Backache, Barber and Bing
By Giorgio Tozzi, edited by Walter B. Rudolph at the author’s request
During my early years as a young singer in Chicago I was interested in three languages: English, Italian and French. I understood those languages. I could read them and get along speaking them fairly well. The one language that I was unprepared for was German. That was not because I had an inherent bias against it. I had simply never been exposed to it. I was taught very few pieces in German. And there were so many songs and arias I could sing in the languages with which I was familiar.
Pronunciation of languages was not much of a problem because I always had an affinity for mimicking spoken sounds that I was
taught to say. Having been born in the United States, I of course spoke English [note: his given name was George John Tozzi]. I heard my family speaking Italian and naturally had a knowledge of it. One of my fondest childhood memories was of my father sitting me on his lap and explaining to me in Italian the illustrations that I would point to in his old illustrated Italian dictionary.
Then, too, my entertainment center as a child was an RCA gramophone, an oak-wood square box containing a spring driven turntable with crank on the side, all surmounted by a metal lily-shaped horn. It was the same as the one “Nipper,” the RCA black-eyed dog, listened to so intently (or is it quizzically?) with cocked ear.
My parents had quite a few recordings of operatic arias and Italian songs sung by such luminaries as Caruso, Ruffo, Battistini, Bonci, Tetrazzini and others of that glorious era. And so my ear was inundated with the Italian language as well as those glorious voices.
As for French, I studied two years of French at De Paul Academy, as well as two years of Latin, all of which geared me toward the Romance languages.
In Italy everything I sang was in Italian. I even remember singing the role of Pogner in I Maestricantori di Norimberga (in Italian of course). That was in Genoa around 1951. Actually, that was my first exposure to a complete Wagner opera in which I performed. I still have the Italian score and at this moment can hardly believe I did it. We had very little rehearsal time, but in spite of it, the performance went remarkably well. Maestro Franco Capuana was the conductor. I was very impressed with him, particularly because he was extremely efficient in his use of rehearsal time. He got excellent results with minimum effort on everyone’s part.
When Rudolf Bing asked me to sing Pogner at the Met for the 1956-57 season, I told him I’d rather not. “Why not?” he asked.
“Because I don’t know the language. I don’t speak German,” I answered.
“But it’s a beautiful opera and your voice would sound wonderful in it,” he pursued. “Besides, we will see to it that you have as many coaching sessions as you need.”
To make a long dialogue short, he talked me into it. He had a quite a way of doing that – just ask one of my colleagues. And so I learned it and found that singing German was quite easy. I didn’t have to change anything in my vocal technique. The pronunciation came easily enough. In fact, many were surprised at how good it really was. I made it a point to have the text translated literally so that I could grasp the idiomatic sense of the language. This would make it easier for me to deliver the lines more convincingly. The fact that the coaches with whom I studied the role had grown up in Germany, spoke German as their native tongue, and coached extensively in German opera houses, made it all possible for me.
The coaches at the Met were wonderful. During World War II the United States acquired a wealth of musicians, as well as practitioners of other disciplines, who had to flee from Germany. The Met had the good fortune to have Jan Behr, Walter Taussig, Martin Rich and Julius Berger, to name a few. I had the very good fortune to work with and learn from these excellent opera coaches.
When it came time for me to debut as Pogner, I felt very much at home with the role, thanks to those wonderful coaches. Fortunately, I enjoyed good success, and as a result I sang it for several seasons. Fortunate also, was the happy circumstance that the baritone performing the role of Hans Sachs was often the great Paul Schoeffler. His interpretation made a lasting impression on me. It was so warmly human as to almost bring the real Hans Sachs back to life. I thought that his rendition was a living definition of a singing actor.
I sort of knew that I had been accepted by my colleagues as a bonafide singer of the part when I would hear them in the halls and dressing rooms trying to emulate the way I sang the phrase, Eva, mein einzig Kind, zur Eh’ with a high F on the word ‘Eva.’ (They would explain to me that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”) That phrase comes as the climax and final statement, in Pogner’s address to the Mastersingers’ Guild, announcing his daughter’s hand in marriage as the grand prize of their Midsummer Night’s festival song competition. It was heartwarming for me to note how the singers who performed the roles of the Meistersingers really found a comradeship rehearsing and performing the opera. The Met during that time seemed to me to be a family. And as in most families sibling rivalry will occur. But in spite of familial clashes, there was the spirit of teamwork and general appreciation of a job well done among its members.
The production of Meistersinger at that time was ancient. The backdrops were magnificently painted and, when properly lit, gave the impression of great depth. But, as with all time-worn things, its age began to show. What really had brought home to me the antiquity of the production were the costumes. The heavy velvet 16th century replicas seemed at times to bear the time-laden weight of their former wearers’ secretions, especially the fur trim. The heat of the stage lights on the heavy material would produce copious perspiration, which in turn would trigger profuse vapors of cleaning fluid to irritate the napes and nostrils of all the singers.
I remember a very torturous experience with those costumes when, on the annual spring tour in Dallas, Texas we did a matinee performance of Meistersinger.
The outside temperature was in the 90 plus degree range. However, the stimulation of the score of that magnificent opera overrode the discomfort of wearing that battle-scarred apparel.
After Pogner, I was asked to sing the role of Daland in Wagner’s opera, “Der fliegende Holländer.” Once more, I found myself on stage with one of the most outstanding performers of the central role of an opera. The role of the ill-fated Dutchman was performed by George London, an artist who always brought total conviction and drive to every role he undertook. As a sumptuous bonus, the soprano role of Senta was magnificently sung by Leonie Rysanek. To share the stage with two such protagonists was wildly exhilarating. The Daland-Dutchman duet in the first act with George was a vocally great artistic experience, as it always is when one shares the stage with very intense performers. George imparted a haunting quality to the Dutchman, physically and vocally. His world-weary seaman was still alive and human enough to feel profound anguish of his damned soul. Leonie Rysanek was equally intense. She canonized the obsessed Senta, emphasizing her sacrifice. Those two magnificent voices soared, as did the music.
The Dutchman performances had generally fine casts. I remember particularly the Steuerman of George Shirley. He sang it so effortlessly, yet with constant energy. He was a very versatile tenor who brought impeccable musicianship to everything he sang. He was an ideal colleague, always supportive and always a gentleman. I had the good fortune to perform on stage with him many times and it was always a pleasure.
By now I started to feel very much at home singing German, although I was not conversant with the language. I did have the patience to practice by rote, but I also always made sure that I knew the translation of the text, word for word. This way I was familiar enough with the idiomatic scheme of the language to sing every phrase meaningfully. Naturally, much of the credit goes to the fine, patient coaches with whom I worked. I had to cope with the problem of trying to keep up with an ever-increasing request to learn new roles, something that all artists growing in reputation face. Even established artists can face that challenge. It’s not as though there was a paucity of basses and bass-baritones at the time. Quite the contrary; the Met could proudly and rightfully boast of a low voice roster that included such stellar performers as Cesare Siepi, Jerome Hines, and George London, each a fine artist in his own right. It’s just that I was, in a way, the “new kid on the block” and since Bing liked my qualities, he was eager to use me as much as possible. Since my voice was never fatigued after any performance, I felt that I could handle the assignments I agreed to. And so it went.
I also did the role of Don Ferrando in Beethoven’s Fidelio and later, that of Rocco in the same opera. Other German roles such as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde and Gurnamanz in Parsifal eventually came along, too.
But my most ambitious venture into the realm of German opera came about as a surprise to me and, in fact, to many of my friends and acquaintances. The circumstances that led to it were peculiar indeed. Perhaps I am dramatizing the tale, but don’t things occur in everyone’s lives that, willy-nilly, make us come to a fork in the road? Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees, was reported to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” A simple, committed, noncommittal philosophy. That makes about as much sense as the way we make many choices in life. Some are thought out, some aren’t. Some work and others don’t.
In June of 1966 I performed in a production of South Pacific in a huge capacity tent at Hillside, a suburb of Chicago. It was theater in the round, a form which I always found stimulating because of the proximity to the audience and the challenge of working in a 360 degree area of communication. This type of theater is in the shape of a bowl, with the audience all around the sides and the circular stage in the center. In order for the performers to enter and exit, five ramps, which are also the aisles, slope down to the stage. It is somewhat similar to the architectural format of an athletic stadium.
Mary Martin & Giorgio Tozzi in “South Pacific”
This particular adventure offered me some less- than-pleasant surprises. One was the angle of those ramps, which seemed, at times, almost perpendicular. A few more degrees of slant and one would have had to be a very canny mountain goat to negotiate them. A funicular would have been most welcome.
The second surprise was the traffic noise from a nearby highway. This din was compounded by the flight path to O’Hare Airport.
Singing in a tent theater is similar to any outdoor performance insofar as the possibility of place and traffic noise is concerned. Location is crucial in affording a relatively noiseless environment. This particular locale must have been selected as ideal for rock concerts, since the noise from such an event would have prompted both air and ground traffic to detour out of self-defense. No such luck with Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Surprise number three should not have surprised me in the least. After all, I was born and raised in Chicago and had plenty of experience with the weather. But I didn’t expect fifty degree temperatures in June. The cold, plus the dampness brought on by torrential rains certainly did not create a balmy South Pacific atmosphere. It was more like the North Atlantic. Mother Nature was obviously in the throes of severe PMS. Perhaps The Unsinkable Molly Brown would have been a better choice of repertoire at that time. I had every reason to exclaim, “Oh, my aching back.”
Opening night there was a washout and a blowout. Not only heavy rains, but also funnel-shaped clouds and heavy winds made it impossible to perform that night. Unfortunately, we were able to do the show every night for two weeks after that. The storms had subsided, but the low temperature and the dampness persisted. Each time I had to walk up the aisle to exit became more and more of a chore. I would have sworn that at every performance it seemed as though the aisles were almost perpendicular to the stage. My lower back was hurting and I was in a very weary mood.
After closing in Chicago, I was due in Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s new version of The Great Waltz. This was based on the lives of Johann Strauss, Junior and Senior. I played Strauss Senior. The music was adapted from the compositions of the younger Strauss. Needless to say, The Blue Danube, Tales of the Vienna Woods, and The Emperor Waltz contributed most of the songs and dances. It was a lavish production, beautifully staged and directed by Albert Marr. Without doubt Edwin Lester was a great producer, as witnessed by all of his work. He was the original producer of Wright and Forrest’s brilliant musical Kismet, which first played in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and which he later brought to Broadway.
Our strong cast included Metropolitan Opera soprano Jean Fenn, a beautiful woman with a beautiful lyric soprano voice. Type-wise, she was perfect for the role of the glamorous opera diva, acting and singing wonderfully. Johann Strauss Jr. was assumed by a fine, handsome young tenor, Frank Poretta. Poretta sang successfully for several years at the New York City Center Opera. He was, vocally and acting-wise an ideal young romantic lead. Wilbur Evans, one of Broadway’s great singing actors graced the cast, as did a talented ingénue, Anita Gillette. Leo Fuchs, who was a popular Yiddish character actor, supplied a fine comedic touch. It was an excellent cast. All good colleagues.
Rehearsals proceeded smoothly enough, but I was still suffering with the excess baggage of the aching lower back generously contributed by the Hillside torture tent. To further add to my lugubrious mood was my break-up with a beautiful lady with whom I had been amorously involved. She shared top billing with my sacroiliac when it came to mood depression. Actually, the end of the soured affair turned out to be the best thing for us both. But as is usually the case, people carried away by galloping gonads often wind up with some kind of a pain in the posterior at the time of the denouement.
My backache became a major problem during a scene in the “Great Waltz” when I was supposed to pick up a kerchief dropped by Miss Fenn. As I bent slightly to retrieve it, a terrible wrench shot across my lower back and I was hard put to straighten up. Jean Fenn saw my dilemma and immediately and gracefully picked up the kerchief and we carried off the scene well enough, so I could get off stage. She was an example of professionalism and an exemplary colleague.
I managed to finish the performance, but the following day I could barely move. As a result I was hospitalized by orders of Dr. Ben Shenson. He and his brother, Dr. Jess, were a Godsend to many of the San Francisco Opera Company artists. Drs. Jess and Ben often went out of their way to treat singers who were suffering from a number of ailments. The Shensons were strong supporters of culture in the city and contributed greatly to its artistic life. After a few days I was out of the hospital. Although I was feeling much better, my back kept sending occasional signals making me aware that the end of the problem was not yet in sight. Sharp twinges from time to time would occur during performances which, though not crippling, made things very uncomfortable. To say the least, my frame of mind was hardly picture perfect under the circumstances.
It was during this time that my manager called from New York regarding an inquiry he received from Rudolf Bing. Mr. Bing made an offer for me to sing the role of Enobarbus in Samuel Barber’s new opera, Antony and Cleopatra. It was to open the new Metropolitan Opera House. I was tired and hurting and not in the mood to undertake any new assignments. I had the greatest respect for Samuel Barber who was not only a great composer, but a great gentleman as well. He understood voices very well and sang pleasantly himself. But in spite of my admiration for Mr. Barber, I just felt I hadn’t the energy or the will to involve myself with a new work. I told my manager to report to the Met that I wasn’t interested.
Within minutes after I hung up the phone, it rang once more. It was Bing calling. He seemed totally shocked that I had turned down the offer, and said so. He had to know the reason. I told him that I was tired from having learned so many roles and needed a respite. He tried to persuade me to change my mind. The conversation ran on for what seemed an hour. Finally I said to him, “Besides the reasons I’ve given you, I haven’t seen the score, so how do I know if it’s right for me?” That slowed him down for a moment. He finally said, “Before you say no, you must talk to Sam Barber. He wants very much to have you in this production. I’ll have him call you.”
Sure enough, within the hour Sam Barber phoned. He sounded genuinely upset that I didn’t want to be in the opera. “Giorgio, non mi abbandonare!” he said in very good Italian. I really liked him personally and, of course, had the greatest respect for his brilliance as a composer. But I still didn’t feel up to taking on another huge task. It seemed that the more I made excuses the more valuable I became to both him and Bing. Finally I told him, as I had just told Bing, that I hadn’t seen the score, so how could I know if it was something I could do well. Then he said that he knew my voice very well and that he had written the role of the Old Doctor in his opera “Vanessa” for me.
True enough, but I told him I would still like to see the score. He answered that the score wasn’t finished, but he would be glad to send me the libretto. In fact, he insisted on sending me the libretto. He thought perhaps I didn’t consider the role big enough, but that never entered my mind.
Two days later I received the libretto. I read it through once but couldn’t quite make it all out. I thought perhaps I had missed something. So I read through it again. It followed Shakespeare’s play pretty well but again it didn’t seem to be cohesive. I didn’t find anything wrong with the role I was offered, but still I felt something was wrong. I put it aside for the night to see if I slept on it, might it make more sense in the morning? Next morning I tried again and still wasn’t satisfied. I must confess that something else troubled me. The conductor of the piece was to be Thomas Schippers and the stage director was to be Franco Zeffirelli. It was my understanding that Zeffirelli had a great deal to do with the editing of the Shakespeare play for the libretto. Well, even The Reader’s Digest didn’t attempt to do that, thank God. So perhaps that had something to do with my incapacity to fully understand the libretto, while still admitting to myself that the problem might just be me.
But with all due respect for the notable talents of composer, conductor and stage director, I somehow felt that Samuel Barber would be caught in a maelstrom. And I didn’t want to be around the Sturm und Drang. But most of all, my decision was based on my physical and emotional state at the time.
Bing called me again and asked me if I had read the libretto and I told him I had. He pointed out that the role was rather lengthy and very important. I told him I never doubted it would be. He asked what was wrong, and I told him I couldn’t quite follow the libretto. He told me it was Shakespeare. I told him, “Not by me it isn’t.” At that point I think he was convinced I’d lost my sanity.
The rest of the conversation went something like this:
Bing: “But this will be a great event; the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House. It will be an historic occasion. You will be in the opening night cast!”
Tozzi: “Can you name the singers who were in the opening night cast of the old Met?”
Bing: “Well, no I can’t.”
Tozzi: “So much for its history!”
Bing: “Well then, if you won’t accept this role, I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything after next year.”
Tozzi: “Mr. Bing, I don’t want you to be unhappy. But on the other hand, at this point I’m more concerned that I shouldn’t be unhappy. So I’ll tell you what. Let’s just call it quits, and no hard feelings.”
And with that I hung up and sat there, staring at the wall and going kind of numb. I didn’t feel as though I had won a victory, because consciously I wasn’t really fighting any person, or other entity. I had nothing against Rudolf Bing, the Met, Samuel Barber, or anyone. I just felt psychologically and physically numb.
An hour or so later my manager phoned to tell me he’d just heard from Bing. I thought all had been said that was needed to be said. “What would he have to say?” I asked.
“He wanted to know what role you would like to sing at the new Met!” My manager was very surprised because he thought I was being an idiot to turn down Antony and Cleopatra. Frankly, I was also beginning to wonder about my sanity. The query came as a bolt out of the blue.
“Tell him I’d like to sing the role of Hans Sachs in Meistersinger, I shot back, and not really giving it any mind, ended the call.
After a brief pause I thought, “What the hell am I doing? Here I am telling the man I’m tired of having learned so many roles and now I’m asking for one of the longest roles in the entire repertoire? And in German?” My heart started to speed up and I started to feel pretty nervous. But then my inner voice said, “He’ll never buy it, so what am I getting excited about?” and I slipped into a funk.
