Salvatore Licitra, a tenor who rose to fame as a last-second substitute for Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera, died on Monday in Catania, Sicily, nine days after being severely injured in a motorbike accident. He was 43.
Licitra's death was reported on his Web site, salvatorelicitra.com.
Licitra had been in a coma at Catania's Garibaldi Hospital since the Aug. 27 accident, in which he crashed his scooter into a wall near the town of Ragusa, apparently after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, according to reports in Italy’s Corriere della Sera and other newspapers. The Swiss-born singer was not wearing a helmet, while his 29-year-old Chinese girlfriend was protected by her helmet and suffered only light injuries.
The hospital in Catania where he underwent treatment confirmed that Licitra had been brain dead and his family gave permission to donate his organs, La Repubblica newspaper reported on its web site. He was to receive an award in Ragusa on Saturday.
On Twitter, the American baritone Thomas Hampson wrote, “Very sad to hear about the death of Salvatore Licitra. He was a wonderful colleague. We sang Ernani together in Zurich. RIP Salvatore.” Also on Twitter, tenor Joseph Calleja wrote, "I am gutted by the news of the passing of Salvatore Licitra. Absolutely gutted."
Licitra was born in Bern, Switzerland, to Sicilian parents, and grew up in Milan. A misguided teacher nearly ruined his voice, but his talent was reclaimed under the guidance of the tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who became his mentor. He sang chorus for a while, and then in 1998 made his solo debut in the role of Riccardo in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at the Teatro Regio in Verdi's own hometown of Parma. He was 30.
Soon followed his debut at La Scala in Milan, where in 2000 he sang in Tosca directed by Riccardo Muti. Within two years Licitra was a legend in his own time as a result of a classic "big break" story: In May 2002, with 30 minutes notice, he replaced Luciano Pavarotti in the tenor role in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera. A couple of days earlier Pavarotti -- then 66 -- had warned the Met that he might be too flu-ridden to appear at what was to have been his farewell performance. The opera house looked around for an available tenor as insurance. Licitra agreed to stand by, was flown to New York on the Concorde and walked through one rehearsal.
Licitra was a sensation, overcoming the initial disappointment of an audience that had paid $1,500 a ticket to hear Pavarotti. He got several long ovations including a five-minute solo ovation at the very end. Although New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini expressed some caveats, most notably a lack of subtlety in Licitra's singing, he pronounced him "a genuine find, an exciting tenor with a big, dark-hued and muscular voice."
In the following Met seasons, Mr. Licitra sang in Verdi’s Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, and Puccini’s Trittico and Turandot. He was to appear in the title role of Verdi’s Ernani in February but cancelled in July.
In 2007, Licitra was to star in the first half of the Met's double bill of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. But, again due to a last-minute casting change, he stepped in to the lead role in the second half as well. In an appearance on WNYC's Soundcheck afterward, Licitra reflected on his latest substitution. "It's interesting, its exciting, but I feel just a little bit strange," he said, with characteristic dry humor.
Licitra recorded a pair of albums for Sony, including a collection of duets with the Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez.
In addition to the Met and La Scala, he sang major roles at leading opera companies including the Vienna State Opera, Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper Berlin, Arena di Verona, London’s Royal Opera, Paris Opera Bastille and the opera companies of Chicago, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Licitra is survived by a brother and his parents.