COMING TO STUDY WITH ITALO TAJO

In the fall of l966, I was back at Juilliard to start my second year. One Saturday, as I was leaving the New York Public Library at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I approached the entrance to the Seventh Avenue IRT, and stopped at a news-stand. My eyes fixed on a small English magazine, Opera.

Hoping to buy it, I reached in my pocket to be sure I had a subway token. No such luck! I didn’t have enough money for it and the subway, so I picked it up for a quick look. In a section called something like “Who, What, When and Where” the name of Italo Tajo jumped off the page.

I then read a notice announcing that Tajo, a singer I greatly admired, had been appointed to head the Opera Department at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out the one dollar I had, bought the magazine and headed uptown on foot. At age 23, I was not fazed by the prospect of walking the 80 + uptown blocks to Claremont Avenue, near Broadway and 122nd Street, where I lived at International House, across from the Juilliard’s old location.

The brisk autumn air and the walk gave me clarity and time to think. In spite of the training I was receiving, and the gratitude I felt for being in such a prestigious school, I had often found myself fighting depression and loneliness. New York was cold and grey and I felt isolated.

By the time I finished dinner and got to bed that night I had resolved to somehow get to Cincinnati to study with Italo Tajo.

Early the following Monday I telephoned Cincinnati and the operator connected me to the desk of Martha Moore. In her charming Southern accent, she informed me that the school would be holding its annual New York auditions the following week, and asked if I would like to have an audition appointment.

“I would like that very much,” I replied.

The following week I went to the Baldwin Piano Studios in New York and sang for two people: Dean Jack Watson and Robert K. Evans, who accompanied me as I sang the same two arias which had been my lucky ticket to Juilliard two years before: Vecchia Zimarra from Puccini’s La boheme and Madamina (the Catalogue aria) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

After I sang, I was interviewed by Dean Watson. He first asked why in the world I would want to leave Juilliard where I had a “full-ride” scholarship, half-way through my second year.

My answer was straightforward: I wanted to study with Italo Tajo. I thanked him and Mr. Evans for their time, and left.

The acceptance letter came a week later. I would be the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship and a living stipend for room and board, courtesy of the Corbett Foundation.

Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, and now Cincinnati, a fourth home in my new country. That December I returned to Los Angeles for another Christmas with my parents, before flying to Cincinnati to begin the next chapter.

My first impression of the Queen City was not all that favorable—especially the weather. Cincinnati can be a nasty business when Mother Nature deems it so. Cold, damp air coming from the Ohio River, with lots of snow, ice and smog in those days, all was a recipe for sinus infections and nasty coughs, which I managed to acquire almost immediately.

I was told that was the usual “rite of passage” for a newcomer—especially one arriving in January. I had just been in Southern California, away from the Frozen North, and had forgotten how the sunny days and balmy breezes of Los Angeles reminded me of Havana. But, this was where I wanted to be, cold weather or not, and somehow I knew I had finally found the place where I was destined to be.

The University’s Dean of Men who owned the three story house on Scioto Street where I would be living for the next few years met me there and helped me settle in.

The house was at least 100 years old, and judging from the elaborate staircase, floors and woodwork, it had been, at some point in its history, an elegant single-family home. My apartment consisted of the entire first floor: a large living room with a huge couch and some dilapidated old furniture, and a non-working fireplace with an ornate carved mantel. There was also a bathroom with a big tub and a hand-held shower that took some getting used to. And, there was a large eat-in kitchen with some pots and pans and dishes, a desk, a wall of built-in storage, and a bed in the corner.

It was certainly unconventional, but, since coming to the States, this was more living space than I’d had anywhere else, and since there were several tall windows that filled the rooms with as much light as could be had, depending on the weather, my bachelor pad began to feel more and more like a real home.

C-CM was in the process of building a brand new complex on the main campus, and the building was nearing completion, but it was not quite ready to welcome classes. Voice lessons took place near campus on a side street filled with a series of WWII Quonset huts that sheltered some old Baldwin pianos and little else. Opera workshop was taught in a large room in the Student Union. Recitals and concerts were held anywhere on campus where a piano with 88 workable keys and some folding chairs could be had.

The Italian opera star turned voice teacher was in his mid-fifties when I met him. Italo Tajo had had an international career, singing leading and supporting bass roles in every major opera house in Europe and in the United States. He had made his debut at age 20 as Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold – years before most basses appear in leading roles, let alone as Wagnerian giants. At the time when most male singers would have been in their prime, Tajo had already lived and sung through a 35 year career of constant singing on large stages, and the fast pace had taken a toll on his health, not to mention his love of women and vino and pasta.

When I met him for the first time, I was taken aback by his physical appearance. In photographs, Maestro had the dashing looks of a movie star. His six-foot-plus, broad frame was compromised. He was suffering from severe gout, looked thin and appeared much older than his age – he was only 51 and he was walking aided by a cane.

What I saw that day did in no way dampen my enthusiasm or admiration. If anything, it increased my respect for an artist who was still pushing ahead and had a lifetime of experience to share. We spoke in Italian, and, within days I became Tajo’s translator-interpreter-assistant and, after meeting his wife, the lovely, loving Inelda, I was welcomed as a member of their extended family of students.

Cincinnati agreed with the Maestro, and by the end of that first year, he was standing upright, surrounded by his admiring students, looking vibrant and years younger. And, it wasn’t long before James Levine, another Cincinnatian, spotted him and lured him back to the Metropolitan Opera, where Tajo enjoyed a new version of his career, singing character roles to the delight of MET audiences. He continued to do that for several years, but he never lost his love for teaching and directing at C-CM.

Here is a sampling of his singing throughout a long career, ranging from his Attila and Banquo through his Figaro, Dulcamara, Leporello, and Don Basilio:

https://youtu.be/p1LHLZoNd0c UDITE O RUSTICI  (The Elixir of Love – Donizetti)
https://youtu.be/kXe24kShvwE LA CALUNNIA (The Barber of Seviile – Rossini)
https://youtu.be/KaAEwFWXtGc MENTRE GONFIARSI L’ANIMA (Attila – Verdi)
https://youtu.be/-LPpzMPEr4E TARDO PER GLI ANNI (Attila – Verdi) with baritone Giangiacomo Guelfi as Ezio
https://youtu.be/aYKCvmYymV0 COME DAL CIEL PRECIPITA (Macbeth – Verdi)
https://youtu.be/6KnQWL3BP9s MADAMINA IL CATALOGO… (Don Giovanni – Mozart)
https://youtu.be/8Vqpx0rh1W0 NON PIU ANDRAI (The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart)