THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, MAYBE

Phineas Taylor Barnum lives. Well, sort of.

You remember old P.T.? He was the impresario to end all impresarios. At least that is what they thought at the time--the time in question being the second half of the 19th Century.

An inveterate Connecticut Yankee, he began his illustrious career touring, exhibiting and exploiting an unfortunate woman called Joyce Heth. Barnum advertised her as George Washington's 160-year-old nurse.

He went on, very profitably, to make a household name of a midget named Tom Thumb. He capitalized on a fleeting mania for exotic Tyroleana by introducing to the grateful States a much celebrated and well ballyhooed ensemble called the Swiss Bell Ringers. Nobody seemed to care, or know, that the Ringers came from Lancashire, England.

He turned the Crystal Palace in New York into a Grand Musical Congress. Populism in the arts be blessed.

In 1850, he broke all records parading the soprano Jenny Lind around the land for 95 concerts in 19 cities, to the then-incredible box-office tune of $712,161.34.

His taste could be questioned by elitists, scholars, critics and other civilized observers. But there was no doubting his inspired and imaginative penchant for hyperbole, his tireless ability to manipulate publicity, his uncanny knack for sensation simulation--and stimulation.

He was, clearly, a man ahead of his time.

Enter Herbert H. Breslin, the Barnum of the modern world. A few short decades ago, Breslin kept body and soul together by writing speeches for executives at the Chrysler Corp. When this began to bore him, he started his own firm, a firm that would help sell soaps, hats, engineers, even music.

Eventually, he persuaded some famous artists--mostly singers--that they needed his services as an advertising specialist and public-relations maven. Before long he was helping--at least temporarily--to package the American careers of such luminaries as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto, not to mention Itzhak Perlman and Alicia de Larrocha.

He was good at his business and, let no one be fooled, it was a business. He knew how to advance his clients. Not incidentally, he also knew how to advance their commercial Svengali.

"I'm a pretty good promoter of myself," he admitted in an article published several years ago.

Enter a talented, personable, engaging, moderately popular Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti. Breslin became his manager. The universe changed virtually overnight.

"Isn't it nice when a Pavarotti comes along?" Breslin once asked an interviewer in San Francisco. "And isn't it nice when a guy who makes it happen is a pretty good guy himself?"

For most practical purposes, the dauntless Breslin turned the susceptible Pavarotti into the Caruso of our day. When that began to pall, Breslin somehow convinced the world that Pavarotti was the greatest tenor in the history of Western Civilization.

No. The greatest tenor in history. Period.

No. The greatest singer.

No. The greatest artist.

No. The greatest anything.

"The general methodology of the classical music business," Breslin explained, "is like any other business. People say you don't sell art the same way as you sell a product, but you do.

"The goal is to have Pavarotti's music, his art, his services desired. There's an exchange of his art for something else. . . . I work with the hard sell, if necessary. You use anything you can to sell an artist."

It was Breslin who invented the Pavarotti love-in, a public appearance masquerading as a concert. It was Breslin who took Pavarotti out of the paltry opera houses and ordinary concert halls--no money in those tiny places--and plunked him down in the mammoth sports arenas.

Who cared if the acoustics were awful, if microphones reduced the human sound to echo-ridden, distorted blasts?

Who cared if the world's greatest anything was singing badly, singing too much or singing music that was unsuitable for his basically lyric voice? Who cared if he was squandering his art on junky music? He was communicating with the masses, wasn't he?

Breslin gave the masses a stuffed superhero, in person, big as life (in this case that was very big). He supervised the creation of a popular image: the unconventional romantic idol perspiring, beaming, emoting, blowing kisses, alternately clutching and waving his quaint white tablecloth.

Bellowing beneath the beer signs and the scoreboards in a basketball stadium wasn't totally fulfilling, of course.

That must be why Breslin went on to place his boy in a dubious autobiography, in fancy coffee-table books, in commercials, in crossover appearances with the anachronistic likes of Loretta Lynn, in a whole catalogue of recordings, in not-so-special television specials and talky talk-shows, in flashy parades and bizarre charity bazaars, even--and this has been the only flop in the breathless success saga--in a gauche Hollywood movie.

"When you have ballyhoo, you gotta substantiate it with something," Breslin declared in 1981. "Is Luciano Pavarotti's publicity too much? I don't know what's too much."

There's the rub.

Is there life after Pavarotti? The legendary tenorissimo is 51 now. His years as a top-priority commodity must be numbered. He isn't exactly husbanding his resources. The public, like la donna , is mobile .

Not to worry. P.T. Breslin has another plan. Sit tight, kids. You ain't heard nothin' yet.

"I'm very into arenas these days," the with-it impresario recently told Will Crutchfield in a fascinating New York Times article.

The Pavarotti extravaganzas, it seems, have led to new, bigger and, er, bigger, projects that will bring musical culture to hockey rinks and perhaps even beyond. The mighty Breslin has two new, earth-shattering concepts on his drawing board.

