Remembering Italo Tajo (April 25, 1915-March 28, 1993)

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In the fall of l966, I was back for my second year at Juilliard.  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 Ave. IRT, and stopped at a newsstand.  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 Italo 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 School’s old location.

The brisk autumn air and the walk gave me clarity and time to thinkIn 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 the College-Conservatory of Music 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 the vocal coach Robert K. Evans, who accompanied me as I sang the same two arias which had been my lucky ticket to Juilliard two years before. 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. 

The Italian opera star turned Maestro was in his mid-fifties when I met him. Maestro 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, singing of all things, Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold—years before most basses appear in a leading role.  At the time when most male singers would have been in their prime, he had already lived through a 35 year career of constant singing on large stages, and the fast pace had taken a toll on his vocal health.

When I met him for the first time, I was taken aback by his physical appearance.  In photographs, the Maestro had the dashing looks of a movie star, but he was now suffering from severe gout, looked thin and appeared much older than 53. He walked aided by a cane. But 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 forging 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, 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 CCM.

Italo Tajo’s career was interesting and diversified. While he did take on some of the “big” bass parts – Mephistopheles, King Phillip, Attila – he was at his best in comic roles to which he could bring his acting skills: Mozart’s Figaro and Leporello, Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Don Pasquale, and Rossini’s Don Basilio. And he knew when to say no to a part for which he felt unsuited. He once shared with me how on a cruise ship on a transatlantic crossing Toscanini asked him to sing the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff. Tajo thanked the conductor saying he could not accept his kind offer, as the baritone role lay too high for him.

Italo Tajo was a great singing actor for whom mere good vocalism could never be a substitute for the sum total of the singing actor’s skills. For his artistry and for his generous and nurturing mentorship he lives in the collective memory of many of us who were so fortunate to get to work with him.

Here are several You Tube links of Tajo’s singing. Enjoy.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts