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My Big Fat Obnoxious Opera-Singing Client

In a controversial tell-all book, Herbert Breslin, the man who made Luciano Pavarotti a pop idol, paints the great tenor as a world-class prima donna—which might just be another way of enhancing both of their legends.


Luciano Pavarotti and his manager, Herbert Breslin, in Florida in the early nineties.  

An attractive blonde woman is stroking Herbert Breslin’s neck, the enormous black gem on her hand glinting from the lights that have just come up. It’s intermission at a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Otello, and if Breslin is less than pleased with the performance (“Questionable,” he says of tenor Ben Heppner’s singing in the title role), he’s clearly enjoying the attention. The woman cooing at him is Elisa Wagner, an Argentine concert promoter with a cigarette-hewn purr. She’s congratulating Breslin on his new book, a no-holds-barred memoir of his 36 years as Luciano Pavarotti’s press agent and manager, and she’s just the first in a string of well-wishers who’ve materialized to bow and scrape during the fifteen-minute respite between acts. Is Wagner looking forward to reading the book? “I’ve already read it,” she drawls huskily. “Everything he says is true.”

In that case, then, famed German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf looked like a cleaning lady; legendary mezzo Marilyn Horne swears like a truck driver; beloved superstar Joan Sutherland “was pretty dopey”; and the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau “gave the impression that his bodily emanations, shall we say, didn’t smell.” And Pavarotti himself? Let it suffice that when Breslin asserts that “Luciano used burnt cork to darken his beard, and mustache, and hair, and to cover the bald spot . . . Half the time he just looked dirty. It didn’t endear him to the hotels he stayed in, either, because all his sheets and pillowcases were black from the stuff . . . ”—well, he’s just getting started.

Breslin was last in the news almost two years ago, when he and the “king of the high C’s” split in a much-publicized “divorce.” “We’ve had enough. I’ve had enough,” he said at the time. The classical Establishment was shocked. Now, thanks to The King & I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti’s Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend, and Sometime Adversary, Herbert Breslin is, yet again, the talk of the classical-music world.

The talk isn’t always positive, but Breslin, now 80, is used to that. A word often used in early press accounts of the book is “nasty,” and though Doubleday, which publishes The King & I this week, denies promoting it as a Breslin revenge fantasy, the book is undeniably being positioned as a warts-and-all exposé. If you’ve ever wanted the dirt on Luciano Pavarotti, Breslin delivers.

“Of course Herbert Breslin is going to get his knives out on Pavarotti,” says a rival classical-music manager who asked not to be named. “It’s exactly what you’d expect him to write.” And yet, to actually read the book is to learn not just that Pavarotti had the entire staff of an Italian restaurant accompany him to Beijing for a performance of La Bohème; it’s also to learn of Breslin’s deep, abiding affection for his most famous client. “I adore Luciano,” Breslin insists. “I was certainly not out to destroy him. I was out to give people a very vivid picture of what kind of man he is and what kind of artist he is. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for how he was able—with my help—to create an image that is remarkable. I don’t know what Caruso was like, but he couldn’t have been any more dynamic in every way than Luciano.”

With its mixture of mudslinging and praise, its candid portrayal of Pavarotti as supremely gifted and supremely needy, The King & I isn’t a mere stab in the back, as many have suggested: What it does more effectively is burnish the joint Breslin-Pavarotti legend, on the eve of both men’s retirement.

“I believe in money,” Breslin says. “I don’t like poverty, and I like people who are enchanted by opportunity and by making something of their lives.”

Now that Luciano Pavarotti often shares a stage with the likes of Celine Dion, it’s easy to forget that he and Breslin truly did create perhaps the greatest career in opera history. When Breslin first met the Modena baker’s son in the late sixties, Pavarotti was singing in minor European theaters, a young (and even then overweight) tenor with a beautiful voice, a broad smile, and an innate charisma. What he lacked was an agent to marshal those gifts into a marketable package.

