In Memoriam: Giorgio Tozzi

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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.