[Note: This article originally appeared in Wagner News in March, 1988.  Photos and links were added for this website presentation.]

A Conversation with Giorgio Tozzi

By Bruce Duffie


This past January, Giorgio Tozzi celebrated his 65th birthday.  This internationally known bass has appeared all over the world in many roles, and has made a number of fine recordings.  His career started out on Broadway, but quickly settled into grand opera as his voice moved downward from baritone to bass.

In his long and varied career, Tozzi has sung many of the great roles for bass, and mentions a few as favorites: King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Boris Godounov, and the one most close to his heart – Hans Sachs, which he sang many times and also filmed.  He also sang several other Wagner parts, and in a conversation I was privileged to have with him, he discussed these roles and other aspects of a singing career.

Generally optimistic about what has gone on and what is still to come, he does lament that, “The emphasis is going away from the art of singing as being the essential of opera.  Mostly, great composers do so much for you that if you just play the tune, you can’t miss!”  He also has mixed feelings about opera in translation.  “English can help in swift dramas, but each language has its own musical sound.”  He then told me about a recent production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville where he was able to incorporate the projected titles into some of his humorous stage-business.  He also mentioned that he is
not one of those people who keeps track of performances or saves programs.  I just went from performance to performance looking forward to the next.

Tozzi continues to sing, and is now involved in stage-directing.  Shortly after his 65th birthday, we had a long and interesting phone conversation.  He had just been singing with the Arizona Opera, manages by Glynn Ross, and here is much of what we discussed…

Bruce Duffie:    How did you decide which roles you would sing and which you would postpone or decline?

Giorgio Tozzi:    When you start out, you don’t have much choice – if you’re going to have a career!  But you do them because you’re young and enthusiastic.  I was at WGN and did Chicago Theater of the Air.  I was doing baritone roles at that time such as Tonio and Rigoletto and Germont.  It was not unusual to have younger singers in those roles, whereas now people feel that singers must be in their 30’s.  That’s not a put-down of the present generation, it’s just showing how things have changed.

tozziBD:    How is the audience in Arizona different from that in New York City or San Francisco or Milan?

GT:    Audiences generally will respond with a great deal of enthusiasm when something is good, some places more so than others.  Audiences will tend to change.  Years ago when I first started at the Met in New York, the audiences still had a lot of the old-timer Europeans who would come because opera was their life-blood.  They were extremely enthusiastic and never hesitated to show it.  Within in recent years, there seems to be a different mentality.  Opera is not indigenous to the United States as it is to Europe, therefore it’s an acquired taste.  Since a lot of Americans don’t grow up with opera, when they finally do get around to accepting it and finding that it’s not going to hurt them, they love it.  There’s always that period of time that it takes to get them warmed up to it.

BD:    Are we getting them warmed up through all the recordings and TV broadcasts?

GT:    Up to a certain point.  In a way, recordings and TV broadcasts are awfully misleading, and they can be disappointing.  Not that they shouldn’t be done, but when you hear a recording you’re not actually hearing a performance.  You’re hearing what the editor in the editing room decides is going to be the performance.  Bad notes here and there can be changed to perfect ones and things can be done over, so recordings come out with a kind of perfection which is not attainable most of the time in the theater.

BD:    Does that make the recordings fraudulent?

GT:    No, not fraudulent, but I think that it takes advantage of what the medium can offer.  In that regard, the recordings per se are not fraudulent.  What is unfortunate is that often a voice that will sound with great presence on a record will not the carry the same way in the theater.  So people will go into the theater and they will be disappointed in the artist because they don’t sound like their recordings.

BD:    What can we do to combat this – if anything at all?

GT:    I think a lot of it will have to do with the way the recordings are edited.  When they get busy in the mixing room, sometimes the engineers start to impose their own taste on what’s happening.  Of course the conductor has something to say on the end product up to a point, but the pundits who are in charge of the recording industry itself generally are the ones who determine the performance of their choice.  So the artists do not have that much control over what happens.  I must say I am very, very happy to be part of many of the recordings that I have done.  To be in the company of such great artists, even if it’s a piece of shellac, is a great honor.  I am pleased with some of the recordings more than others, but generally speaking I’m pretty pleased.  But if someone goes home and plays one particular recording over and over, it can’t be compared to the performance in the theater.

BD:    Is that in any way similar to comparing a performance you heard ten years ago with the one tomorrow night?

GT:    If you’re talking about memory, it’s not comparable because memory fades or enhances.  People talk about hearing so-and-so when they were younger and they were fantastic.  I remember leaving home for basic training in World War II, and when I came home on a pass, everything was smaller.  The furniture seemed smaller and the rooms seemed smaller.  There was a change that took place within me that I hadn’t noticed because it happened so gradually as time went by prior to that.  So memory can either enhance or diminish an effect, but if you have a good ear, you can hear the magnitude of what artists of different eras were doing.  Even in the recordings I made, you could still hear the kind of scope which was being engendered by the medium of opera as a whole.  These days I find it’s not quite that common to hear performances of that particular magnitude as being the essence of opera when the visual almost takes over.  I think we have far too many superstar stage-directors.  When you hear people talking about this director’s Carmen rather than Bizet’s Carmen, then you know that people often go to see operas rather than to hear them.  We have too many directors who are willing to just get the composer out of the way and make something graphically overwhelming pictorially sumptuous and distracting as hell so people don’t know anything else is going on.  And there are many conductors who try to create a wall of sound so people will say how wonderful the orchestra sounded.  But do they go to hear a symphony or an opera?  I feel the emphasis is going away from the art of singing as being the essential of opera. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s speak about Daland.  You recorded that one…

tozziGT:    Yes, with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [See my Interview with Leonie Rysanek.]  I performed that role with them many, many times, and every time it was exciting for me because they were exciting.  Those two had electrifying voices and great personalities, and the audiences would go out of their minds over their performances.  It was wonderful to be part of an ensemble like that.  I enjoyed the role very much.  Some people say he’s a venal old man who’s trying to make a few bucks off his daughter, but they forget that what he was a product of his age.  In those days, people wanted to see to it that they could make a good marriage for their daughters, and at the same time enhance their own financial position.  And Daland doesn’t have to be that old.  Operatic fathers are stereotyped into looking like grandfathers.  If Senta is 18 years old, Daland can be 38 or 40.  They married young in those days.  It’s wrong to make every father look like the Ancient Mariner.  But he thinks he’s working out a nice arrangement for his daughter, and he’s looking to get his hands on some of the wealth that’s in the hold of the Dutchman’s ship.

BD:    But if push comes to shove, would he rather his daughter be happy, or would he want to take the money no matter what?

GT:    The only thing that we can do as artists is go along with the specifics that the composer gives us.  You can’t play a generality, you have to play specifics onstage.  So instead of playing a general kind of avarice, you have to go with each individual moment.  You have to show his lust for the jewels that the Dutchman shows him in the first scene.  When he talks to his daughter, it’s not, “You marry him or else!”, but on the contrary, he says, “Look, honey, this guy would be a good husband.  Listen to Daddy.  You couldn’t do better.”  He’s not laying down the law, he’s not an ogre in that regard, he’s trying to convince her not browbeat her.  All you have to do is study the text and listen to the music.  The whole spirit of the aria is that he’s trying to sell her on this idea.  This is where stage directors go wrong – they don’t listen to the music, or they try to impose their ideas upon the text and show what they would have done if they had written the work.

BD:    Do you prefer this opera in one act or three?

GT:    I think it has to be done in three acts.  The role of Senta is such a demanding one, and for her to just continue without a breather would make it awfully difficult.  The Dutchman has big monologue in the first act as well as the whole scene with Daland which is quite demanding.  Then to go into the second act and the beautiful duet with Senta and to go right on into the third act would be an awfully demanding thing.  It’s important to remember that singers need those moments to get their second wind, especially when you’re doing something as intense as a score like that.

BD:    Is there any chance that this, or any other Wagner score is too intense?

