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A voice that launched 1,000 posters

The blue-eyed son of a bricklayer is thrust onto the stage. His wife dies tragically, but he finds love again. It's the stuff of opera
  • @peterpopham
We catch this performance at a delicate juncture: who can say which way it is going to play? The guy may go up and up and up, until he's a household name like Pavarotti, and people whose musical sights never rose far above Status Quo line up to buy his records; or Roberto Alagna could nose dive to disaster and obscurity.

Roberto Alagna, the notional "Fourth Tenor", mooted successor to Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, has got a nice voice, though debate rages as to whether it's more like Pavarotti's or Domingo's or more like a much lighter French tenor. But besides the voice he's got a fantastic life story.

"The story of Roberto Alagna is the stuff of Hollywood," an EMI publicist enthuses in a new film about the singer due to be shown on Channel 4 early in the new year. "No record company executive could make it up."

If Alagna vanishes without trace in the next two or three years, it will be his romantic life story he has to blame for encouraging his record company to thrust him too fast and eagerly into the public eye.

Today, "storyline" is the key ingredient in the manufacture of celebrity. "If there is one thing that serves more than any other to involve audiences with celebrities," write the authors of High Visibility, an American manual to the art and science of celebrity manufacture, "it is the storyline."

"The conscious design, manipulation and promotion of storylines in celebrities' lives - up to the point of creating realities more dramatic than real life - constitutes the celebrity industry's major breakthrough in the 1970s and 1980s."

In Roberto Alagna's case, he gave it to them on a plate. The blond, blue- eyed, chubby-cheeked, habitually grinning 33-year-old singer was born and raised in a grimy outer suburb of Paris, the eldest son of a Sicilian bricklayer.

He had none of the conservatoire training of his peers on the stages of the world's opera houses: instead he was discovered by an obscure Cuban pianist who taught him all he knew. Thereupon, Alagna was hoiked out of the pizzerias where, his publicists say, he strummed and warbled, and was groomed for stardom.

So far so heart-warming - but that's not the half of it. Roberto was a married man, proud father of a pretty daughter, Olanna. Then just as his singing career was taking off, his wife fell grievously ill.

Alagna cut back his singing commitments to spend time with her; but the brain tumour finally took her life. Playing the lead in romantic operas like Romeo et Giuliette and La Boheme, it was common for Roberto to end the show with the young heroine dead in his arms. The aisles ran with tears.

But it gets better. Roberto now falls in love with the sultry young Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Angela divorces her husband, leaving him and their two children behind in Bucharest (a detail downplayed by the publicity departments), and in June of this year they marry! For EMI, Alagna is now a hot item, with Angela an irresistible new twist.

"When we first became aware of Roberto's relationship with Angela," Aimee Gautreau of Angel EMI Records in New York says, "our reaction was, `this is a great love story and we should use this'."

Before Alagna's debut at the New York Met in April, the bus shelters of Manhattan were plastered with posters of the new sensation. "It was important to create a real image campaign, more like a pop star, to make him more accessible," Gautreau explains. "It was important to let people know he's not only a great tenor, he's a hunk ... Imaging, imaging, imaging: the poster has his very piercing blue eyes staring straight at the camera."

If Alagna was in fact a pop singer, none of this "imaging" would raise an eyebrow. But the application of pop practice to classical music is still relatively new.

"The classical music business is extremely competitive," says EMI's Roger Lewis. "It changed dramatically way back in 1990, with the explosion of the Three Tenors, Pavarotti on his own, Nigel Kennedy and Kiri Te Kanawa, and the world opened up to the fact that the potential sales of classical recordings was far greater than had previously been thought."

On their last appearance in Los Angeles, the Three Tenors and their maestro were paid an advance of $11m. With sums like that, the packaging and selling of a classical music celebrity becomes a more ruthless enterprise than ever before.

The people likely to suffer from this are the singers themselves. The soprano Sally Bradshaw says, "the opera world is littered with dead bodies". She mentions one name, "a massive star 10 years ago, who has sunk without trace. She had a magnificent, really special voice, but now it's in ribbons. The record companies savagely exploit names and personalities, shoving the singers into the hothouse - they produce a few blooms and they're finished."

EMI insist that they mean to take good care of their property. "What we are investing now, which is considerable, we will reap back in 30 years' time," says a spokesman. "Look at Callas - we're still living off her. This is a voice we have to treat with a great deal of respect and a great deal of care."

Yet Alagna's hectic schedule of performance and recording belies such protestations. At his debut in the Met, his voice began to crack, and he had to be talked out of quitting in mid-show. "The man's a nervous wreck," opined a disappointed member of the New York audience. "He tried the top B - it came out like a frog," said another. "He's supposed to be the Fourth Tenor - that wasn't the voice of the Fourth Tenor."

London audiences lost the opportunity to judge for themselves when he and Angela pulled out of three planned performances of La Boheme at Covent Garden in October, suffering from the effects of their heavy schedules.

Jonathan Miller, who has twice produced Alagan in La Boheme, is severely critical of the new star. "I'm afraid I had terrible trouble with him," he said earlier in the year. "I have had too many bad experiences with singers who have become suddenly successful ... These people have a sudden decompression of success and then they get the spiritual bends."

"A really well-grounded operatic voice needs at least a decade to come to fruition," says Sally Bradshaw. A juicy life story, on the other hand, can be devoured by the public in a matter of months. Celebrity can't wait.

Tomorrow: The mind of the stalker