Met debut shows how star is born

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, subbing for Pavarotti in 'Tosca,' wows opera world

— This is how a star is born:

The cell phone rang at 6:30 p.m. May 9 in the Licitra family's Milan apartment. 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, Licitra, a 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."

Strong reviews

The reviews were strong. 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 Wednesday night 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 last month in Rome. On Thursday morning, the Met told Mastroianni to find Licitra.

After Mastroianni's Thursday night call, Licitra couldn't sleep, watching television until about 3:30 a.m. He packed so quickly that he forgot his score and didn't bring enough clothes, so he went shopping Saturday to bolster his wardrobe.

Short rehearsal

He arrived at 9 a.m. Friday in New York, 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 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" that December.

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

Fame grows fast

He then attended a 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."'


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.