- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

NEW YORK — For Luciano Pavarotti, it is over. For Salvatore Licitra, it is just beginning. On a night of high drama at the opera house, Mr. Pavarotti disappointed thousands of his fans by deciding at the last minute he was too ill with the flu to sing the closing performance of the Metropolitan Opera season.

Mr. Licitra, a young Sicilian tenor, went on instead and scored the most triumphant Met debut in recent memory.

Mr. Pavarotti issued the following statement on Sunday:

I am writing, because today I have influenza, a common disease which would mean nothing were I not a tenor.

This virus has unfortunately forced me to cancel two performances of "Tosca" scheduled at the New York Metropolitan Opera, a theater and audience which are very dear to me and that have provided some of the most unforgettable emotions and experiences of my whole career.

From some of the newspaper reports, it seems almost as if my cancellation were considered something of a betrayal or a weakness, not to show up on that stage and undertake the profession to which I have dedicated almost my entire life.

A proper vocal condition is the basic rule for any singing performance; without it, no matter how much willingness, talent, discipline or passion there is, it is simply impossible to offer the public the performance for which they have paid. With influenza, your vocal skills are dictated to and you have no control over it.

I was looking forward to this "Tosca" with so much excitement and, as always, with a little trepidation: I have performed the role of Cavaradossi an endless number of times, but every performance is like a box where you discover a unique treasure of emotions, leaving invaluable memories.

The media seems to imply that the New York opera public will not forgive my cancellation. But forgiveness assumes that one has made a mistake; no matter how much I regret with a passion not being able to sing at the Met on this occasion, catching the flu was certainly not a willful mistake I made.

Yours sincerely

Luciano Pavarotti

Mr. Licitra sang the role of painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's "Tosca" on Saturday, and with his bright, ringing sound and confident manner quickly won the affection of the 4,000 persons who packed the house as well as 3,000 more watching a live telecast on the Lincoln Center plaza outside. They showered him with extended applause and bravos after both his big arias and a 2½-minute standing ovation at the end of the performance, bringing tears to his eyes.

For Mr. Pavarotti, closeted in his apartment just a few blocks south of the opera house, the cancellation likely marked a mournful end to a glorious Met career that began with his appearance in Puccini's "La Boheme" in 1968 the same year Mr. Licitra was born.

At 66, after 373 Met performances in 20 roles, he is absent from the roster next season and Met General Manager Joseph Volpe made it clear he would not be returning in staged opera, though he might be invited back for a concert or recital. Nor does he have performances booked at any of the world's other opera houses.

Mr. Pavarotti had kept the audience guessing until the last minute, with no sign posted in the lobby as usually happens when a star cancels. When the house lights went down and the spotlight came up on stage, there were groans of dread.

Stepping out from the curtain, Mr. Volpe related the events of the evening: A phone call from Mr. Pavarotti at 5:15 p.m. saying he would go on, but then another at 7:10 p.m. in which he said, "I'm sorry, my friend, I cannot sing." The Met had even sent a vocal coach to help Mr. Pavarotti prepare. Mr. Volpe said later that the coach confirmed the singer was too congested to sing.

Mr. Volpe said he had asked Mr. Pavarotti to come to the house to give his regrets in person to the audience, but the singer replied, "I cannot do that."

He said he then told Mr. Pavarotti, "This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours."

Mr. Licitra, who has performed the role of Cavaradossi in Europe, where he lives, had been flown over by the Met on the Concorde as a standby after Mr. Pavarotti canceled his first scheduled performance Wednesday. The understudy that night was journeyman tenor Francisco Casanova, and Mr. Volpe knew he would have to do better to placate the closing-night gala audience.

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