More caviar, Luciano?

For 36 years, Herbert Breslin was Pavarotti's devoted and attentive manager. His secret? Being able to satisfy the volatile tenor's incredible hunger. Here he reveals just what that involved - in all its stomach-churning detail
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The Independent Culture

He has been called the world's greatest tenor, the "King of the High Cs", one of the 25 most recognisable people on earth. I call him Signor Cervello. Mr Brain. Luciano Pavarotti, you see, is one of the world's leading experts on everything. He knows more about music, medicine, dentistry, the prostate, childcare, legal matters, and so on and so forth, than anyone else alive. The rest of us are mere incompetents. At least, that's how he sees it.

He has been called the world's greatest tenor, the "King of the High Cs", one of the 25 most recognisable people on earth. I call him Signor Cervello. Mr Brain. Luciano Pavarotti, you see, is one of the world's leading experts on everything. He knows more about music, medicine, dentistry, the prostate, childcare, legal matters, and so on and so forth, than anyone else alive. The rest of us are mere incompetents. At least, that's how he sees it.

"The fish in Pesaro are the best in the world," he'll say. It doesn't matter if he's talking to someone from the North Sea, who might reasonably beg to differ. Pesaro has the best fish. That's that.

Got a medical problem? Only Luciano knows which doctor you should go to. But when you do go to the doctor, don't listen to him. Luciano knows much better than the doctor what medicine you should take.

I say, "Oh, Signor Cervello, excuse the rest of us for being so ignorant."

He calls me " stupido". But that's not a special accolade. He calls everyone that.

Who am I? Call me Herbert, or Herbertino, as Luciano does when he's feeling more affectionate - which is, these days, not often. For your purposes, all you really need to know about me is that I'm one of the best managers and publicists in the business. Nobody knows classical music, and the business of classical music, better than I do. If I do say so myself.

I worked with Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest tenor in the world, for 36 years of my life. Sometimes, he was a great, great client. Sometimes, he acted like he ruled the world around him and everyone in it, including me. Some- times, he was a close and generous friend. Sometimes, he was a real pain in the ass.

The truth is, there's very little division between Luciano's public and private selves. Picture the tenor as you know him from the stage or your television set: a big, outgoing presence. Now picture taking that presence and inviting it into your home for dinner. Believe me, it's a lot to contain in your living room.

Although I had been the recipient of Luciano's generous hospitality, the prospect of reciprocating it was something else again. Luciano's house is basically set up to accommodate guests. The central piece of furniture in all his residences - his New York apartment, his home in Modena, his summer house in Pesaro, his apartment in Monte Carlo - is a big table, right in the middle of the room. And anyone who crosses Luciano's threshold is inevitably greeted with the same question: "Do you want something to eat?" This is true even when the visitor is the doctor, summoned because of one of Luciano's innumerable maladies. Before the examination even begins, the doctor is practically ordered to sit down and have a plate of pasta. Luciano, of course, joins him; you wouldn't want a visitor to eat alone. Later, Luciano is very insulted when the doctor sends him a bill for his services. After all, the doctor was fed in his home, as a guest. Now you're beginning to understand the Italian mentality.

An important part of the equation is that, in his own home, Luciano knows the ropes. In fact, you could even say that Luciano makes the ropes. He's a lot less comfortable when he's not the one calling the shots. And as a guest, it's very difficult to call the shots. Luciano, of course, doesn't let that stop him, especially not with regard to his favourite subject: food.

I don't know where Luciano's concern with food came from, or exactly when it began. But I do know that concern is far too mild a term for Luciano's consuming passion. Luciano thinks about food all the time. It's not just that he likes to eat: he loves to smell food, to touch food, to prepare food, to think about food, to talk about food. When he comes into a room, he begins sniffing like a dog, and his first question is, "What smells so good?"

"I smell so good, Luciano," I used to say. It didn't stop him for a minute. He would already be past me and into the kitchen, lifting the lids on all the pots and inhaling the fragrant steam from whatever was cooking. There was always something cooking. To invite Luciano Pavarotti over without cooking something would be unthinkable.

In fact, he often orders up the menu himself. When Joe Volpe, the general director of the Metropolitan Opera, invited Luciano to dinner one night a few years ago, Luciano began calling Joe's wife every day, several days in advance. He wanted to know what she was going to serve. On the day itself, he called again to announce that he would be arriving early to help her cook. She had to regretfully decline. It wasn't that she didn't want to cook with Luciano; she just didn't think he would be able to fit into the small galley kitchen of their New York apartment.

Luciano had most of his clothes custom-made and always had full suits of evening clothes available in several different sizes to accommodate his ups and downs. I always say that, in the course of his career, Luciano has to have gained and lost more than 5,000lb. It's hard to quantify precisely, because no one knows for sure how much he weighs. Whenever anyone is gauche enough to ask, Luciano has a ready answer. "Oh," he'll say, "I went on a diet last night. So, today I weigh 10lbs less than I did last night." He never reveals an actual number. Sometimes, however, he buys his shirts a size or two larger in the neck, so he can run his finger around the collar and show people how much weight he's lost.

His diets were another thing that made it difficult to entertain him. He was usually on one, and you never knew what he was allowed to eat. Luciano is as extreme about dieting as he is about everything else. He will latch on to one thing that he's supposed to eat, like steamed chicken and vegetables, and eat only that every day, twice a day, until he eventually loses interest. He certainly devoted at least as much energy and thought to his diets, when he was on them, as to his regular meals when he was not. Luciano is an expert on everything, and losing weight is no exception. It doesn't shake his belief an iota that none of his famous diets seems to be particularly effective.

