REMEMBERING ITALO TAJO

ITALO TAJO (April 25, 1915-March 28, 1993)

This year I had my birthday two days before that of my beloved Maestro, and his “natalizio” completely slipped up on me. So, I am re-posting this and sharing it with all those friends who remember him and, even better, those who might not.

There are not many of us left who remember the Maestro from his days at CCM… For the few who do, here is a memory of his great career via photographs and my personal memory of him.

I was an eager young bass-baritone in my early 20’s and in search of both my voice and my own self when I met him in person.

I already knew Italo Tajo as the great artist he was. Getting to know him as a person took the better part of the remaining three years that I was in his studio at CCM, during which he became a mentor, a friend, and a surrogate father figure.

I had been studying at Juilliard for a couple of years, and I loved my voice teacher Marion Szekely-Freschl. Had it not been for one of those things that for lack of a better word we call “a coincidence” I would have remained living and studying in NYC.

But it was my good fortune that CCM was willing to have me as a voice major and one of the first students assigned to Tajo’s studio. So, after auditioning for CCM in NYC and being accepted to CCM I left Juilliard mid-way through my second year there.

I had studied Romance languages at L.A. City College, including Italian, which I had learned to speak decently, and Italian was the language which the Maestro and I at first used as our sole means of communication, so that from voice pupil, I moved on to interpreter-assistant-student and frequent dinner guest at the Tajo’s home, where the saintly Mrs. Tajo, known to all of us as Inelda cooked one glorious meal after another for us starving young hopeful artists-in-training.

Tajo learned to sing well early in life so that by age 20 he made his professional debut singing Fasolt in Wagner’s “L’oro del Reno” (Das Rheingold in Italian) with Fritz Busch conducting. That led to a great career that took him over the next 30 years all over the world. But by age 51, which is when I became his student, his health was failing, he was doubled over with gout, and his voice was in shreds.

In Cincinnati the Maestro found an artistic and personal home, a loving circle of friends, a good doctor, and a new lease on life.

Tajo, as I believe all who knew him will agree, did not teach vocal technique. He was a singing actor who deeply believed that the “parola scenica” (the words being sung) held supremacy over the notes that they accompanied. His method was to go off of the words and, in his words, “trovare la tua via” (“find your way”.)

What I learned from Tajo during those three years made a profound difference in the path I followed in the arts. By the time I left CCM I was committed to being a stage director, which is exactly what I ended up doing for the next 46 years of my life, outside of some detours. Tajo taught and directed the old-fashioned way: “bisogna farlo in questa maniera” (“it has to be done this way.”) He did little talking about motivations or sensorial or emotional memory or psychology. Instead, Tajo found the character from the outside-in.

Watching him transform himself into the drunken Galitsky in Prince Igor or the old codger in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale were lessons unto themselves. Watching some of those old videos of him as Don Basilio or Dulcamara or even the usually faceless Raimondo in Lucia or listening to his Leporello (opposite Giuseppe Taddei as the Don) or Figaro in the old Cetra recording, or Attila or Banquo (opposite Callas) in old, pirated recordings became for me invaluable tools in a lifetime in the performing arts.

The way things happen in real life and stage life, we and the Tajos lost contact during more than three decades, outside of the obligatory birthday or Christmas greeting. Our ladies were much better at this, and it was Inelda, in fact, who phoned me in March of 1993, weeks before what would have been his 78th birthday to let us know that the Maestro had died. She asked if I would give the eulogy at his memorial service. Within a couple of days, I was on a plane to Cincinnati.

To this day, many years later, I cherish the memory of my friendship with Maestro Tajo, and celebrate his legacy as both a great mentor and an extraordinary artist who taught by example the value of not merely making a nice sound, but the equal if not greater worth of doing something meaningful with the words that are accompanied by that sound.

Dunque, ancora una volta, caro Maestro, vi saluto

Above: Italo Tajo in his early 30’s. Italo Tajo as Alcindoro in La Boheme in his 70’s

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