My Big Fat Obnoxious Opera-Singing Client

Luciano Pavarotti and his manager, Herbert Breslin, in Florida in the early nineties.Photo: Allen Malschick

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.”

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.

My Big Fat Obnoxious Opera-Singing Client