Salvatore Licitra becomes star pinch-hitting for Pavarotti

Friday, May 17, 2002

NEW YORK -- This is how a star is born:

The cell phone in the Licitra family's Milan apartment rang at 6:30 p.m. May 9. J.F. Mastroianni, the New York-based manager for Salvatore Licitra, was on the line.

"He asked me if I feel good," Licitra recalls. "I responded that I was rested and asked him why. He said maybe there is some job for me. I asked him what type of work. He said, 'I'll let you know.'

"About 45 minutes later, Jack called back and said, 'Are you ready for a trip?' I said, 'Long trip or short trip?' He said, 'Here in New York. There is some problem with Luciano."'

Fifty-five hours later, after a flight to London and a Concorde trip to New York, the 33-year-old tenor was on stage for his Metropolitan Opera debut. He was replacing Luciano Pavarotti in a gala performance of Puccini's "Tosca" that had been viewed by many as the likely finale to the 66-year-old superstar's 41-year career in staged opera.

From his first note, Licitra won over the audience of 4,000, which had paid up to $1,875 a ticket. He was rewarded with prolonged ovations for his two big arias, and 2 1/2 minutes of thunderous applause for his solo bow, which brought tears to his eyes.

He called his girlfriend in Rome, where it was 5:30 a.m. Sunday.

"Very nice. I'm asleep," he remembers Pricilla saying. "I'll talk to you later."

The reviews were strong. The Associated Press' Mike Silverman called Licitra "a bright hope" and said "his high notes are clean and strong, though he lacks that unique 'ping' in the voice that made Pavarotti's high notes so thrilling in their effortlessness." Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called Licitra "a genuine find" but cautioned "his singing was more impassioned than interesting."

Licitra hadn't known until about 7 p.m. -- an hour before curtain -- whether he would be going on stage. Pavarotti vacillated all day.

"I went to Central Park and spent all day in the park, watching all the people playing baseball," Licitra says.

Mastroianni had been at the performance from which Pavarotti withdrew on May 8 and had seen the labors of replacement Francisco Casanova. The agent went home and sent a midnight e-mail to Met assistant manager Sarah Billinghurst, who had heard Licitra at his U.S. debut, the Richard Tucker gala Nov. 11, and in Rome last month. On the morning of May 9, the Met told Mastroianni to find Licitra.

After Mastroianni's call, received at night in Italy, Licitra couldn't sleep, watching TV until about 3:30 a.m. He packed so quickly that he forgot his score and didn't bring enough clothes, so he went to a Levi's store Saturday to bolster his wardrobe.

He arrived in New York at 9 a.m. May 10, got to the Met two hours later and spent 12 hours there, going over videotape of the production and getting piano rehearsals.

He didn't meet James Levine, the Met's artistic director, until the conductor popped into Licitra's dressing room at 7:15 Saturday night.

"He said to me, 'Don't worry about anything because I will follow you anywhere,"' Licitra recalls.

Levine conducted an impromptu passage, with Licitra singing a cappella. Levine, who made his Met debut in "Tosca" in June 1971, then turned to Mastroianni.

"What I love about him is he's a risk taker," Mastroianni remembers him as saying. "In this business, that's what it takes."'

Licitra, who in his teens worked doing layout for Vogue's Italian magazines, studied with Carlo Bergonzi through 1998 before running out of money. He was scheduled as a cover singer at the Arena di Verona that summer, but wound up impressing conductor Daniel Oren and made his debut in the opening night of the festival, as Riccardo in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera."

Milan's Teatro all Scala, Italy's top house, signed him for his debut in a second cast of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" on March 2, 1999, where he followed Jose Cura as Alvaro. He sang in eight "Tosca" performances at La Scala in March 2000, and got the prestigious opening night performance of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" the following December.

Many of the "Toscas" were with soprano Maria Guleghina, who paired with him at the Met on Saturday.

Right before the performance, she told him not to worry.

"We're going to live the roles -- no such thing as staging," Mastroianni quotes her as saying.

Licitra, who lives in a Milan apartment with his parents and brother, called home after every act, filling in the family with the details. He had a nosebleed in Act II and got a cut on his leg when the cast members playing Baron Scarpia's henchmen got a bit carried away.

Afterward, he got to attend the formal dinner, sitting with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Now, everyone wants a place on his schedule, which includes debuts at the Paris Opera ("Il Trovatore" in April 2004), London's Covent Garden ("Forza" in September 2004) and the Lyric Opera of Chicago ("Aida" in November 2004).

And on the streets of New York, he's already getting recognized.

"I just passed a couple of girls," he said at his hotel Monday. "They said, 'Look, that's him."'

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