Wall Street Journal, 07 Sep 2007
Lauren A.E. Schuker
Who will become opera's new top tenor?
After passing of Pavarotti, music labels and singers jockey to fill his place.
The curtain is about to rise on opera's next act.

The death of acclaimed tenor Luciano Pavarotti is a huge loss to opera fans -- and in the classical music industry, it's also sparking a frenzy over how best to replace him. Tenors who have labored in Mr. Pavarotti's shadow are jockeying to take his place atop the opera pyramid. Classical labels and opera houses, meanwhile, are readying a barrage of Pavarotti products and events, from tribute concerts to multi-album reissues.

Mr. Pavarotti died yesterday at age 71 in his hometown of Modena, Italy, after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. Now the music industry is striving to strike a balance between showing respect to a cherished star and moving strategically to fill a major void. Mr. Pavarotti was one of classical music's most bankable names, selling more than 100 million recordings world-wide over his lifetime. Decca, his record label for 43 years, estimates he has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for the company.
In 1990, Mr. Pavarotti and tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo formed the lucrative "Three Tenors" group and their debut recording from that same year, "Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti: The Three Tenors in Concert," remains the best-selling classical record in history. The recordings the trio made together have sold an estimated 15 million copies.

Opera houses and classical labels are set to mount a huge marketing push to capitalize on the attention generated by Mr. Pavarotti's death. Last night, in an event planned just hours after the singer's passing, the Metropolitan Opera in New York kicked off an eight-night series of broadcasts of Mr. Pavarotti's performances on Sirius satellite radio. The house is also mounting an exhibition of Pavarotti photographs and memorabilia (such as the ornate costume he wore for "Tosca") at its hall this month to coincide with opening night.

Some of the biggest moves will come from Decca, a unit of Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group. The label has been planning a homage for some time -- during Mr. Pavarotti's illness, the company consulted with the singer about a series of tribute reissues of his work. On Tuesday, Decca will rerelease the album "Pavarotti's Greatest Hits," first released in 1980. Then on Nov. 13, Decca will release a deluxe box set with newly remastered versions of 12 studio recordings made by Mr. Pavarotti during his career.
Decca says it also plans other commemorative albums that will include books and DVDs with the music, but those are on hold until further discussions with Mr. Pavarotti's wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, his former assistant whom he married in 2003. "His wishes would always be respected with regards to various albums, so we will be discussing these new commemorative albums with her," says Decca spokesman Liam Toner.

The real drama, however, is the race to succeed Mr. Pavarotti as the opera world's most in-demand tenor. Contenders -- several of whom have been strategically positioning themselves to appeal both to hard-core opera fans and mainstream listeners in recent years -- include Italy's Salvatore Licitra, 38, Mexico's Rolando Villazón, 35, and Italy's "popera" star Andrea Bocelli, 48. Mr. Pavarotti was 54 when he first performed as one of the Three Tenors.

France's Roberto Alagna, 44, dubbed by some "The Fourth Tenor" was considered a front-runner until he stormed off the stage at La Scala in December after being booed.

Bruce Zemsky, of Zemsky/Green Artists Management, represents four of the singers whose names have been floated as possible successors to Mr. Pavarotti's legacy -- Mr. Villazón, Mexico's Ramón Vargas, 46, Argentina's Marcelo Álvarez, 45, and Germany's Jonas Kaufmann, 37. Mr. Zemsky says he has booked all four tenors for at least three performances a week through 2014.

Mr. Álvarez is doing his first solo album for Decca in July, while Mr. Kaufmann's is due out in January. Meanwhile, Mr. Villazón will have his solo debut at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 10 -- something Mr. Pavarotti did in 1973. Mr. Villazón is also making a film version of "La Boheme" in Paris in February.

The title of top tenor is, of course, an unofficial one, but will likely be judged by members of the industry on the basis of leading roles in new productions mounted on the stage of major opera houses. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has Messrs. Kaufmann, Licitra, and Alagna booked for separate appearances this season.

Decca currently has contracts with a number of tenors including Messrs. Kaufmann and Bocelli, and England's Russell Watson and Peru's Juan Diego Flórez. But according to Mr. Toner, Decca is placing its biggest bet on Mr. Kaufmann, perhaps the least known of the group. Mr. Kaufmann performed last year at London's Royal Opera and was "a sensation," Mr. Toner says. "He was in the studio two months later."

Mr. Toner says that Decca currently has no interest in releasing a variation of the "Three Tenors" album by replacing Mr. Pavarotti with a new tenor. "We have had that thought, of course," says Mr. Toner, "but we realize that it would be an inferior, 'me too' situation, and wouldn't work." He adds that the voices of the three tenors were in the same range, which is rare, and would be difficult to duplicate. Instead, Decca is hoping to develop a performer like Mr. Kaufmann as a solo superstar.

Costa Pilavachi, president of EMI Classics, is backing a different tenor: England's Ian Bostridge, 42, whose new album comes out this fall in the U.S. "He is the top tenor of his type in the world," said Mr. Pilavachi. "There is nobody better in the English language."

Many in the music world say no one has emerged who can truly match Mr. Pavarotti's vocal talent. Mr. Pilavachi, formerly the president of Decca, says that while Mr. Alagna and Mr. Villazón are "closest to Pavarotti, at least in terms of what they sing," they don't rival the power of his voice.

Mr. Pilavachi says he has been looking for new talent in places like Bulgaria and Russia. "We are very attentive to rumors of new singers these days," he says. "And they can come from anywhere now, not just from Spain or Italy or the U.S."

In June, a former cellphone salesman from Australia, Paul Potts, won the English television talent show "Britain's Got Talent" for his operatic singing skills, and landed a record deal with Sony BMG. By July, he had released an album, which hit No. 1 on the British album charts.

Mr. Zemsky, who represents 36 tenors with his partner Alan Green, says he has acquired a dozen new singers in just the past two years alone, and he receives between five and seven résumés and calls a week from hopeful tenors.

Recently, he got up at 6 a.m. to audition one such hopeful at the Rome airport, where the singer worked as a security guard. "That's how badly we are looking for new people," he says. Unfortunately, he says, the tenor "wasn't any good."

Up-and-coming tenors face some new challenges. Today's opera performances require more acting and physical exertion from singers than productions of decades past. And at a time when many of the Metropolitan's productions are simulcast to movie theaters with close-ups of the performers, singers are expected to show youthful looks and a new level of fitness.

"The strategy now is to replace the appeal of one Pavarotti with a new generation of artists. We are looking for great singers who can also act," says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

But while physical attractiveness is more important for today's opera singers, Mr. Pilavachi says, "If anybody came along with Mr. Pavarotti's vocal skills today, no matter what they looked like, they would be snapped up."

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