November 6, 2009 / 1:33 AM / 8 years ago

Muhammad Ali's former brand maker takes on opera

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Anyone approaching Harlan Werner’s multi-level Hollywood home during a weekday morning is likely to be greeted by the rousing sounds of a classically trained tenor exercising his unique voice.

<p>Argentine tenor Carlos De Antonis (R) practices, as his manager Harlan Werner watches, in Los Angeles October 29, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>

This unexpected welcome to the leafy neighborhood provides a clear-cut clue that Werner, after two decades of working with boxing great Muhammad Ali, has embarked on a very different chapter in his life as a brand and image maker.

Werner, a long-haired Californian who would not look out of place strumming a bass guitar for a seventies-style rock group, first met Ali at the age of 18.

The pair struck up an immediate bond, and Werner launched a long business relationship with the three-time world heavyweight champion on a simple handshake.

“I can make you big again. I have a plan,” Werner recalled of his surprisingly confident approach to the iconic Ali in 1986. Ali’s immediate response was: “Kid, stick with me. I’ll take care of you.”

That handshake paved the way for Werner to handle Ali’s life rights and marketing rights for the next 20 years while he also represented retired sporting greats such as baseball’s Sandy Koufax and American footballers Joe Namath and Jim Brown.

Three years ago, however, the working relationship with Ali changed.

“In 2006, Muhammad Ali and his wife sold his life rights and marketing rights to another company and my role as agent changed,” Werner told Reuters.

“It was very much diminished. I still had a consulting role but it pretty much changed. Muhammad Ali was 50 percent of my time and 70 percent of my revenues.”

NEW CHALLENGE

Werner has since linked up with Argentine tenor Carlos De Antonis, a larger-than-life character who speaks eight languages and sings in at least as many different styles.

De Antonis has carved out a successful career, mainly in musicals and opera, in his native South America and also in Europe. Helped by Werner, he is now trying to make a name for himself in the United States.

“After more than 20 years of working and giving my heart and soul to doing mainly one thing, I really wanted a new challenge. I wanted something different,” Werner said.

Asked why he had veered off in such a different direction, Werner replied: ”The music world was something I was interested in, I just had not found the right fit and the right situation.

”Someone then gave me some music to listen to. I heard the first song and immediately got goose bumps.

”My friend then said to me: ‘Well you need to meet this guy because he is a real character’. So I ended up going to Milan and met Carlos at his house. He was wearing this long black silk gown and he came out with cookies and tea saying welcome.

“I looked to him and said: ‘You need to be in Hollywood’. Those were the first words I said to him and I spent the next six months trying to convince him that I was dead serious (about working together).”

De Antonis, who now lives with Werner whenever he returns to Los Angeles from Europe, had his own answer when friends queried why he would want to be represented in the U.S. by someone with a background in sport.

”I am a sportsman too,“ he said. ”Every day, I am fighting to survive, to grow and to enrich my art. I need to train. I go to my gym, but it’s another gym -- for the voice. There’s always something to learn -- new techniques, new technology.

CONQUERING FANS

“And just like a sportsman, every day you need to conquer your fans.”

De Antonis, who studied music in Argentina under the guidance of maestros such as Andres Risso, Oscar Ruiz and Natalia Biffis, enjoys singing in a variety of styles ranging from classical and opera to Broadway musicals and pop.

Although record companies in the U.S. have advised the flamboyant Argentine to specialize in one singing style, Werner vehemently disagrees.

“I didn’t bring Carlos to America to focus on one thing because I saw in him so many talents,” he said. “I wanted to be able to share all of these with the American public. Carlos is a true showman with the talent to back it up.”

The multi-faceted abilities of De Antonis were showcased during a charity event for Ali in Phoenix two years ago, prompting Hollywood actor and comedian Billy Crystal to say: “This guy is a cross between Pavarotti and Liberace.”

While De Antonis strives to realize his American dream, Werner is still coming to terms with the very foreign world of musicals and opera.

”In music, it’s a more closed world, a world that has been set,“ said Werner, who is chief executive of Sports Placement Service. ”There is protocol, there is a formula and people don’t deviate too much from the formula.

”If you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, if you open up your mouth when you are not supposed to, you wait. Even if it costs money, you wait.

”But in sports, if you have the talent, you get the phone calls. There is no game playing. Everyone is fighting to get the best player to win, and they want to win at any cost.

“If I have a pitcher who throws 100 miles an hour and is 19 years old, I‘m going to get a private plane sent to me, I‘m going to get everybody phoning me 24/7. They’re going to do whatever it takes to sign that guy.”

Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com

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