Now that WQXR’s Operavore stream has introduced its new Throwback Thursdays focus on great singers of the past, I am pleased that Italian baritone Tito Gobbi (1913-1984) was among the first to be chosen for the spotlight. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen speaking to Dan Quayle in 1988, “I knew Tito Gobbi. Tito Gobbi was a friend of mine.”
As this article is published, I am in Chicago to attend La Clemenza di Tito. He enjoyed plays on words and beguiling coincidences. In 1973, I met Tito at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when I was a college freshman and he was directing Tosca (and playing Scarpia) in a production conducted by Bruno Bartoletti and also starring Teresa Kubiak and Franco Tagliavini. He directed (and often starred in) numerous productions at the Lyric between 1965 and 1979.
I was thrilled to meet him and he took a generous interest in me as a young man with a clear love of opera and, even more, of Italy. I told him I soon intended to move to his country for study and he made sure I knew how to find him. He and the Lyric’s wonderful Ardis Krainik, who later became general director of the company, were the two key figures in helping me make my way into the thrilling but often perplexing world of Italian opera houses.
Tito became one of my teachers in Italy, just outside of Florence. He had wound down his singing and was devoting more time to teaching young singers and – to a group I was part of – stage direction and production. He understood that drama in an opera performance came not only from acting, but from the study and rehearsal a singer does with the music, the words and colleagues. While Verdi and Piave could provide the music and words for the character of Rigoletto (right), it was the singer’s job to discover multiple yet specific meanings in them.
And, for Tito, it was the job of the stage director to understand the music and the words (yes, the music too, something many directors today do not do) and illuminate this for the singers, guiding them toward giving the most truthful and complete performances individually but also as part of the larger whole that was the production itself, which was the responsibility of both the stage director and the conductor.
People who saw Tito perform often remarked that he did not have the greatest voice but was an unparalleled actor and vocal actor. He knew how to use his voice in service of his roles. Tito was what the Italians call un’istrione, an actor (who in this case was an opera singer) who could command a stage and electrify an audience through the use of his body, through gesture, but especially through the colorings of his voice and the mastery of the subtleties of the Italian language. Istrione would be badly translated into English as “histrionic,” which we would take to mean hammy and overwrought. That was not Tito.
Gobbi built his famous portrayals in several ways. He studied the music and text, of course, but also tried to understand the motivations that would make someone such as Falstaff (right), Iago or Scarpia do what he does. He had studied law at the University of Padua before switching to music, and used the notion of intent drawn from the law to analyze why his characters behave as they do, no matter how awful. He once pressed his thumb deep into my shoulder, stood close and stared in my eyes and said, “Fred, the most important thing is to become the character, not to judge him.” My shoulder was sore for a couple of hours after, but I know he did that to make an impression in more ways than one.
He also was a very talented artist who made wonderful drawings and facial caricatures that were a tool for him to develop a character. It made him think about gesture, posture, costuming, and makeup. For example, he used his art to sort out how Rigoletto would move with the hump on his back or how Falstaff would stand to proudly display his abdomen (which the character calls his regno–kingdom or domain).
Last fall some of his art was exhibited at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, where I lead a series called Adventures in Italian Opera. Superb musicians join me to teach the art form and discuss ideas that do not receive much attention elsewhere. I had the excellent maestro James Conlon on Oct. 24, 2013, the 100th anniversary of Gobbi’s birth. Conlon conducted at the Met in 1978 when Tito directed Tosca with Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti and Cornell MacNeil. There is a video of this performance on Decca that includes a discussion about Scarpia between Gobbi and MacNeil. At NYU, Conlon and I used the occasion to talk about what made Tito so special.
Tito died of cancer on March 5, 1984, so we have just observed the 30th anniversary of his passing. I had written to him about three months earlier, unaware that he was ill. As was often the case in our discourse, we might have begun with opera but then moved to sports, cinema and art before inevitably arriving at food. He knew that subject well and was very proud of the white asparagus from his home town of Bassano del Grappa.
About a month after Tito died, I received a note from his wife Tilde. She told me that he spent his last days dealing with messages and tying up loose ends. This did not surprise me as he was very detailed and thorough. Tilde said that, from what she could tell, the last note he was working on was to me and that he had typed a recipe in English for me to have. I am glad to publish it here as he had sent it to me, including the title with his play on words.
Tito Gobbi’s “Luncheon Package Deal for One”
5 drops olive oil
Slice of toasted and buttered bread
Slice of prosciutto
Slice of fresh tomato
Salt and pepper
Slice of mozzarella cheese
Slice of toasted and buttered bread
Slice of fresh tomato
Salt and pepper or seasoning salt
2 slices of mozzarella cheese, out of which you have cut a disc in the center 1 inch in diameter
Put the olive oil in the center of a square-foot sheet of aluminum foil and pile up the other ingredients, except for the egg. Lift the foil all around the toast. Drop a fresh egg in the cheese hole. Join and twist the four corners of the foil and bake in a preheated 375˚F (190˚C) oven for 30 minutes. Serve as is.
Tune in to the Operavore stream on Thursday to hear Tito Gobbi in the following selections:
Puccini's Madama Butterfly: "Addio, fiorito asi"
Puccini's Tosca: "Tre sbirri, una carrozza"
Verdi's Rigoletto: "Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta"
Verdi's Falstaff: "Tutto nel mondo e burla"
Rossini's Barber of Seville: "Largo al factotum"