GT:    Oh no.  I think he did exactly what his talent and his genius led him to do.  We bandy the word genius about too much; it’s thrown around as if it was popcorn, but when you’re dealing with music of a Wagner or a Puccini or a Mozart or a Verdi, you’re talking about genius.  What demonstrates their genius is that generally there’s a certain kind of economy in what they do within the framework of what we’re expressing.

BD:    You really think you can use the word “economy” when speaking about Wagner?

GT:    Yes, for him.  When you consider that he wrote thousands and thousands and thousands of notes, try taking out a few notes.  In the play and movie Amadeus, the Prince says there are too many notes in Mozart’s music, so Mozart replies, “Which one would you like me to remove?” Sometimes the intensity is what makes it live.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk about Meistersinger – you’ve sung two different roles in that opera.

GT:    I started out doing Pogner, and that was Mr. Bing’s idea – the same as it was for me to sing Sarastro in the Magic Flute.   I didn’t speak German, but he assured me that it was no problem because a lot of singers learn roles by rote, and he felt I had the right voice for Pogner and could handle it dramatically.

tozziBD:    So he got you to do the right thing for the wrong reason!

GT:    [Laughing]  Yes!  But I’m glad he did because I found it wasn’t as fearsome as I thought it was.  And I had always had a good ear for languages to replicate them.

BD:    Is Pogner at all like Daland?

GT:    No.  There’s a difference in their approach.  First of all, Pogner is wealthy.  He’s a goldsmith.  He’s the wealthiest man in town.  He is out to prove how much he loves the arts of singing and poetry.

BD:    Is it right that he forbids Eva to marry anyone but a Master?   

GT:    That’s the difference.  With Daland, that problem never comes up.  But when Eva asks Pogner if she must marry a Master, he says absolutely.  It must be a Master that meets with her approval, but a Master no matter what.

BD:    Is Pogner happy with how it all turns out?

GT:    Oh, he’s delighted.  He couldn’t be happier, but thanks to Hans Sachs.  I remember fondly doing the role with Paul Schoeffler.  He made the opera live for me, and that’s why I decided I had to sing Hans Sachs.

BD:    When did you start singing Hans Sachs?

GT:    It was right around the time they opened the new Met.  In a way, I think that Hans Sachs is the man that Wagner wishes he could have been.  Hans Sachs has a great deal of humanity.

BD:    Wagner didn’t picture himself as Walther?

GT:    Wagner was not what you’d call a pussycat.  He was a very unsavory individual, but Walther was the product of Hans Sachs.  Walther had a few ideas, but it was Hans Sachs that helped him shape the ideas into a form which was Art in its truest sense.  So the hero of the piece is Hans Sachs.  At the end, Eva takes the laurel wreath that had been given to Walther and places it on the head of Sachs.  So everyone praises Hans Sachs because they realize that he was responsible for bringing this young man who had fresh, new ideas to a point where those ideas would be understood by all.  At the end, when Hans Sachs talks about praising German Art, some people think this is a forecast of Nazism, but I don’t think so.  Wagner is one of those people who may talk about politics, but his interest is centered only on himself.  When he says, “Praise German Art,” what he’s saying is, “Hey, give me credit. Praise Wagner.”

BD:    Is the role of Sachs too long?

GT:    Oh, no!  A funny thing about it is that when I got to the middle of the third act, the Schusterstube, my voice was really starting to feel at its peak at that point.  It just happened to suit me vocally.  It was right for my instrument and the character was right for my personality, and I enjoyed it very, very much.  I didn’t think it was long at all.  In fact, when I finished the opera I felt as though I could start all over again.

