. He was a publicist for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Alicia de Larrocha (whose career he virtually built single-handed), and many others — even Placido Domingo, whose rivalry with Pavarotti he later played up. He met Pavarotti when Pavarotti was a callow young tenor, and he helped preside over one of the great ascents to superstardom. He had a lot of ideas about how to spread Pavarotti’s fame that were treated like shocking sellouts at the time but are now par for the course — American Express commercials, arena concerts, even a (terrible) Hollywood movie. (“If Caruso could have sung in a stadium, he would have!” he used to say, not inaccurately.) He loved music passionately but he never let fandom make him sentimental; he retained a clear-eyed view of the business that some found unwelcome and some, venal, but was often very savvy. A lot of people disliked him. Some got him, almost in spite of himself, and saw the “lovable” part along with all the rest.
I definitely got to experience the best side of Herbert, though it took me a while to let my guard down enough to enjoy it. Working with him was by turns perplexing, frustrating, and a lot of fun. He was exasperating, smart, funny, filled with opera lore, deliberately irreverent. He tended to shoot from the hip, thinking out loud, throwing out ridiculous ideas as if they were brilliant inspirations, then losing interest in mid-sentence and jumping ahead to the next thought. This made him a challenging interview, because he frequently got bored in the middle of stories and skipped over the punchline to go on to something else. I sometimes had to go to other sources, like his wife, Carol, or his long-time employee, Hans Boon, to find out what the point of a given anecdote had actually been.
People invariably think I’m naive when I say he was, to me, a scrupulously fair and even generous collaborator. (He did refuse to use an agent to negotiate our book contract, because, as he said, “You can’t trust agents. I should know.”) And he was nothing but supportive during the writing process. Well, there was one section he didn’t like: in the first draft of the final chapter, set in Berlin during Luciano’s final “Tosca” there, he complained, “You make it sound like I’m only out for money.”
“But Herbert,” I said, “you only WERE out for money.”
“Well, yeah,” he conceded, “but we don’t have to tell people that.”
(I was also overruled, not only by Herbert but by everyone else, about the book’s ending. Originally, the last chapter — before Luciano’s epilogue — ended with Herbert and Luciano’s final phone call, during which they were squabbling, and finally stopped speaking forever, over $500. After all the millions of dollars they had made together, I thought that you couldn’t invent a better ending than that.)
Herbert was a character, in the best and worst senses of the word. He was also a link to a whole chapter of the opera world, and more of a key player than he’s often given credit for (and not only because of Luciano Pavarotti). He donned a role for his job and played it to the hilt, with a lot of glee and gusto. I found the reaction to our book telling, and possibly indicative of the things people may say after his death. People who were familiar with Herbert, or the opera business, often enjoyed the book and shared Brian Kellow’s feeling that they’d gotten to like Herbert more or less in spite of themselves. People outside the opera world tended to be absolutely horrified that I could have worked with anyone as horrible as Herbert. Several of my friends couldn’t even finish the book.