Breslin was an interloper in the classical-music world, a product of corporate America. In 1957, at 33, Breslin was living in Detroit with his pregnant young wife and working as a speechwriter for Chrysler. “I’d come out of big, terrific corporations,” Breslin says today. “I wasn’t a little pussycat.” Indeed, as a young man in Detroit, he was intensely driven but dissatisfied. His true love was music, and he would make pilgrimages to New York just to hear Renata Tebaldi sing. Breslin decided he needed to change careers, and briefly worked for the Santa Fe Opera, after which he set up his own publicity firm, in the same 57th Street building in which he works today. By 1967, without having heard him sing, Breslin had taken on Luciano Pavarotti as a publicity client. It wasn’t long before he realized he had a major talent on his hands and assumed a greater role, eventually becoming Pavarotti’s manager, press agent, confidant, and babysitter.

“A lot of people had turned him down,” says Judy Drucker, a Miami concert presenter and longtime Breslin friend. “But Herbert knew that Luciano Pavarotti was a great property.” Breslin didn’t care for the gentlemanly modest aspirations of the classical-music industry—“It’s a tiddly-snit business,” he says—and in Pavarotti, he saw the opportunity to bust out of it by steering his client toward American Express commercials, stadium concerts, and Hollywood. In the process, Breslin became reviled by many of his peers as the man who “destroyed the classical-music world.”

“I believe in money,” Breslin says. “I don’t like poverty, and I like people who are enchanted by opportunity and by making something of their lives.”

To that end, Breslin and Pavarotti set about reimagining the industry’s fee structure, hitting upon the notion (uncommon in the seventies) of having Pavarotti give concerts of both opera arias and songs; Breslin staged these shows in stadiums, where the singer’s gigantic charisma could best come across—to gigantic audiences. The top fee for a singer at the Metropolitan Opera today is $15,000 per performance; for a single stadium concert, Pavarotti might receive $300,000, of which Breslin would get a 10 percent cut (depending on the gig, he could get as much as 20 percent). Though Breslin won’t reveal how much he earned from his association with Pavarotti, it is safe to say—and Breslin often does—that Pavarotti has made him a very rich man. “I supported my entire business with what Luciano was earning for me,” says Breslin, who is winding down his practice but still manages a stable of about ten artists, including the sopranos Natalie Dessay and Daniela Dessi.

In The King & I, Breslin says he didn’t view Pavarotti as a mere cash cow, but also tried to nurture him as an artist. “One of the things in the book that will surprise people is this idea that Luciano failed Herbert artistically,” says Anne Midgette, Breslin’s co-author. “Herbert’s got this reputation as this great popularizer who sold Luciano out, and it really isn’t that black-and-white.”

Breslin’s fondness for Pavarotti comes across in his book and in conversation. But so does his growing disgust with the tenor as his career and personal life—and physique—begin to get out of control. Much time is spent on Pavarotti’s various “secretaries,” a series of amanuenses-cum-girlfriends who ministered to the tenor’s every need while his long-suffering (now ex-) wife, Adua, sat at home in Modena. Breslin recalls that when one of these women, a singer named Madelyn Renee, decided to end the affair, the tenor called his manager late at night to announce, “I am going to throw myself out the window,” and demanded that Breslin get on the next flight. According to Breslin, Pavarotti’s personal travel needs were J.Lo-esque in their proportions. On the final night of an engagement, his assistant was required to pack the tenor’s copious belongings during the performance so they could board a flight the moment the curtain came down. This meant organizing a vast array of espresso machines, hot plates, office supplies, musical scores, blood-count machines, Coffeemate, various medications, clothes, shoes, and, of course, porterhouse steaks. Breslin remembers one stint when Pavarotti became enraptured with the furniture in his Caesars Palace suite and insisted on having the entire set shipped back to Italy. Breslin’s description of Luciano, an avid horseman (!), attempting to mount an anxious steed is indelible. And the picture Breslin paints of a naked Pavarotti sweating in a steam room is, unfortunately, unforgettable.

What really rankled Breslin, though, is Pavarotti’s increasing inattention to learning roles, memorizing librettos, showing up for gigs. In a chapter with the Wagnerian title “Twilight of the God,” Breslin writes, “As the years went on, it looked more and more like he was taking this gorgeous career of his . . . and flushing it down the toilet.” Engaged by the conductor Riccardo Muti to sing Don Carlo at La Scala’s opening night, Pavarotti only barely learns his part, gets nervous, and comes unglued during the performance: “There was a sense of unease from the moment the tenor walked out onstage . . . You had the feeling he might not make it. In one of the big recitatives, early on, Luciano cracked. At La Scala, they don’t take that lying down . . . people began booing.”

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