As a teenager, Salvatore Licitra worked as a graphic artist in Milan, but his real passion emerged when he sang along with the radio. Hearing that, his mother urged him to get voice lessons, which he began at the age of 18. Despite that late start, Licitra rose to become one of the world’s most sought-after operatic tenors, considered by many to be an heir to his great countryman, Luciano Pavarotti.
Born in Bern, Switzerland, to Sicilian parents, Licitra took up his belated formal training at the music academy in Parma, Italy, where he made his stage debut in the Verdi opera Un Ballo in Maschera, in 1998. “His first real break” came later that year, said the London Guardian, when he sang the lead tenor role in that work at the Verona Arena. Within a year, famed director Riccardo Muti brought Licitra to Milan’s La Scala opera house to star in another Verdi opera.
Licitra vaulted to world stardom “with a splash in May 2002,” said The New York Times. Pavarotti was scheduled to sing two performances of Puccini’s Tosca at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but he claimed illness and canceled. The Met’s general manager, Joseph Volpe, had Licitra flown to New York on the Concorde as a last-minute stand-in. His “big, Italianate sound and full-voiced high notes—reminiscent to some of Pavarotti’s own—earned him cheers after his arias and an extended standing ovation at the end.”
There is “an element of dreadful irony” to Licitra’s tragic early death, said the London Telegraph. Motorbikes were “his abiding offstage passion,” and he died as the result of head injuries incurred when his motor scooter slammed into a wall in Sicily. Now we’ll never know Licitra’s full potential. He had “a superb voice,” and relished “the more muscular end of Pavarotti’s repertoire.” But in recent years his instrument showed “signs of wear,” leading some to doubt that Licitra would live up to comparisons with his famous compatriot. In the end, it may be neither fair nor meaningful “to write on his tombstone that he was the next Pavarotti in waiting. He was simply him. That ought to be enough.