Again the phone rang and this time I picked it up nervously. It was my manager. This time his message was, “Bing thinks it’s a great idea and he wants you to do it!”
That was it! The die was cast! Pride would not let me ‘chicken out’ of the deal. As tired as I felt, I figured I may as well go for broke. The role was one I had admired for a long time, never really dreaming that I would, or even could, ever do it. So here I was at the ‘fork in the road,’ and as Yogi Berra admonished, I took it. Make sense? Nothing seemed to at that point. But the challenge suddenly made me feel alive again. I guess I was just too naïve to be frightened about the project. This was what I really needed to pull me out of the doldrums. I suddenly felt stimulated. Even my backache didn’t seem to matter as much. Deep inside I had a good feeling about it all.
I took on new strength and energy in the performances of The Great Waltz and finished the run of the show with great enthusiasm. I eagerly looked forward to studying the role of Hans Sachs. For some unknown reason, I always seemed to work better under stress. Perhaps the adrenalin generated by the pressure was the stimulus I needed.
I began in earnest to work on the score when I got back East in the fall of 1965. Of course, I had a year in which to learn the role, but I also had a full season of performing ahead of me as well. As they say, ‘it was a full plate and then some,’ but I pitched in enthusiastically. I had the old recording with Paul Schoeffler singing Sachs. I started with intense woodshedding to learn the words and notes. My friend and accompanist, Max Walmer, a fine pianist and wonderful soul and friend, patiently repeated phrases over and over again. I told him that we had to work as if I never knew a note of music and had to learn by rote. This way I would be singing the part into my voice as I went along. Expletives galore turned the air blue when I would run into musical or textual snags. I also had the services of a brilliant young pianist named Samuel Sanders who also spent hours patiently with me, following the same routine. Both of these pianists/coaches were thorough musicians, patient and, fortunately, blessed with a healthy sense of humor.
At that same time, my coach Max Walmer mentioned that he was coaching a new coloratura soprano who had a remarkably beautiful voice and an excellent vocal technique. He asked if I would come to hear her sing and give him my opinion of her talent. I told him to arrange for my next lesson time to be right after hers; then I would arrive early in order to hear her. Max agreed.
The next day I went for my appointment with Max, arriving about twenty minutes early. I took the elevator to the sixth floor and went to the studio door. I heard a truly magnificent voice singing the Puccini aria, Il bel sogno di Doretta. I stood before the door entranced by that voice. I said to myself, “If that girl even looks half as good as she sounds, she’ll be a knockout!”
I rang the doorbell. The music stopped. The door opened and Max said, “Come in Giorgio.”
I saw a beautiful petite girl standing at the piano. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just walked directly to her extending my hand and she, smiling placed her hand in mine. I must admit that I was completely smitten. To tell the truth I don’t remember if I said a word as I felt her hand. I remember only that in my mind I wanted her to be mine. Even now as I write I remember that feeling.
I also had the great advantage of being taught by the wonderful Met coaches, of whom I have already made mention. Their vast knowledge of the language and the score was invaluable. Naturally, my work on “Meistersinger” was frequently punctuated by rehearsals and performances of other operas during the season. I worked hard to nurture my vocal resources without sacrificing the quality of my current performances. It was not an easy thing to do, considering the volume of the study, rehearsals and performances I was already involved with. To add to the burden, my lower back problem from time to time would make its presence felt with varying degrees of severity.
During this entire period my voice held up very well. I kept mentally thanking my early teachers who vocalized me into the habit of keeping a constant flow of breath. Listening to the recording of Schoeffler as Sachs was an excellent learning source, and of course I had my memories of his performances from the times I sang Pogner to his Sachs. What a wonderful education it was to rehearse and perform with such great artists! One learns things that can never be gotten from books. I was also grateful for having been indoctrinated into observing and listening to others at work. Although the pitch problems that resulted from my accident at the Met, which cropped up here and there were additionally tedious, I had acquired the knack of overcoming them so that they did not constitute a stumbling block. [Note: Mr. Tozzi was injured by falling scenery in Die Zauberflöte. See also Bernheimer, Martin. “Reunion: Giorgio Tozzi. Opera News, July 2002, Vol. 67. No. 1]
The term “woodshedding” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Slang. To practice on a musical instrument.” I wonder if perhaps it has anything to do with the phrase, “To take someone to the woodshed?” Of course, that implies punishment. But to any performer who is intent on getting a musical composition into his body, mind and soul, learning by rote is more an act of love than it is of punishment. The eruptions of expletives during the process are a form of letting off the steam of impatience with oneself, which is healthy with or without vulgarities. Besides, every artist is an individual, as is everyone on this planet; therefore each one has his or her own way of letting off the steam of frustration whether it erupts like Vesuvius, or merely pops like bubble gum. Along these lines, I recall an acquaintance telling me that she stopped at Max Walmer’s door and overheard me working on the role with him. She said that it sounded very good as I was singing, but that my salty punctuating at any mistakes were more than a bit embarrassing. She said that she listened through “several defecations” and “a few fornications” not to mention “some imprecations.” Finally, she left before too many obscenities assaulted her sense of propriety. Upon learning that my expletives went through the door, in order not to scandalize others passing by, I resorted to muttering them sotto voce.
I kept up the hectic pace through the year (1966) and, as November rolled around, I was scheduled for rehearsals. My debut in the role was the first scheduled performance of “Meistersinger” that season. I was also scheduled to sing the Texaco Broadcast of it in January.
The rehearsals were with Maestro Joseph Rosenstock conducting and Nathaniel Merrill directing. Both stage director and conductor were fine artists and of incalculable help. My colleagues were very supportive. Jean Fenn, with whom I had done The Great Waltz the year before for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera was doing Eva; Sándor Kónya was Walther, Ezio Flagello did Pogner, Carl Doench sang Beckmesser and Mildred Miller did the role of Magdelene, all of them notable performers, to say the least. Of course, the full complement of characters playing the rest of the Meisters rehearsed as well. These staging rehearsals were done, as usual, with piano accompaniment.