One day, he was lying in his dressing-room at the Met with his upper body exposed - not a pretty sight - when Sissi Strauss came in. Sissi is the Met's liaison for foreign artists; she is the person they turn to when they need an apartment, a doctor, or simply a friend in a strange city. Sissi is Viennese, with a little lilting accent, and that means, among other things, that she is very well put together, a stylish woman with flair. You'd certainly never call her heavy. She stood averting her eyes from the swaying belly flowing over the edge of the chaise longue.

"Luciano," Sissi said, "how are you?"

"I'm not good," Luciano said. "I've put on 10lb and I can't get it off."

"I know how you feel," said Sissi. "My husband and I have both gone on Slim-Fast."

"Oh, no," Luciano said. "No. Slim-Fast is no good. If you want to lose weight, you should be on my diet. I'll write it down for you."

And the King of the High Cs - and the high scales - eased himself ponderously upright on his chaise, rather like a beached whale, and pointed a finger at Sissi's trim form. "If you were on my diet," he told her sternly, "you wouldn't look like that."

Luciano's culinary tastes are very specific. There are certain things he likes and certain ways to cook things. Take arborio rice, for example, the stubby-grained Italian rice that's used for making risotto. Luciano's preferred arborio rice used to come from Grace's Marketplace in New York. For years, whenever I or anyone from the office went over to Italy to see him, we had to bring arborio rice. To many people, bringing arborio rice to Italy might seem a little redundant - after all, Grace's Marketplace imports the stuff from Italy in the first place - but not to Luciano.

His other demand, inevitably, was garlic. "Don't they have garlic in Italy, Luciano?" we asked. Not the same kind of garlic they have in the States, apparently, and don't forget the garlic powder, either. Once, a whole container of the stuff came open in my suitcase when I was going to Modena. When I arrived, everything stank of garlic. I told Luciano that I was going to charge him $1,000 for a new Hermès bag (and I did, too). He just laughed.

Given Luciano's choosiness, you can imagine that having him over to your house is a daunting proposition. And you would be right. One issue that often came up when I entertained Luciano was that he was suspicious about my generosity. He loved to twit me about my supposed stingi-ness. In fact, I don't think of myself as especially stingy. I remember one Christmas when I presented Luciano with a Pavarotti-sized bottle of his favourite cologne, Eau Impériale by Guerlain. It was really enormous. Even Luciano was impressed with that one. None the less, he loved to stereotype me as tight-fisted. He saw himself, of course, as the soul of generosity and an excellent host. He tried to find ways to remind me that I was less talented in that regard than he - or ways to test me to see how far he could push me before I squawked.

So it was that, about 20 years ago, we both happened to be in Paris at the same time. I had fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams by buying an apartment there. My first apartment in Paris wasn't big - in fact, it was a small studio - but it overlooked the gardens of Notre-Dame, and it made me very happy. It evoked La Bohème, down to the many flights of stairs that were its only means of access. I had waxed enthusiastic to Luciano about my new home, and one day, I invited him over to see it, making clear, of course, that it was quite a climb to get there.

I expected him to bridle at the mention of the stairs, but to my great surprise, Luciano said that he would be happy to come. He did, however, have one condition. He wanted to plan the menu. "Of course," I said, ever the willing host to my client.

Luciano presented me with a menu that was elegant in its simplicity. In fact, it would require almost no kitchen- preparation time at all. His requirements were few, and the shopping list was straightforward and easy to follow. He wanted a kilo of beluga caviar, three bottles of Roederer Cristal champagne, the most expensive smoked salmon from Petrossian, and Stolichnaya vodka.

To buy all this, of course, would cost several thousand dollars. Luciano obviously thought that I would balk at the expense, after which he would be able to taunt me for my lack of generosity. I wouldn't give him that satisfaction. I accepted his list without a murmur and said that I was looking forward to having him.

On the appointed day, Luciano made his way slowly up the stairs and eventually arrived at my apartment, huffing and puffing, and wiping his brow. Despite a few complaints about the climb, he was in good spirits. He loved to play this kind of game. His mood only improved as he surveyed the table where I had laid out everything elegantly, exactly according to his specifications. With a smile, he sat down and requested a spoon for the caviar. I offered him one, but he rejected it peremptorily. It emerged that what Luciano wanted was not a demitasse spoon or even a teaspoon. It had to be a tablespoon.

With this implement, he dug into the mound of caviar and ingested a generous mouthful, which he washed down with a few mouthfuls of Cristal champagne. Smiling broadly as we talked, even glancing around to admire the view from time to time, he continued to pack it away.

"You're eating too much of this stuff," I eventually suggested, as the caviar continued to disappear at a steady rate.

"What are you afraid of?" said the tenor, sweetly.

"You'll make yourself sick," I said.

"Don't be silly," Luciano replied. "What's the matter? Can't you afford it?"

"I can afford it just fine," I said.

We spent a pleasant afternoon together, talking over one thing and another, as Luciano ate more than a pound of caviar. Finally, the visit drew to a close. He needed, he informed me, to go home and rest. He had me pack up the rest of his provisions to take with him - presumably in case he should feel like a snack on the way home.

That night, I was the recipient of yet another late-night phone call from Luciano. He was desperately sick to his stomach. "I will never eat caviar again," he swore, amid groans and various imprecations.

He kept that vow for several years. He finally broke down on the Air France Concorde, on which the stewardess served him a jar of caviar with the drinks. He managed to get that down with no ill effects, possibly because it was considerably less than a kilo of the stuff.

We never discussed that menu again. Nor did he complain about my generosity for a very long time - except to mention, more than a few times, that I had tried to kill him.

'The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by His Manager, Friend and Sometime Adversary', by Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette, is published by Mainstream on 8 November, £16.99