The Tenor In Cowboy Boots

There aren't many men who could fill Luciano Pavarotti's shoes. But Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra seems destined to do just that. Last May, New York's Metropolitan Opera flew the 34-year-old Sicilian over on the Concorde to be on standby for Pavarotti, who had caught a flu bug before his string of scheduled farewell performances. On the night of the Met's season finale, Pavarotti canceled just before the curtain went up on Puccini's "Tosca"--and an unfazed Licitra stepped in. Four thousand ticketholders, some of whom had paid as much as $1,875 to see Pavarotti, were already in their seats. "In front of that American audience, I sang the best I could," Licitra says. "The whole audience wanted to see Pavarotti. You could hear them saying, 'Who is this Licitra?' At the end they gave me a standing ovation. It was something I will remember always: to arrive there, to perform there was a dream."

It hasn't been a dream for long. Licitra didn't begin singing until he was 19. And it was his mother who discovered him. "I was imitating something I heard on the radio, and my mother said: 'Salvatore! You can sing!'" he recalls. At the time, he was working in Milan as a graphic artist, doing page layouts for Italian Vogue and other glossy publications. He quickly switched to classical singing. In 1996 he auditioned to study with the legendary Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who taught him to utilize his voice. By 1998 Licitra was the lead for the season at the open-air arena in Verona, Italy's premier opera venue.

Onstage, Licitra's performance rivals that of any of the great Italian tenors. With his theatrical confidence and unwavering rich tones, he is being compared to Neapolitan great Enrico Caruso. But offstage he is refreshingly casual. Usually clad in cowboy boots, the maverick tenor drives a convertible and loves to swim in the open sea. "I'm not a divo," he says. "I imagine Pavarotti goes around with a scarf, very protected. I never wear a hat. I like the wind. I am convinced that when you are covered up you make yourself weak."

Licitra will face the next defining moment of his career on Jan. 23, when he makes his debut at New York's Carnegie Hall in Verdi's "La Forza del Destino"--"The Power of Fate." This time everyone in the audience will already know who he is.