The one fly in the ointment was the cold, damp New York winter that made my lower back problem flare up. I was uncomfortable to say the least. At times a wrong move would send a whacking pain across my back, often immobilizing me for a while. I was given strong pain medications and had a few chiropractic “adjustments” which only served to adjust the practitioner’s bank account.
I had not yet had what is referred to as a Sitzprobe (sit down rehearsal) also referred to as “Prova al’ Italiana” (rehearsal Italian style). Such a rehearsal is held with all present: singers, orchestra and conductor. It does not include staging. It is strictly a full musical rehearsal and is crucial for the sake of integrating all elements involved. Singers are encouraged to sing full out at these rehearsals, but not really obliged to do so. Most usually find it a good opportunity to learn to pace their singing with the orchestra.
As luck would have it, just a couple of days before I was to have this rehearsal, my back was acting up more than usual. A friend highly recommended a reputable Osteopath who “would certainly help ease my problem.” Desperate to find relief, I made an appointment to see this miracle worker. His office looked rather business like, being furnished with what looked like an array of scientific gadgetry, but when push came to shove he more or less did the usual thing chiropractors did, namely, pushed and shoved, and twisted and whatever. This ritual took place early in the morning.
I left his office, went down to the street and hailed a taxi. I was due for another staging rehearsal. The cab arrived at the tunnel leading to the parking structures and the stage door of the Met at Lincoln Center. I paid the driver and started to leave the car. The moment both my feet touched the pavement, a sharp, grinding pain shot across my lower back and I cried out in distress. The cab driver stomped on the accelerator and took off like a rocket, leaving me standing at the curb. I started to fall forward. Luckily, there was a fire hydrant directly in front of me and I was able to break the fall by bracing my hands on it. But I could not straighten up in order to walk to the stage door. I was frozen in this awkward angular position, feeling the intense pain.
A couple of stage hands came by and saw my distress. They could not have been nicer. They helped me move through the stage door and had me lie down on a padded bench in a locker room. Every move was agony. Although I could not attribute that seizure to the ministrations of the osteopath, I have never set foot in another osteopath’s office since then. Caveat emptor became a permanent phase in my medical vade mecum.
Someone placed a call to my physician, who recommended I be taken to the offices of a team of specialists, noted for their skill in dealing with back problems. Before taking me there, I was asked if there was anyone, relative or close friend who should be notified in order to look after things for me. I immediately gave them the phone number of Monte Amundsen, the very special young lady I had met in Max Walmer’s studio. We had been dating; I felt a warm closeness to her and wanted her to be near me.
Monte accompanied me to the offices of the specialists and then to the hospital where the doctors had me admitted immediately. It was a great comfort to have her with me. I felt I could count on her. Obviously, this particular symptom of wanting her with me was termed “love.”
The doctors said I had all the classical symptoms of a ruptured spinal disk. However, the muscles of my back were so contracted that before any further steps could be taken, they would have to be completely relaxed. And so the pills, shots, and whatever other palliatives were handy, were all trotted out and duly administrated. So as not to prolong the reader’s agony along with mine, I will mercifully spare you some of the more sordid details.
I was kept in the hospital for two weeks, which meant I missed the orchestra rehearsals of Meistersinger as well as the premiere and second performances. I was in the hospital over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Rudolf Bing was very solicitous as to how I was doing by phoning me quite often. I found it very amusing that he sent me a large container of Russian Caviar. Perhaps he felt that caviar was just the thing to heal a bad back. I missed that perhaps it was meant to be used as a poultice? Instead, it was delicious; a salty adjunct to help the usual hospital fare go down more easily.
On Christmas Eve, I was pleasantly surprised by a visit from the wonderful mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias together with Andrea Velis, a very fine character tenor, and Patrick Tavernia, a young and talented assistant stage director. They brought cookies, candy, and other goodies to cheer up my evening. Although I was in traction, these good friends provided the much needed distraction and Holiday Cheer.
A frequent and always more than welcome visitor was Monte Amundsen. I always looked forward eagerly to her visits. No doubt about it, I was very much in love with her. She certainly showed her feelings toward me during one of the worst winters New York ever saw. It seems that Mother Nature was suffering from a big time bout with PMS, because she unleashed blizzards accompanied by thunder and lightning, the likes of which I prefer never to witness again. But Mother Nature couldn’t stop Monte, who came through those storms like a veteran, valiant postman.
I was released from the hospital at the end of the first week of January, just in time to celebrate my birthday at home. Fortunately, surgery was not required. It was good to be back in my own home, but I still had to be careful how I moved about. I found that a cane helped considerably.
During my first week back home I got a call from Rudolf Bing. He said that I had been scheduled for the broadcast of Meistersinger which was in a week. He realized that I had had no orchestra rehearsals. He asked Maestro Rosenstock if he thought I could perform the opera without having them. Dr. Rosenstock replied that there was not a doubt in his mind that I could do it, and do it well.
Bing: “How do you feel about it? Do you feel you can do it?
Tozzi: “There’s one sure way to find out, isn’t there?”
Bing: “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ I’m delighted and look forward to your debut in the role!”
And so I was back at work preparing to debut as Hans Sachs at a Met broadcast and just two weeks after being released from the hospital. I really don’t know whether it was bold confidence, simplemindedness, or inspirational prompting. But even now, as I think back on the beauty and magnitude of that role, I can see how the real catalyst that moved me to jump back into work was inspiration.
Naturally, the week before the broadcast I went in for more coaching to get my voice back in shape and to refresh the score. Everyone was extremely encouraging and cooperative. One thing that I have always found rather amusing was the fact that although no one seemed worried about my singing of the role, the greatest concern was whether or not my back would freeze on stage when I had to carry the prop shoemaker’s table, laden with tools, out onto the stage and then off again after that scene. It was a possibility I was very aware of at rehearsals, but I just had to learn to balance the weight of the table so that I didn’t have to bend too far over. With prompting of the sensations in my lower back I learned to do it reasonably well. By then I had abandoned the use of the cane.
