Like most of southeastern Sicily, Modica’s landscape is dictated by the alternating slopes and sharp crags of the Hyblaean Mountains, which carve the comune into a series of steep and narrow streets forming upper and lower levels perfect for burning off Modican chocolate and treacherous for navigating a vehicle.
With Italy on the whole having some of the highest auto crash statistics it’s unsurprising, even in a county where any traffic-related activity takes a certain degree of sprezzatura. Helmet laws were finally enacted over a decade ago. On the first day regulations went into place, a March 31, 2000 New York Times article reported 890 tickets given by mid afternoon in Naples, and while Roman motorcycle parts store owner Maurizio Polidori reported five customers coming into his shop on the same day all holding tickets, he added that “people make a point of honor to flout the law” and didn’t expect the enforcement thereof to last long.
Yet, had tenor Salvatore Licitra been wearing his helmet when navigating the streets of Modica, he might be alive today. His risk of fatal injury was doubled without a helmet in place, and his girlfriend—who was wearing a helmet when their motor-scooter crashed into a wall—escaped with only minor injuries. A study published in 2003 on the Effect of Italy’s motorcycle helmet law on traumatic brain injuries (TBI) showed that TBI was reduced by 66 percent in motorcycle-moped crashes, and there were 31 percent fewer TBI admissions to neurosurgery thanks to the law and police enforcement.
And therein lies the outrage associated with the star tenor’s death: Maybe at the front of the bike, Licitra would have sustained more injuries than his partner even if he were wearing a helmet. It's possible that he may have still died if, as his doctors believe, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while at the wheel.
Perhaps, as his brother has stated, Licitra was only moving his scooter a few hundred yards away to park at a restaurant. Maybe his girlfriend forgot her helmet and he, acting out of chivalry, gave her his. But for a singer of Licitra’s stature, neither of these possible explanations should be excuses. He should have known better.
“There’s a really good saying in the motorcycle world, the acronym is ATGATT which is ‘All the Gear, All the Time,’” explains tenor and motorcyclist Ryan MacPherson, who wears a helmet and protective clothing each time he rides his bike. “Even in a 20-mile-per-hour crash, if you fall face first, it’s like a cheese grater.” MacPherson is quick to note, though, that even with an obsessive eye for protective gear, “you can’t prevent a deer jumping out in front of you” (an occupational hazard, particularly in areas like Glimmerglass—where MacPherson has sung—with winding roads, dangerous curves and stretches of highway without street lights).
Like all humans, opera singers take risks, even if it’s something as minor as jaywalking in New York, or more major, like smoking even while fully aware of the health risks. But for the most part, singers are smart enough to mitigate those risks while at work. Many company contracts even contain clauses that prevent singers from engaging in high-risk activities like bungee jumping, skiing or ice skating.
“If you have a show opening Friday night and…Thursday is also karaoke night and you bust your voice singing Journey all night, you’re in breach of contract. If you can do both, fine. But more than likely, you’re going to be tired and not giving your best performance,” says MacPherson. “You just play with fire when you do that sort of thing.”
Accidents happen, of course. MacPherson recounts being in St. Louis for work when a fellow singer broke his arm playing a casual game of football with several other cast members. There’s the famous case of mezzo Joyce DiDonato fracturing her fibula onstage during a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia in London and continuing the run of the show from a wheelchair.
And yes, while we may never know what actually happened at the wheel, we can assume Licitra did not deliberately steer his motor-scooter into a wall. However, it’s harder to make a case that the singer going without a helmet was as accidental.
“We have to not be singers or not be artists at some point in our life,” MacPherson says. But where does that point come? Licitra did not have an engagement in Sicily, but does that excuse him from breaking an Italian traffic law by not wearing a helmet? Is it any safer to smoke three packs a day, as Caruso once did? And is seeing a soprano belt out Starland Vocal Band the night before singing Stella in Les Contes d’Hoffmann any worse? And what of the less obvious risks that come with overextension, overworking and eventual exhaustion?
Just as a violinist wouldn’t send their Stradivarius down a ski slope, singers do have a responsibility to their instrument. It’s an even greater responsibility, too, when your body and your instrument are inextricable. Yes, Licitra’s death is sad. Yes, it’s a talent that is gone too soon. But while we can be upset, it’s dangerous to ignore the possibly preventable cause of his death. And that should make us upset in an entirely different way.
How much responsibility does a singer have to their body-instrument, and by extension their audience? Should companies have restrictions on their singers’ extracurricular activities? And, on the flip side, when does being cautious cross the line into being paranoid? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo above: City of Modica.