Breslin’s bitterest memory, however, and the one that triggered the pair’s split, was Pavarotti’s now-legendary failure to appear at what was billed as his farewell Metropolitan Opera performance ofTosca—and his refusal to take the stage and apologize to his fans for being ill and unable to sing. “I was very disappointed he refused to do that,” Breslin told me. “I guess he felt that it was too much of a come-down for him. He began to believe that he is Luciano Pavarotti. It happens.”
Pavarotti, 69, is today busy with a two-year, 40-concert farewell tour, and has refused to speak publicly about Breslin (though he did sit for an interview with Midgette, which forms the work’s epilogue). A spokesperson says Pavarotti is “puzzled” as to “why somebody who became so rich would take this route,” though the tenor “remains philosophical about it.”
What many in the opera world cannot abide about Breslin is his insertion of himself as a character, a colorful one, into the Pavarotti narrative. The jolly, fat Italian tenor represented by the tough-talking New York Jew is a compelling shtick, and Breslin has milked it for years. A classical-music wallflower of a manager does nothing to increase the profile of a tenor uniquely talented or otherwise. But a combative, cursing dynamo willing to reduce people to tears in the service of his charismatic yet sensitive client—that’s a story. Some people might even read an entire book about it . . .
“I think it’s an act,” Drucker says of her friend’s brash persona. “And I think he put on that act to protect Luciano. When people get married or fall in love, it’s because there’s a need. You need something in the other person, they need something in you. And I think Herbert needed something exciting in his life, and I think Luciano needed someone who would take care of him. Luciano was the one who made Herbert tough.”
It’s been about a year since Breslin last went to a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, but he agreed to attend Otello with me and Midgette. He has a notoriously prickly relationship with Joe Volpe, the company’s general manager, who is as voluble and outspoken as Breslin himself. Volpe is said to have tired of dealing, over the years, with the unreliable Pavarotti and his demanding manager, and Breslin has made no secret of his view that the Met “has been reduced to something very ordinary.” The tension between the two men is thought to be serious enough that Volpe has started work on his own memoir, according to one observer, as a countermeasure to Breslin’s. (Volpe declined to comment.)
Enemies notwithstanding, Breslin impressed me as generous and funny. Before Otello, we listened to Satie piano works (Breslin, who also represented the brilliant Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha, says he prefers piano to opera) in his elegant, Italian-farmhouse-style apartment on East 57th Street, where we drank wine, chatted with his wife of 50 years, Carol, and looked at photographs of their two children and four grandchildren.
Was this the man whom Stephen Rubin, Breslin’s own publisher (and a former classical journalist who wrote the first major piece on Pavarotti for the Times in the early seventies) called—affectionately—“quite aggressive and often a pain in the ass”? As we moved on to dinner at Shun Lee Palace, it occurred to me that Herbert Breslin, the inveterate PR man, doesn’t care about his reputation; he cares about a headline-grabbing story. At a certain point during dinner, Breslin attempted to commandeer the writing of this article, fully aware that, though he’d come across as friendly and charming, the story needed tension, a hook, so that he might live up to his reputation. He almost seemed willing to be portrayed as a villain, if it would make the piece more compelling. That seemed more important to him than challenging his detractors. Pavarotti too must have understood this to be Breslin’s gift as a press agent.
Asked what he thought Pavarotti’s reaction to the book would be, Breslin said, “I don’t think he’ll read it. He’s never read a book in English in his life! But people will tell him about the book, and I think they’ll tell him the bad things.” No matter. Pavarotti doesn’t need to read Breslin’s book: Having worked with him for 36 years, he can be confident that whatever his former colleague says will only serve to burnish the lore surrounding the twentieth century’s greatest tenor. The Herbert-Luciano shtick, even after a falling-out, is indestructible.
After the Otello performance, while Midgette says good-bye to friends in the lobby, Breslin and I make our way onto the Lincoln Center plaza. Despite his tepid reaction to the opera’s first half, he now seems genuinely moved. “It’s such a marvelous opera,” he says and begins vigorously humming Otello’s fourth-act aria, “Nium mi tema,” punching his fist in the air in time. I ask if he ever studied music. “No, I never did,” he replies wistfully. Not even his beloved piano—why not? “I don’t know,” he says, and it seems as if he genuinely doesn’t. He looks sad, sorrowful almost, but it strikes me as a kind of joyful melancholy: He’s not so much sad about having remained on the sidelines of a great music career as grateful for having gotten so close.
Midgette rejoins us, and the mood is lightened as the pair get into a playful dispute about who directed the 1945 French film Les Enfants du Paradis. Midgette insists (correctly) that it’s Marcel Carné, and though Breslin isn’t sure, it’s clear he loves that his young collaborator can go toe-to-toe with him, and has aced, in effect, his customary personality test. In the midst of the jocularity, we pause and turn to stare at the Metropolitan Opera House across the plaza. And suddenly, I get the sense that Breslin is testing me as well, gauging which of his sometimes incendiary comments I’ll actually include in this story, when, staring at the house, he bellows, “Fuck you, Joe Volpe!,” then bursts into laughter.