At last the day arrived for the performance, January 14, 1967. I felt well that day and got to the theater warmed up and ready to go. I relaxed as my make-up was applied and got into costume. Among the well-wishers who came to say the traditional multi-lingual “break a leg” greetings was Rudolf Bing. He was especially enthusiastic in stating his confidence in me.
The performance went very well and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was very reassuring that practically every time I came offstage Bing was waiting in the wings to tell me I was doing a great job. And I felt he meant every word. I know that there were times when his critics would accuse him of being aloof, sometimes to a point of cold cruelty. But on that day he proved to me that he did appreciate singers and had great admiration and respect for all of us who could stand before the public and perform convincingly. I suppose one has always to prove oneself at every performance. In fact, there is a saying that ‘a performer is only as good as his last performance.’ Of course, the accolades of every audience are music to our ears. But it also strikes a welcome chord when the company’s head man enthusiastically shows his appreciation. And so it was at my debut in the most demanding role of my career.
The audience applause at the end of the opera overwhelmed me and that, above all, let me know that I had done well. I really didn’t know what to expect since I had an Italian voice, trained in the Italian school of singing. Would I be accepted in this very German opera? Fortunately, I didn’t have time to dwell on that thought during the performance. I was too busy loving the music, the text and the overall grandeur of the opera itself. I was too deeply involved in the role to think of anything else, including my ornery back.
After I was out of costume and makeup, freshened up and back in my street clothes, Monte and I left the theater. I autographed many programs and greeted the usual wonderful fans that were there after every performance. Monte and I got into the car and drove back home to Montclair, New Jersey.
As soon as I stepped inside I got that feeling that I had put in a long day’s work. My back as well as the rest of my body ached a bit. But my voice felt fresh. Not a trace of vocal fatigue. I still had some adrenalin charge that one gets during a performance, but I was able to start relaxing. I changed into comfortable clothes and sat in a comfortable easy chair in the den, with a drink before dinner.
The phone rang and Monte answered. She handed the phone to me and said, “It’s Mr. Bing. He wants to speak with you.” It was indeed Rudolf Bing, who said he just had to call to tell me again what a great job I had done and how grateful he and the Met were for the excellent performance I gave. I told him how helpful it was to have him encouraging me every step of the way and I, in turn, thanked him. There were more calls from friends and, with a nice fire going in the cozy den, a glass of wine and Monte there beside me; it was truly the heartwarming end of a very satisfying day.
I chuckled a bit as I thought back on where and when this day had started. A phone call while in Los Angeles a year and a half before, and an impulsive answer to an unexpected question. To give me another chuckle, I remembered Bing’s annoyance with me when I refused to do the Antony and Cleopatra, and now his solicitous attitude all day during this, my first performance of the role of Hans Sachs. He was sincere in his concern for me, and I am sure he was equally sincere in his congratulations and thanks. He proved himself to be, in my eyes, a caring and considerate human being or, as the saying goes, “A real Mensch!” The general manager of the opera company will always be viewed as Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde or both, depending on with whom you speak, and at what point in the career.
The reviews were generally good and I was satisfied. The review that gave me the greatest reassurance was that of Irving Kolodin, the chief music critic for the “New Yorker Magazine.” I always found in his reviews something valuable to learn, whether it was a rave or not. On this occasion his review of January 28, 1967, was more than favorable. One paragraph which I found to be particularly elating was the following:
Mr. Kolodin included those things which he felt would be helpful in furthering my development of the role. I always benefitted from his suggestions. I know that there were those who took exception with certain aspects of my interpretation. With all due respect, I know that certain traditional concepts die hard. One such had it that Sachs was a staid philosopher who had a purely fatherly affection for Eva. And some were outraged that “I made it look as though Sachs were really in love with Eva.” By way of apology to them, all I can say is:
Now that I had successfully faced this challenge head on, things started to change in my thinking and feeling. A new attitude emerged. I felt more secure than I had ever felt before. There was a new surge of strength charging my whole being. It seemed I could think more clearly. My confidence took on a new dimension. It was an epiphany where mind, body, soul and spirit basked in a new light. It was not arrogant pride or conceit, quite the contrary. I was in awe of how beautiful and blessed it was to be able to enjoy singing, and to participate completely in a great work once more. I had a new life.
The morning after my debut as Sachs, Monte and I were lounging in our wonderfully cozy den, having coffee, and reading the newspapers. Outside the bay window a beautiful blanket of snow coated the land and trees. A pleasant little fire in the fireplace completed the setting of a new world for me. At one point I put down the Times and just sat starring into the fireplace, watching the friendly little fire do its ballet. I looked over at Monte and a great wave of love came over me. I said to her simply, “I suppose we should get married.”
She looked at me rather surprised, smiled, and asked, “Do you really think so?”
“Yes, I do.” “OK, When?”
I got my diary and said, “Just riffle though the pages real fast and I’ll stick my finger in. Wherever it lands, that’ll be it!”
We did just that and my finger stopped between the 15th and 16th of March. Monte asked, “Which day of the two? You pick.”
I said, “Well, the 15th would make it much easier to remember our anniversary! You aren’t superstitious, are you?”
She laughed. “No, not at all . . . just happy.”
A few days later I was giving a voice lesson at my home to a young man who was recommended to me by Max Walmer. The student, Grant Spradling, had an impressive tenor voice. While I was working with him, a friend of ours Jane Widmark* who lived across the way, dropped in to chat. When we finished the lesson, Grant and I joined Monte and Jane in the kitchen. We all decided that a glass of sherry would be a nice mid-afternoon pick-me-up. We clinked glasses, said, “Cheers,” and had a sip. At that point, Monte mentioned that she and I were going to marry. Grant asked where the wedding would take place. Before Monte or I could say a word, Jane said, “You’ve got to get married here, right in this house. I’ll do all the decorating.” When Jane got that enthusiastic twinkle in her eye about a party one didn’t argue with her.
