In Memoriam: Giorgio Tozzi

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 04:12 PM

As the news of death of the great bass Giorgio Tozzi (January 8, 1923-May 30, 2011) has begun to spread, a few people have asked me, “Where in Italy was he from?” The answer was Chicago. Tozzi was born in the same year as New Yorker Maria Callas, another artist to whom many European opera lovers have assigned a continental birth certificate. Both were Americans of immigrant background, just like President Obama. Tozzi's was an American story but, as with all of the greatest singers, he belonged to all of Planet Opera.

He attended DePaul in Chicago, to study biology. He was drawn to singing, first as a baritone, and went to study with Rosa Raisa, a soprano who also was not Italian though it was assumed she was. Her real name was Rosa Burstein and she was born in Bialystok in 1893 and died in Los Angeles in 1963. She sang in the first performances of Boito’s Nerone and Puccini’s Turandot. She had a warm flexible voice and vibrant temperament, qualities also to be found in Tozzi.

This raises the intriguing question of what happens when an older singer teaches a younger one. Are the qualities of the senior artist passed on or does the teacher bring out the characteristics already existing in the younger singer?

Tozzi continued his studies in Milan in 1950 and, from that point forward, his career included performances in leading theaters on both sides of the Atlantic.

He also became a formidable teacher, primarily at the Juilliard School and then in the renowned music department of Indiana University. He had a lot to draw on: a beautiful voice, a sensitivity to language, gesture, stage movement and interaction with his colleagues. When I hear that tired old refrain that opera singers of fifty years ago could not act (or overacted), Tozzi is one of several artists from that time who immediately comes to mind to refute that.

As an American, Tozzi was not immediately confined to Italian roles, though he performed many parts in Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini with aplomb. He was a very humane Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Miestersinger, a gripping Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust and performed Boris Godunov on NBC at a time when the reality on television included opera.

Tozzi also worked in Broadway musicals that called for an operatic component in the voice. Although it was the Italian bass Ezio Pinza who created the role of Emile LeBecque in South Pacific in 1949, Tozzi played the role often and it is his voice that dubs Rossano Brazzi in the 1958 film version. He later received a Tony award nomination for his ebullient performance as Tony in Frank Loesser’s Most Happy Fella. It is interesting that his first Broadway performance, in 1948, was in an opera: as Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.

Tozzi’s Met debut came on March 9, 1955, as Alvise in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. A look at the cast list evokes an era that Tozzi was very much a part of that is referred to as Met Family. The term is still used there, but the feeling is different. At that time the company had a core group of performers who were there for most of the season and took many roles. This Gioconda cast had Zinka Milanov in the title role, Nell Rankin (Laura), Sandra Warfield (La Cieca), Kurt Baum (Enzo), Leonard Warren (Barnaba), George Cehanovsky (Zuàne) and, in the small role of a singer, tenor James McCracken, who would marry Sandra Warfield. In that era, there were many relationships and some marriages among artists and there was a strong sense of being a large family with Rudolf Bing as a remote but omnipresent patriarch. Harriet Johnson, in the New York Post, wrote:

Giorgio Tozzi. bass, making a delayed Met debut as the revengeful Alvise, proved to have a voice of beautiful quality. Though not large, it was rich in texture and expertly handled both as to characterization and technique. In addition, he makes a handsome and imposing figure.

Tozzi sang more than 500 times for the Met in roles large and small, in many languages. It was not a given then that operas would be done in their original languages, but I would have loved to have attended opening night of the 1957-58 season, when a new production of Eugene Onegin was sung in English, with George London in the title role, Lucine Amara as Tatiana, Richard Tucker as Lensky and a young Tozzi in the older man role of Prince Gremin. The conductor was Dimitri Mitropoulos and the stage director was the now legendary Peter Brook, who is to bring A Magic Flute, his version of the Mozart opera, to the Lincoln Center Festival this summer.

Tozzi sang with most of the great stars and conductors of the era and was himself a great star. His last performance in the house was on April 19, 1975 as Colline in La Bohéme, with young Katia Riccarelli and José Carreras in the leads. He sang a few more performances with the Met on tour and continued singing for a while, though teaching became a larger part of his work.

With the passing of Giorgio Tozzi we acknowledge his great contributions to the art form but should also notice how opera has changed, in some ways for the better and in some ways not.

Did you ever see Tozzi perform? If so, post your recollections of his voice, his singing, his acting and his presence.

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Comments [15]

Branch Fields from Williamsburg, VA

I just found this today, on Giorgio's birthday, and I'm touched by all the wonderful comments. I was one of his voice students at I.U. from '92-'96 and beyond. I guess I'll always be a student of his because I learn something new about vocal technique whenever I hear him sing on his many recordings. He was such a nurturing, gracious, and knowledgable teacher, but the best way to learn from him, for me anyway, was just to imitate. I was also lucky enough to be on stage with him in Fiddler on the Roof at I.U., him as Tevye, which was a lesson in great acting. His singing voice was simply one of the best bass-baritone voices of the 20th century, and of the Golden Era of Opera, the 1950's and 60's. He had depth, deafening volume, a seemingly limitless range, but above all - Beauty. Listen to his many recordings, especially in the Italian repertoire, and you will certainly see what I mean. How lucky we were, those of us in his studio at I.U. He would invite us to dinner, or to have extra lessons at his house, and we would always have a great time. Never asked for a dime from us for lessons. He was always so kind, and so positive--a rarity in this day in our profession--and he had quite a keen sense of humor as well. But his speaking voice is what sticks with you when you miss him. It was a deep, radio announcer style, soothing bass voice--again, the kind you want to imitate. I watch the old movie South Pacific, and I see his face instead of Rossano Brazzi's. What an incredibly gifted artist he was…Happy 91st, Giorgio.

Jan. 08 2014 06:05 PM
jennifer tozzi hauser from Tampa, Fl

It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart at the same time, reading everyone's kind words. I am so thankful that I had this warm, wonderful man as my father. I miss him everyday, and I will for the rest of my life. I look forward to a reunion with him and my dear mother, Monte, in eternity.

Feb. 17 2012 10:56 AM

I had the rare privilege of meeting Georgio Tozzi and his lovely wife back in the 60's at the old Met after a performance as Phillip II in Don Carlo. We had a very amiable chat as he removed his makeup. He was as warm a personality as he was on stage, particularly in comic roles. He may not have been the meanest villain in opera, but his fine bass was always a plus. A wonderful life, singing and teaching, not to be mourned but to be treasurably remembered.

Jun. 16 2011 06:35 AM
Marcia C. Maytner from Caldwell, N.J.

I was just becoming an opera fan in the 70`s and was very fortunate to see Giorgio Tozzi many times over his long career at the Met. He was also a long time resident of Montclair and one of my greatest thrills was to meet him shopping on Valley Rd. I debated about invading his privacy, so I just smiled and mumbled something about being a huge fan. He was kind and charming as he thanked me and shook my hand. I never forgot that encounter! The last performance of his I attended was an amazing portrayal of Hans Sachs...a great way to remember this wonderful artist!

Jun. 02 2011 10:54 AM

Thanks for writing such a wonderful article about Mo. Tozzi!

I studied at IU where he was a teacher. He was an incredible teacher and wonderful mentor.

Jun. 01 2011 06:14 PM
Robert Poda

I was saddened by the passing of dear Giorgio. What a beautiful voice he had and what a variety of roles he sang. I had seen him in performances since I started going in 1958, seeing him in most of his roles. I have so many recordings with him participating in and am playing them as I write this. One performance I will relate is a New Year's Eve performance of Barbiere where he sang Basilio and Corena was Bartolo. They always worked so wonderful together, but on this occasion, during the Callunia aria, Tozzi slammed down a chair and broke it's leg. Corena kept gesturing to the broken chair and Tozzi did not miss a beat - it was a riot! We will miss him.

Jun. 01 2011 12:42 PM

I saw Giorgio Tozzi in 1979 or so

on B'way in an unsuccessful musical,

Carmelina. Not only was his vocal

gift intact, he cut a handsome figure

as the romantic lead.

