WASHINGTON, Oct. 13 (UPI) -- Tenor Salvatore Licitra owes his career to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last communist leader. At least that's Licitra's story, and he's sticking to it.
It is 1989, and the architect of glasnost has inspired a Russian pop group called Midnight Moscow to write a song called "Tovarich Gorbachev" (Comrade Gorbachev). Italian radio plays it so often that Licitra learns the words parrot-fashion, and it becomes his party piece. His mother, possibly in self-defense, persuades him to take singing lessons.
Implausible? From that curious beginning emerged one of the most promising world-class tenors of the post-Placido Domingo/Luciano Pavarotti generation. In fact, with his big, powerful voice and clean top range the young Sicilian is being called the new Pavarotti.
"Before starting lessons I had no interest in becoming a singer, or in operatic music for that matter, but once I discovered my own voice I was hooked," Licitra told United Press International recently in Washington, where he sang the title role in the Washington National Opera's production of "Andrea Chenier," Umberto Giordano's dramatic -- and very difficult -- opera.
Licitra (Swiss-born of Sicilian parents and raised in Sicily) trained with three teachers, but dismisses the first two as disastrous. He credits the third -- the former tenor Carlo Bergonzi -- with saving his voice in the nick of time from the ruinous efforts of the earlier ones. He sang chorus for a while, and then in 1998 made his solo debut in the role of Riccardo in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" (A Masked Ball) at the Teatro Regio in Verdi's own hometown of Parma. He was 30.
Within two years Licitra was a legend in his own time as a result of a classic "big break" story that the tenor half resents. In May 2002, with 30 minutes notice, he replaced Luciano Pavarotti in the tenor role in "Tosca" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A couple of days earlier Pavarotti -- then 66 -- had warned the Met that he might be too flu-ridden to appear at what was to have been his farewell performance. The opera house looked around for an available tenor as insurance. Licitra agreed to stand by, was flown to New York on the Concorde and walked through one rehearsal.
"At 7:30 on the evening of the performance, (Met general director Joseph) Volpe phoned me at my hotel, and said 'You're on,'" he recalled. "In 30 minutes I was in my costume and make-up, I met (James) Levine for the first time and went on stage. Fortunately, it went well." It did more than that. Licitra was a sensation, overcoming the initial disappointment of an audience that had paid $1,500 a ticket to hear Pavarotti. He got a 43-second ovation for "Recondita armonia," the artist Mario Cavaradossi's Act I aria, even longer applause for his rendition of the even more famous "E lucevan le stelle," which one U.S. music critic said at the time "rearranged your hair." At the end he got a five-minute solo ovation.
The New York Times described him as "an Italian tenor with a deep baritonal lower range, a brighter upper register, and strong, secure high notes." The press called him the Cinderalla of international opera. Ridiculous really, he says, considering that he had already built up a solid reputation as a Verdi tenor, particularly in Europe. In 2000 he had made his debut at La Scala Opera House in Milan -- the peak of recognition for an Italian tenor. He had even toured Japan with La Scala. Being called the new Pavarotti may be flattering, he says, but "Bergonzi used to tell me, don't imitate other singers. I'm not the new anybody but myself."
By the time he sang at the Met, his repertory already included "Tosca," "Il Trovatore," "La Froza del Destino," "Adriana Lecouvrier" and other standard works. He plans to tackle other roles, including Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," Bizet's "Carmen," and the Leoncavallo/Mascagni duo, Pag and Cav - "Pagliacci" and "Cavalleria Rusticana." The latter, set in Sicily, has a special attraction for a Sicilian tenor. Still his intention is to stick to what he does best. "I'm a Verdean tenor," he says. "I learned to sing performing in Verdi operas, and I'm comfortable in Verdi roles." And with his strong, good-looking southern Italian features and hefty build he has the physique for Verdi's manly heroes.
Contemporary -- even modern -- opera doesn't tempt him: "I don't want to have to shout and ruin my voice," he says. In addition, Licitra is a traditionalist. He was outstanding as "Andrea Chenier" in Washington, but he tactfully implies that he was not entirely comfortable with Polish director Mariusz Trelinski's imaginative but highly unconventional approach to the opera. In the Washington production, the French Revolutionary setting progressively took on a more modern appearance and context, and instead of going to the guillotine Chenier and his lover go to the gas chamber; or rather it comes to them as the gas fumes rose from below stage to blot out their final embrace.
Licitra doesn't seem awed by his international fame. Like all top opera performers he is controlled by his Blackberry, which displays his list of engagements up to 2009, with the tiny flag of the country near each one. "The days pass so quickly that there's no time to think, about the next step, about the life we lead," he says. "I would like to be able to spend more time on the beach at home playing volleyball and soccer with friends. I miss Sicily. I miss the Mediterranean."
He is clearly not a fan of today's sometimes over-the-top opera directors. The recent London production of Ballo in Maschera in which the opening scene was set in a men's toilet, sets his teeth on edge. But he recognizes the creative effort and says he'll do anything within reason. His own approach to a role is an almost obsessive study of the musical score, and thorough research, reading up everything he can about it in advance. He recognizes the singer's dependence on the conductor. "During the performance a singer is in the conductor's hands, and I like to know as much as possible about what the conductor is going to do," he says.
He has worked frequently with Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, the musical director of La Scala, whom he admires, even though Muti was responsible for one of his most difficult stage moments. When Licitra sang "Il Trovatore" for the first time, Muti -- something of a text purist -- decided he didn't want the traditional tenor's interpolation of a high C in the famous third act aria "Di Quella Pira."
But knowledgeable opera audiences expect this piece of bravura, and more so at La Scala. Conductor and young tenor were booed for leaving it out. Six months later, in Verona, Licitra inserted two high Cs -- and did it again in the encore.
Licitra, who returns to Washington in May to sing in "Tosca," as well as to the Met, the scene of his triumph two years ago, worries that opera audiences are ageing and wishes more attention was paid to musical training and appreciation at schools.
"In Italy, the great operatic tradition is gone because they don't teach music at school, and haven't for years," he says. "When I was at school we studied Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concerto, and that was it."
What seems not to worry him is the dilemma that haunts many singers: what to do when the voice goes. For example, he has no interest in conducting as a fallback position, or teaching. When the time comes, he says, he will retire and relax on the Sicilian beach.