That struck both of us with a great idea. “We’ll have to get a minister to . . . ” before I could finish the sentence Grant, looking nonchalantly at the glass of sherry in his hand said, “I’ll marry you.”
Monte, Jane and I looked wide-eyed at Grant who smiled back at all of us. “I really can marry you – Really!”
“Are you a minister?” I asked
“Yes, I am,” he answered shortly.
“Of course, ordained,” he chuckled.
“This probably makes me the only opera singer with a personal chaplain,” I quipped.
Without losing a beat, Grant retorted, “You’re the only opera singer who needs one.”
I must admit that the thought of being married by a tenor sounded a bit bizarre. Ministers are usually portrayed by baritones or bassos. But as it turned out, he was indeed a minister and it was agreed that he would perform the ceremony.
On the afternoon of March 15, 1967, a light to moderate snow was falling, but that did not daunt a group of our closest friends who drove in from New York. They were all gathered in our living room to witness our marriage. Monte and I stood before Reverend Spradling, who stood in front of the glowing fireplace. He was reading Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13 . . . Though I speak with the tongues of angels and have no love, I am as a sounding gong. Right on time, we heard three mellow-toned chimes from the grandfather clock out in the hall. It made for a moment of levity which changed a sober occasion into a very merry one. I later had to convince several of my friends that the timing of the clock incident was not staged.
All proceeded smoothly in the able hands of Grant, who followed my strict orders to keep it short and to the point. I didn’t want us all to seem buried under a mountain of Hallmark Cards. I know that my aversion to saccharin, syrupy marriage admonitions stemmed from my adolescent years when I was coerced countless times into singing at weddings on Saturday and Sunday afternoons instead of going out to enjoy my school-free days playing with friends. Romance was for more intimate moments.
We celebrated for a few hours, but before too long, a blizzard started to develop and people had to leave before they were snowed in. As he was leaving Grant said, with his usual dry sense of humor, “This was the first time I literally got hot pants at a wedding.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that he had his back to the fireplace. I assured him that the blizzard would cure that on his way home.
I went on to do Sachs in other theaters and always successfully. One of the standout performances occurred when I did the uncut version of the role which took place the first time I sang in Hamburg. In fact, it was the first time I had ever sung a German role before a German audience. Perhaps I should have been very nervous about facing this new, and which was for me, awesome challenge, but I really don’t recall being terribly tense about it at all. Actually, I very much looked forward to it.
I left for Hamburg from Buenos Aires where I had just done several performances of Il barbiere di Siviglia. I took off on a Thursday and arrived in Hamburg that same evening. Monte was there waiting for me. The next day I had one piano rehearsal with Maestro Leopold Ludwig and the other singers who were the Meisters. We went through the ensemble scenes where just those of us present were involved.
On Saturday morning I met with an assistant stage director who spread out blueprints of the sets and in very short order told me the locations of my entrances and exits. And that was the extent of my rehearsals. Again, I must say that I don’t recall being terribly nervous. It was probably due to the fact that I felt very much at home in the role.
On Sunday afternoon, August 24, 1969, I met the other principals just before curtain. The soprano performing the role of Eva was Arlene Saunders, a very gifted American soprano with a beautiful voice which she used skillfully. She was an established star in Germany and a regular member of the Hamburg Opera and very popular with audiences there. The tenor was Ernst Kozub who had a beautiful voice. But I was told that he could be in magnificent voice one night and two nights later be quite the opposite. Thank goodness on this occasion he was in very fine form. Tony Blankenheim, a well-known German baritone who was especially famous for his characterizations, was the Beckmesser. His fine reputation was well merited. Among the men who were doing the various roles of the members of the Meistersinger Guild were several Americans, all of whom had been singing in Germany for several years. At that time many American singers enjoyed careers in that country and were well accepted by the audience.
Since I had, for all intent and purposes, no real rehearsal in this production I felt that I would have to resort especially to much intense eye contact with every character on stage in order to ‘bond’ with the cast, all of whom were new to me. I also resorted to the sense of ‘stage logic’ which helps to guide one to a rather natural interplay with others on stage. It all seemed to work very well. In fact, I felt as though we were all naturally conversing and interacting with one another. And that is as it should always be.
Although everyone in the cast was cordial prior to curtain, I did feel a bit of a “let’s wait and see” attitude on the part of some of the German singers. I couldn’t blame them. But at the end of the second act I was given an enthusiastic hug from Tony Blankenheim and I knew that I was really ‘in’ with my German colleagues.
At the end of the opera the audience gave us an overwhelming ovation. I was awed at the reception I received. The applause went on for well over a half hour and I could hardly believe my ears. I honestly felt in fine form during the performance, enjoying every moment of it. And now, to hear the enthusiasm of the audience was
the icing on the cake. It was an immense thrill. After all, I did feel very self- conscious since I did not speak German, except for rather rudimentary purposes. And even though I had enjoyed successes in German roles in the past, I had never sung anything in the German language in Germany. And, too, I knew that there were those who had pre-set notions as to what “German singing” should sound like, and also a stodgy concept as to what the role of Sachs called for.
Fortunately, I did not think of those things during the performance. I was too immersed in the role, and loving the opera too much to think of anything else. It’s so wonderful to leave one’s present world and persona behind, and step into the reality of the world of the opera at hand! The bridge of communication becomes so tangible that one can feel coming from the audience, a great surge of energy nourishing the strength to perform. It was essential for me not to become self- conscious of what I was doing vocally and theatrically. The important thing was to get into the text and music and thus, communicate it. It is that ability to communicate, when a performer knows his technique is reliable.
I remember walking along with Monte and her brother Alan after the performance. It was a beautiful evening, not a cloud in the sky. I said to Monte, “Not bad for an Italian boy from Chicago!”
Early the next morning I received a phone call from Rolf Liebermann, the general manager of the Hamburg Opera. He asked me when I was leaving Hamburg, because he had something important he wanted to talk about.
