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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Memories of Herbert Breslin

Luciano Pavarotti's longtime manager dies at 87. 
by Paul Pelkonen
Herbert Breslin (right) and friend. Photo by Alan Malschick from The King and I
© 2004 Broadway Books, Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette.
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of opera super-agent Herbert Breslin. Mr. Breslin managed Luciano Pavarotti for 36 years, elevating the Italian tenor into a household name. He died yesterday in Nice, France, of a heart attack. The news was reported by my colleague Anne Midgette in The Washington Post. 

Mr. Breslin was 87. 

I want to take a moment to say a few words for Mr. Breslin, who helped a young writer beginning a career in the world of opera. Through his firm, the Herbert Breslin Agency, I was able to do my first interviews with singers and gain invaluable experience as I started in this business.

It began when the Metropolitan Opera chose to cancel a 1997 run of Verdi's La Forza del Destino. Luciano Pavarotti was supposed to learn the role of Don Alvaro di Vargas, which would add the last major dramatic Verdi tenor role to a resume that included attempts at Don Carlo and Otello, operas that were far too heavy for his voice.

It might have been because the role of Don Alvaro was too difficult. It might have been because the famously superstitious Mr. Pavarotti was unwilling to take on what was considered a "bad luck" opera at the Met, one which had claimed the life of baritone Leonard Warren in 1960. And it might have been because Giancarlo del Monaco's dull-as-dishwater production was unpopular with both audiences and critics.

In any case, Forza was yanked from the schedule, and replaced with a revival of Un ballo in Maschera, an opera that Mr. Pavarotti knew well, and could be sung by similar forces to those required for Forza. This was a hot story, and my opportunity to interview my first opera singer.

No, it wasn't Pavarotti.

I was about a year out of journalism school, working my first job for Back in the '90s, Citysearch was a new media player, a bustling guide to New York City that attempted to cover arts and entertainment news and listings on a shoe-string budget. My official title was Associate Editor of Classical Music, Opera, Sports and Fitness (if you believe that one.) In the course of making a photo request for an article, I came into contact (through Musical America, the bible for our industry) with George Burles, who worked for the Breslin Agency.

George set up an interview with Kristjian Johannsson, the Icelandic tenore di forza who was the understudy for Mr. Pavarotti. I remember it well: a cold, rainy morning in February. A nervous kid, I showed up at Mr. Johannsson's apartment (he was renting a flat in the tower behind Lincoln Center that belonged to Dame Kiri te Kanawa). I, a novice, was 20 minutes early. He was still in his dressing-gown but wide awake.

"Come in!!!" he boomed in a surprisingly deep voice. "Call me Kristjian! Would you like some coffee?"

I said yes. The coffee was black and brutally strong. Icelandic style. We sat down in the pale cream living room, and I took out my questions and interviewed him about the challenges of changing operas in mid-stream. He wasn't happy about the change, claiming that for his voice, it was easier to sing loudly as Alvaro instead of lyrically as Gustavo.

In the next few years, my association with Mr. Breslin resulted in more interviews: Deborah Voigt, who was then singing Sieglinde in Die Walküre. The laptop-wielding Fabio Armiliato. Jon Frederic West. Patricia Racette. I even got invited to a "do" release of the EMI Romeo et Juliette, a swanky champagne evening at Tavern on the Green to promote Mr. Breslin's new clients: Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. That was the only time I actually got to meet him. (I had to leave early to catch Ms. Voigt in Lohengrin at the Met.)

These clips were the foundation that my career was built on, a foundation that I owe, to some degree, to Mr. Breslin's tireless promotion of his singers and to his generosity.

Thank you, Mr. Breslin. 

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