Updated, longer version (posted 3:04 pm):
The Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, whose powerful voice and sunny personality landed him center stage on the opera houses of the world, died Monday morning in an Italian hospital, eight days after a Vespa accident in Sicily allegedly caused by a cerebral hemorrhage, according to reports in Italy’s Corriere della Sera and other newspapers. He was 43 years old.
Licitra had been lying in a coma since an emergency operation after the accident. According to remarks made in public by his brother Fabio Licitra over the weekend, the tenor was only moving the Vespa a few hundred yards down the street to another restaurant because there was no room at the first restaurant he tried. Because he was going such a short distance, he was not wearing his helmet. His fiancée, who was riding behind him on the Vespa, was unhurt.
According to the Corriere della Sera, after the tenor was declared clinically dead on Monday morning, his family had his organs donated.
Licitra burst into the consciousness of American opera-goers in 2002 when he was flown in from Italy as a stand-by cover for Luciano Pavarotti in what was to have been the aging tenor’s final appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in “Tosca.” Pavarotti cancelled a half-hour before the show; Licitra, who had spent the afternoon strolling in Central Park, got himself to the theater and delivered a strong performance that won him huge ovations and the putative title of Pavarotti’s heir.
Licitra sings “Nessun dorma” in December, 2010.
Licitra himself saw his overnight success as having occurred earlier. After his professional debut in Parma in 1998 in Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera,” he catapulted up the career ladder, appearing later the same year in the same role at the Arena of Verona, and the following year at Milan’s La Scala, the leading house in Italy, in “La forza del destino” under Riccardo Muti.
“I consider my career, the beginning,” he said in an interview this past May, speaking by Skype from Japan in his characteristically fractured but expressive English, “was more important in La Scala with Muti, with the possibility to study with him -- just to learn [how] to sing an opera. In that case at the Met, everything was in a rush.” However, he said “I feel grateful to Joe Volpe,” the Met’s general manager, “forever… This choice make me so popular in just one night.”
His Pavarotti-style success at the Met catapulted him into Pavarotti-style celebrity for which he wasn’t, perhaps, quite ready. In 2003, his record label launched a stadium-style tour and album in the Three Tenors vein called “Duetto,” featuring Licitra and the Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez. Neither Licitra nor Alvarez had the same cachet as the original Three Tenors, however, nor the same vocal excitement, and their inexperience showed in what added up to a rather long and lackluster performance. Though Duetto appeared in Central Park, there was no follow-up album.
Licitra, however, remained in the upper echelons of the opera world, appearing regularly in leading theaters in Europe, Asia, and North America in leading roles of, in particular, the Italian lyric-dramatic repertory. (Washington heard him in a decent concert performance of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Washington National Opera in 2008.) He was no longer as regularly hailed as the next great tenor hope as he was in the period immediately following his Met triumph, but his personal warmth and ebullience carried over into his performances and ensured he always had a popular following. He studied for a period with Mirella Freni, the soprano, in search of the vocal polish that some of his supporters wanted for him, but in May, he alleged that the lessons had done little to help him. In the same interview, he said he had nearly lost his life in a car accident in 2009 that left him with chronic back problems, resulting in surgery and a few cancellations -- though he was not, he pointed out, typically a singer who canceled often.
If the opera world lost some of its excitement about him in the years after his initial ascendancy, he felt the same way about it. “This field, it’s [a big] mess,” he said in May. “The people working in it, they are ill prepared. I mean from the theaters, even the agencies, even the managers. They are concentrated just to organize some product [that’s] ready to sell easily, by TV, by commercial. As long you are good looking and you have a good figure to sell, it doesn’t matter if you have a real talent, [or] if [your] voice is in good shape... As long as they can sell it and the voice is still there by nature, everybody looks happy. When something happens wrong and your voice is not able to perform any more, it’s scary because nobody cares. Almost everybody is thinking it’s normal to have a short career like that.”
He said he had grown cagier about accepting advice from others. “Even if you care about your voice to make the right decision,” he said, “probably somebody beside you with the wrong suggestion… can ruin your career.”
“I like to say that just the career can talk about the singer,” he concluded. “If a singer can talk about his career for three, four years, five years, and that’s it, maybe he makes something wrong. But a career can talk about you for 20, 25 years, then it is something. I already have 13. My plan is to keep going, try to imitate Domingo and Pavarotti: a long career.”
Unfortunately, that dream has been shattered.