Liebermann greeted me cordially and asked me to sit. He had a big smile on his face so I assumed that he was pleased with yesterday’s performance. At least, I hoped that was the reason. “I understand that you don’t really speak German?”
“I’m sorry to say I don’t,” I replied.
“That’s remarkable!’ he said. “Your pronunciation is excellent as well as your diction. I would say that I
understood about 95% of everything you sang. And your interpretation of the role was very believable. I particularly enjoyed the touch of mischievousness you conveyed when dealing with Beckmesser.”
I thanked him for his praise and told him I thoroughly enjoyed singing in his theater with such a fine cast. I thought the entire company, orchestra, chorus, soloists, was excellent in every regard.
Liebermann told me that the Hamburg Opera was going to make a film for television of Meistersinger. He had invited every artist who was singing the role of Sachs to come and perform the opera on his stage. He said further that he liked me the best of all and, “I would like you to do Hans Sachs for the film.” Needless to say, I was elated. I answered very soberly that I would consider it an honor to do it. And so negotiations started immediately with my agency.
It was a done deal and some months later Monte, our toddler son Eric, and my cousin Mary were in Hamburg and I was ready to start on the filming of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
The first step was to record the soundtrack. Once the soundtrack was done to everyone’s satisfaction, it was used to play back on the set, and we singers synchronized our lip movements to the track, so it would seem that we were actually singing at the moment the filming was being done.
There were times when one or the other of us would be a bit off in lip movement, and the shot had to be done over. But fortunately that didn’t happen too often. The work progressed at a steady pace. It was wonderful to be able to portray the role on a more naturalistic level, since much of what was done in body language on stage would look too exaggerated on camera. I particularly enjoyed doing the scenes with Tony Blankenheim (Beckmesser). He created a marvelous character, and doing our scenes together was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.
Arlene Saunders did the role of Eva, and again was splendid. The wonderful American tenor, Richard Cassilly, portrayed Walther von Stolzing very impressively. Maestro Leopold Ludwig conducted the score with great sensitivity. The director was easy to work with and most helpful.
The film was shown frequently on European television with much success. It was also shown on screen at the Avery Fischer Hall in New York. I remember being warmly greeted by Maestro Leonard Bernstein, who afterward gave me a hug as he congratulated me on what he called “a brilliant performance.” I was deeply moved by the broad and enthusiastic reception I was shown on that occasion.
In retrospect, I realized that my original refusal to participate at the new Met’s opening night performance of Antony and Cleopatra was really motivated more by fatigue and physical pain, although that did affect my moody behavior. I also realized that my telling Bing that I wished to do Hans Sachs was not the “shoot from the hip” that it seemed at first. And now, as I write, I am convinced that it all was the result of a feeling in my soul that I came to that “fork in the road,” and I needed to follow a different path. I had for so long trudged a familiar path in my career that I began spinning my wheels, as it were, and had begun to dig a rut under me. I chose the role that I had long loved and coveted, but was never sure that I could do.
Perhaps it was frustration from this need that caused my feeling of fatigue and perhaps the physical pain resulted from the stress my frustration generated. It may also have been a guardian angel, who gave me a good swift kick to make me pick up the challenge. Or it may have been my own innate talent breaking free of past limitations. Whatever it was, the role of Hans Sachs opened up a whole new facet of my talent and my life.
I have heard the opinion expressed that Wagner may have been a harbinger of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. No one can deny that Wagner was anti-Semitic. I have also heard the opinion expressed that there are National Socialist overtures expressed in one of Hans Sachs’ speeches. No one can deny that the finale of the opera might possibly be construed by some as an appeal to a National Socialist philosophy. But, as Umberto Eco, the great Italian semanticist argues, there are limits to interpretation. The interpreter may not really know the mind of the author, as is all too often the case. An old saying tells us that, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But then, the same could be said of ugliness.
When I became infatuated with Die Meistersinger I did not see it in any way connected with an anti-Semitic or political spin. I saw Hans Sachs as a true artistic idealist, a champion of unbiased musical creation and interpretation. He argues that the traditional rules of the Guild are good and strong. But from time to time, he urges the rules to be challenged in order for them to not only retain their strength, but to be renewed with even greater strength by acquiring newer rules though fresh, young music and poetry. He brings sparkle to the eyes and ears of the staid old Meisters by introducing them to the youthful energy of his protégé’s music, thus moving them past their artistic atrophy.
When I did Pogner, I came to the opera without any bias, social or artistic, even though I was somewhat wary of assuming a role in a language with which I had little experience. I understand how human sensitivities can and do influence interpretation. But upon reflection, I felt that Wagner was such a self-centered, ego- maniacal person that, rather than promoting any political ideal, he was demanding the recognition of his artistic genius which in his own homeland he felt was denied him. He was too wrapped up in his anger with his arch-foe, the humane person that Wagner, very mistakenly, thought himself to be.
I really don’t know exactly what went on in the mind of Wagner, but I do know what went on and goes on in my mind. I know that I certainly never associated any of the role with National Socialism or any other “ism.” For me, Hans Sachs will always be an honest believer in the highest artistic ideals of poetry and music.
Giorgio Tozzi, 2010
*Editor’s note on Jane Widmark:
One year precisely before Giorgio’s death (Memorial Day, 2011), my wife and I were in Sunlight Basin, just north and slightly west of Cody, Wyoming. There we were visiting a Cody High School friend, Richard “Hap” Ridgway and his wife Susan. I had met Susan very briefly at a HS reunion some years previous. On this occasion we chatted and I asked where she was from. Her reply was “Montclair, New Jersey.” I commented to my wife, “That’s where Giorgio lived when he was singing at the Met.” Susan looked at me, rather strangely, and asked, “Giorgio? Do you mean Giorgio Tozzi?” Utterly surprised, I affirmed and pursued her question. Susan’s mother was Jane Widmark, the neighbor who had insisted Giorgio and Monte’s wedding take place as conveyed in the preceding document.