Jun. 01 2011 10:31 AM
Red Goldstein from Fort Worth, TX

Short version of story- Early 1980s, I’m at my father's jewelry store, Goldstein Brothers in Fort Worth, when a barrel-chested man walks in on a Thursday. After the usual greeting to the store, I asked him about himself. He said he was in town for the opera and handed me his business card. It had no info on it other than his name ‘Georgio Tozzi’. I thought how unusual for a person to have a card with no contact info. He proceeded to tell me that he was to perform in the Fort Worth Opera production of ‘Boris Godunov’. I admitted to him that opera was a total mystery to me. He graciously offered me two tickets for the Sunday performance. I accepted…. tongue in cheek because, up til then, I had always made fun of opera! I told my dad and he sort of laughed, then thought about it and he said ‘your Aunt Joy loves opera, why not take her?’ Knowing that my wife had similar thoughts on opera as me, I decided to ask Aunt Joy to join me. You would have thought I had just given her an opportunity to meet JFK! Georgio left the tickets at will call with a note of invitation to join him in the green room afterwards. I took Aunt Joy to the show; I thought she was gonna explode with happiness as the light beamed from her face through the whole opera. Of course, we had front row seats! I sat there bored as could be with the opera, but loved watching my Aunt Joy light up. We went to the green room where Georgio lit up when he saw me. Aunt Joy nearly had a heart attack with the double pleasure of meeting Georgio and seeing him greet me like an old friend.
Must say, it was my first and only trip to the opera…just not my thing, but Aunt Joy still talks about meeting Georgio Tozzi to this day.

Jun. 01 2011 10:16 AM
Donna Oden-Parsons from Lancaster / Los Angeles

This is indeed a sad moment in my life. Georgio was my teacher and friend. I took voice from him in Hancock Park California, as well as Malibu and later I flew in to Phoenix area /Tempe. The STORIES he and Monti told were priceless.. The "cheese" and champagne they offered afterward were only topped by the incredibly funny stories they had to share! I loved the Pavarotti stories and sitting at Georgio's feet while he attempted to bring up my despair after my Dad died. Georgio & I talked about singing, the pain from the death of my father and what I was going to do for & with the rest of my life.
When they moved to Utah, I never saw him again. Forever, dear Georgio, I will honor you and miss you. Much love.. Donna Oden

Jun. 01 2011 08:14 AM
Julian Rodescu from Philadelphia

I had the privilege of studying with the great Giorgio Tozzi for many years. His kindness, patience and expertise were unmatched. His greatness was based in simplicity, and in speaking to him, you would never know that he was one of the world's great artists. He was just the nicest "man next door". My reverence for him is unbounded. Listen to his recording of the Confutatis from the Verdi Requiem (on the Reiner recording) to know that there is a kind and gentle God, one who doesn't simply thunder, but also comforts.

Jun. 01 2011 01:16 AM
Walter Rudolph

Giorgio was as grand a human being as he was an artist. We shared many personal experiences. They will remain among the most memorable of my life. I remember him at Music Circus in Sacramento in South Pacific. His Nellie Forbush twisted her ankle just before a moment of dancing between her and Emile/Giorgio. He put his arm around her waist and holding her in the air, did the dance for both of them, sparing her that awkward moment. His humility, grace and gentlemanly manner were exquisite and genuine. Thank you, Giorgio...........and Godspeed.

Jun. 01 2011 12:25 AM
Harriet Harris from Phoenix, AZ

I vividly remember his performance at the Met in Il Barbieri di Siviglia. His characterization of Don Basilio was the funniest and the most impressive I ever saw/heard. I was sitting in the last row of the balcony and his voice enveloped all the other voices in the ensemble. For me it was one of the most thrilling moments in operas I have seen.

Jun. 01 2011 12:20 AM
Valeria Girardi

I worked with Maestro Tozzi in Chicago as a young student in my early 20's at the Bel Canto Seminar. It was my first introduction to the professional opera world, and a wonderful learning experience. At the last minute, for the final orchestral concert, he moved mountains to ensure I sing the aria I was most comfortable with. At that time it was "stride la vampa." Thank you maestro for the wonderful memory, your beautiful voice, and kindness.

May. 31 2011 08:40 PM
Berta Calechman from Connecticut

Fred, among the roles I heard Tozzi sing,was a very moving Colline, at the Met.
He will be missed.
This is a beautiful tribute, expertly done.
Thank you.


May. 31 2011 08:13 PM
Jeffrey Tarlo from Jackson Heights,NY

He will be missed. I never saw him perform but his singing on records made me a fan.
When I first got interested in opera and classical music, I found in a second hand store a copy of an abridged Boris Godunov from the Metropolitan Opera book of the month club. It was my first experience with Russian opera though sung in English. I loved it and Giorgio's singing . It made me a fan, both of Boris and Giorgio.
Since that time I acquired as much of Giorgio's recording as I could. And Boris is among my very favorite operas. Thank you and Rest in Peace Giorgio.

May. 31 2011 07:02 PM

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