One is a cast-of-thousands production--yes, production --of Handel's once-sacred oratorio, "Messiah." It will employ actors, dancers, singers, instrumentalists, supernumeraries, laser lights and, in one grand finale, angels swooping down from the ceiling.

Repeat: Angels swooping down from the ceiling.

The other Breslin brainstorm is a one-night compression of Wagner's "Ring des Nibelungen," the four-opera cycle reduced to a 70-minute first act and an 80-minute second act. The added attractions--perhaps primary attractions--here are to include such inspirations as a quasi-porno show and, near the end, a genuine conflagration.

Breslin promises his public a bona-fide trial by sex and fire. Give 'em what they want!

It would be unfair to dilute his own prose on these complex subjects. In this instance, any journalistic paraphrase would represent a disservice to the source.

The Breslin handle on Handel, as reported in the New York Times:

"We call it 'Messiah for an Arena.' What we will have is a simulated church--light poles, which produce and project light in every direction, enclosing a church situation.

"The supernumeraries will carry out the action of what is being sung, while the chorus and soloists are stationary. Their sound will be carried throughout the hall. We don't call it amplification . We call it sound transfer , a computerized transfer of voice and sound."

Subtle distinctions.

"We are still researching this in terms of sound lasers and choreography, but several arenas have expressed interest. . . . Many arenas are looking for classical events. They feel they will be attracting a very important public. . . . The world of opera appeals to the very substantial money people. . . ."

This is opera?

The designer for the "opera" is to be a veteran theatrical decorator, Rouben Ter-Arutunian. His sketch for the end of Act I clearly conceptualizes "angels falling from heaven." To conduct the concoction, Breslin says he wants to engage Sir Georg Solti, a recent addition to his roster of clients. Reached in London, the distinguished maestro suggested to this writer that the arrangement is anything but definite.

"Herbert Breslin did mention this to me," Solti acknowledged, "but, as it was an idea in theoretic and embryonic form, I felt, and still feel, unable to make any constructive comment."

According to the New York Times, Breslin's ideas for his "Ringlet" are no less interesting than his visions of the "Messiah."

"For the love duet (in 'Die Walkuere'), we would have two of the most beautiful people you could imagine literally making love on the floor."

Angels on the roof. Fornicators on the floor. With this sort of verisimilitude, one shudders at the prospect of what Breslin might do when it comes time for the evil Hagen to kill Siegfried.

Supernumeraries come cheap. Could this little Wagnerite's Digest be the first genuine snuff opera?

And what, we wonder, will the mighty Breslin do for the pyrotechnics of Wotan's Farewell?

The New York Times tells us: "What we plan is literally to set fire to the floor of the arena."

With ideas like that, hundreds of thousands of not-so-vicarious music-lovers could share the transfiguring ecstasy of Bruennhilde's immolation, not to mention the heat. Still, one worries about some other incidental effects, such as the successive moment when the Rhine overflows its banks and drowns just about everyone from Valhalla to Nibelheim.

To Breslin, it is probably just a technicality.

"There's a very exciting feeling in the world of opera," Breslin tells Crutchfield, "about attempting--without destroying its content--to give opera a reinterpreted form using the most advanced technologies. I think we should try those things, because you have to admit there isn't much going on in the way of creating new operas."

At least one critical curmudgeon will admit no such thing, but we digress.

Breslin claims to have engaged the interest of the administrators in charge of the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Madison Square Garden in Fun City, Wembley Stadium in London and the Bercy Arena in Paris.

"These arena productions," he explains, "are so expensive--over a million dollars--that I have to line up a consortium of arena managers . . . to contribute to the studies and then finance the actual productions."

Like most visionaries, Breslin cannot afford to worry about such fleeting vexations as cultural myopia or humility. He obviously bristles, for instance, when a reporter has the temerity to question his taste.

"Frankly, that's very old-fashioned. Television is where it's at."

What about the old-fashioned, fossilized means of presenting music in ordinary concert halls and traditional opera houses?

Another quote from the Big Apple settles the question. "No matter how much anyone doesn't like it, it ain't the way it used to be."

Like his illustrious forebears Sam Goldwyn and Sol Hurok, the man has a way with words.

"There are other elements now," he says. "Success, money, TV, records, a career. That's what is the music world today."

And who rules, or roasts, the contemporary musical roost?

"The other managements are terrified of this office. The reason is that Herbert is very smart," proclaims Herbert in the other Times.

"I have enormous powers of concentration. I have done more in this business than anyone has. Without my knowledge of the repertory and everything in the world of music, I would be nowhere. It's authority. It's something to be feared, really."

In concocting what he will no doubt call the greatest musical show on Earth, Breslin has nothing to fear but fear itself. Of course, Handel, Wagner et al. may not invariably thank him for his gargantuan efforts.

But that's show biz.

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