Tax bill that fell short by a tenor

By Norman Lebrecht, July 13, 2012

Reading the latest newspaper chase after high-profile tax avoiders, I was reminded of the ingenious dodge given to the world's greatest tenor by his Orthodox Jewish accountant. It almost landed him in jail.

Luciano Pavarotti was by some margin the highest earning opera singer in history, with record sales in excess of 100 million and a million-dollar fee every time he sang in a park. Luciano was reluctant to share his riches with the Italian taxman. So he needed to show that he lived offshore, in the tax-lite principality of Monaco.

This was common practice for the Italian ultra-rich and Luciano was able to sleep soundly in his Modena bed for many years until an ambitious local official decided to investigate the anomaly. How, he wondered, could a world-famous tenor, with a large family and horses in Modena, reasonably claim to be sleeping most nights in a bijou pad on the Corniche where a cat was measurably safe from being swung?

Luciano, sweating copiously into his enormous Hermes silk scarf, put in frantic calls to one aide after another until a frum accountant came up with a solution. "What you need in Monaco," he told the tenor, "is a shabbes zayger."

This required some explanation, since few opera singers are well versed in halachic ways and means. Luciano quickly grasped that observant Jews, forbidden to flick an electric switch on the Sabbath, installed in their homes a timer that turned lights on and off automatically at different times of day. "Oof!" he cried, smiting that mighty brow. "A goy'she kop!" Or words to that effect (I heard the story from his disaffected ex-manager, Herbert Breslin, a New Yorker not unfamiliar with hyperbole).

‘Oof!’ cried Luciano Pavorotti. ‘A goy’she kop!’

With the Shabbat clock ticking away on the Corniche, Luciano was able to enjoy more years of domestic happiness in Modena, where his formidable wife, Adua, was also his joint manager. Then, one day, the tax man decided to take a break in Monaco.

Patrolling the street beneath Pavarotti's pad, he observed that the lights came on and went off at exactly the same time each day and night (it must have been one of the more expensive Shabbat clocks). He started asking questions of the neighbours."When did you last see Maestro Pavarotti?" he queried. "Some time last century," they replied.

Next thing he knew, Luciano was in court in Modena facing a long jail sentence and an 18 million Euro fine. The trouble with being Pavarotti is that people recognise that big smile and don't forget it. The neighbours' testimony was irrefutable.

I won't bore you with details of the case. Luciano had, by 2001, left Modena to live with an assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani, who was half his age and wore horn-rimmed spectacles. In his own mind, he had never really lived in Modena, and that's what he told the court.

"My name is Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer," he announced humbly. "I do not feel guilty, and if a law says the contrary, I want everyone to know that I was acting in completely good faith."

His contrition melted the heart of justice - up to a point. Pavarotti lost the first case but won on appeal, agreeing to paying 12 million Euros in back taxes and four million in fines but escaping jail and emerging with his great, big smile unbroken.

Herbert Breslin died a couple of months back and I cannot vouch for every detail in his story (you never could with Herbert). But, as Luciano would have put it, si non e vero, e ben trovato. Which Herbert would have rendered as "not every fish is gefilte".

Be that as it may, there is a lesson to be learned from this incident, which almost landed an immortal artist in jail. The moral, as any good rabbi will attest, is: don't use a halachic hedge to get you off a tax charge.

Norman Lebrecht is a writer and broadcaster

Last updated: 11:11am, July 13 2012