The opera must go on -- but not with Luciano Pavarotti. With all the cliffhanger suspense usually associated with another kind of opera -- the soaps -- the beloved tenor kept his fans guessing until t

The opera must go on -- but not with Luciano Pavarotti. With all the cliffhanger suspense usually associated with another kind of opera -- the soaps -- the beloved tenor kept his fans guessing until the last minute Saturday before announcing he was too ill with the flu to perform at the Metropolitan Opera season finale in New York.

His withdrawal from the performance of Puccini's "Tosca" seemed to signal that the curtain had fallen on the aging superstar's Met career. In announcing the cancellation to the audience, Met general manager Joseph Volpe said he told Pavarotti, "This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours" when the tenor declined to appear onstage. He said he asked Pavarotti to appear even if he could not sing and was told, "I cannot do that."

Volpe said Pavarotti told him at 5:15 p.m. Saturday that he would perform, and called back two hours later to say he would not. The Met had even dispatched a member of its music staff to Pavarotti's apartment in the afternoon to prepare for the performance.

Pavarotti, 66, had canceled at the last moment his scheduled appearance in the same opera three nights earlier, citing poor health. He has no engagements scheduled at the Met in future seasons.

For Saturday night, the company was taking no chances, especially with nonrefundable ticket prices ranging from $75 to $1,875 -- up from the usual $30 to $265 -- and a live simulcast planned on a giant screen in the Lincoln Center plaza.

As a backup, the management flew in Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra on the Concorde from Europe. He received a 43-second ovation at the conclusion of his first big aria, "Recondita Armonia," and a 46-second ovation for his big third act aria, "E lucevan le stelle."

At the end of the opera, the entire cast received a standing ovation from the packed house of 3,800, and Licitra's solo bow lasted two minutes. In a rare gesture, the management turned on the auditorium lights to let him bask in the glow of the audience's enthusiasm.

At 33 -- half Pavarotti's age -- Licitra has generated quite a bit of excitement from performances and recordings but wasn't scheduled to make his Met debut until spring of 2004. Licitra was considered a more palatable substitute than understudy Francisco Casanova, who performed the role of painter Mario Cavaradossi last Wednesday night. When Volpe announced the change before that performance, he was showered with booing by disappointed patrons.

Given Pavarotti's crossover status as a popular superstar, the uncertainty created the kind of buzz more commonly associated with rock or movie stars. "Fat Man Won't Sing," blared the front-page headline in Friday's New York Post. On Saturday, The New York Times quoted an acquaintance as saying the ailing tenor was "barricaded in his apartment ... on Central Park South taking medication and cooking a seven-pound chicken for soup."

"From some of the newspaper reports," Pavarotti wrote in an open letter released yesterday (May 12), "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," he continued. "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."

It had long been assumed that the Met "Toscas" might bring down the curtain on Pavarotti's career in staged opera, although neither he nor his manager, Herbert Breslin, has said so. Pavarotti, who made his Met debut in 1968 in Puccini's "La Boheme," is absent from next season's roster for the first time since the 1969-70 season, and has no scheduled bookings at any other opera house. He remains scheduled for future arena concerts and recitals.


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