Whatever 34-year-old tenor Salvatore Licitra accomplishes during the rest of his career, his biography will certainly mention the day last May when he flew to New York from Italy, headed straight for the Metropolitan Opera and stepped in for a languishing Luciano Pavarotti.
The performance he gave as Cavaradossi in Puccini's "Tosca" left many in the gala audience feeling that they had witnessed something more important than an aging superstar's farewell: a young superstar's debut.
Licitra returns to New York Thursday for a concert performance of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" with the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall.
But even though he has spent only a cumulative few hours on the city's stages, he is a local celebrity and marketing phenomenon. Sony Classical rushed out a recital album called "The Debut" last summer, prompting cautiously respectful reviews and an avalanche of articles discussing his claim to Pavarotti's mantle.
Licitra's dramatic heft is one reason for his success. His nationality is another. The phrase "Italian tenor" has the ring of deluxe authenticity, like "Persian carpet" or "Russian caviar," but these days, few of the tenors who sing the great Italian roles are actually from Italy.
Licitra boasts Sicilian extraction and Milanese speech, as well as pewter-flecked hair, blue eyes and a beard styled in the manner of a Renaissance duke. He also sounds Italian, with a warm, pliant voice, gleaming top notes and an apparent naturalness acquired through years of labor.
Licitra, who spent most of his 20s running a small graphics studio to pay for what looked like increasingly pointless voice lessons, admits to being entranced with his new fame.
"Who wouldn't envy me?" he said during his last visit to New York in the fall. "Every once in a while, I stop to look at myself in the mirror, and I say, 'Porca miseria,' " -- an Italian expression that translates literally as pig misery! "I'm not doing badly."