BD:    You made a film of this work?

tozziGT:    That’s right, with the Hamburg Staatsoper.  I was very flattered at that because I had made my debut in Germany as Hans Sachs, having flown in from the Colón in Buenos Aires.  I had no rehearsal really.  I just went through the part with the conductor at the piano, and the assistant stage-director brought blueprints and showed me where everything was and pointed out where I came in and where I went.  That was my rehearsal and I made my debut.  Thank God it went very well, very beautifully.  I mean that – He must have decided to be with me.  The cast was wonderful and the very next day, Rolf Liebermann asked me to do the film.  He told me that he’d had every singer who does the role perform it on the stage for him before deciding, and he wanted me to do it.  I was very, very flattered and thrilled and excited.  I couldn’t believe it.  I still didn’t speak the language, but Liebermann said he understood about 94% of everything I had sung.  I did work very hard at it.  I wore out four coaches learning the part!  I learned to think idiomatically in German, and while I was there I rented a television and watched German plays to see how the physical language, the body language, worked.  So it was exciting to do.      

BD:    Was it filmed in the opera house?

GT:    No, it was filmed in a studio.  We made a soundtrack first and then lip-synched.  That makes sense.  Singers do not look all that great up close when they’re actually producing the sound.  I like the idea that we made a proper film of it rather than doing it live.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to do it live, but if you’re going to use cameras you should avail yourself of the best possible use you can make of them.

BD:    Did you do you any other Wagner roles?

GT:    I did Gurnemanz.  Talk about a long role… Hans Sachs is longer but Gurnemanz seems longer.  Hans Sachs has a lot of dialogue.  He’s interacting with other characters.  Gurnemanz is sort of loquacious.  He gets started talking about something and gets carried away.  I must say that the Good Friday music that he sings is so beautiful that it would be worth spending days onstage just to get to that.  I also did Marke in Tristan und Isolde.  I enjoyed doing that especially with Birgit Nilsson.  [See my Interview with Birgit Nilsson.]  When I would walk off at the end to leave the stage to her for Liebestod, I would stand in the wings and listen.  It never failed to bring tears to my eyes.  She was absolutely magnificent and stunning.  In all the German repertoire she was untouchable.  I was so lucky, so fortunate to have worked with the greatest singers of my generation.  Often I felt as though I should have bought a ticket because I would enjoy it as much as the audience.  There is nothing like standing near a great artist when they are at their peak and they’re letting it go with everything they’ve got.

BD:    Most would agree that you fit in that great ensemble!

GT:    You can’t help but catch fire.  We feed each other when we’re onstage.  We can’t just go out and do a number and sell ourselves to the audience.  We’ve got to interact.  That’s when it’s exciting.  I thank God for having made me a singer and still being able to do it.

BD:    You’re doing some stage directing now?

GT:     Yes, and I’m enjoying that very much also.

BD:    When you’re directing, do you remember that it’s the voice first and not director?

GT:    I absolutely do.  If you’re going to be a good stage director for opera, you have to put the audience’s focus where it belongs.  The music tells you where it belongs and you have to give the singer every opportunity to be at his or her best.  You don’t ask them to run up and down stairs or do handsprings before doing a difficult aria.  You can still make something visually attractive and believable within the framework of the musical task at hand.  In fact, if it doesn’t come out of the music, I think it’s a dismal failure.

BD:    I’m sure your productions are not failures!

GT:    [laughing]  So far I haven’t had any complaints.

BD:    What advice do you have for the younger singers today?

GT:    Keep your eye on the ball.  Remember what comes first.  You have to have everything ready so when the opportunity presents itself, you can go on.  That means you work on your technique, the basics of singing.  You also have to have the mechanics of singing down pat.  The mechanics has to do with how you produce the sound, and technique is what you do with the sound once you start communicating the musical values.  Where you eventually sing will take care of itself, but if you start out thinking I’m going to sing La Scala or the Met, you’re distracting yourself from what your goal should be, and that is to sing as best you can and express as deeply and as completely as you can.  If you can accomplish that, the rest will take care of itself.  Also I would warn singers to never, never, never sign with a personal manager.  Personal managers are anathema.  Agents have to be bonded and franchised by unions, so there is a certain amount of protection that the artist has.  Personal managers have none of those restrictions, and too often they are piranhas and barracudas.  Difficult as it is to learn how to sing and how to develop as an artist, it’s even more difficult to get someone to represent you honestly and fairly.  That is not to discourage the young singers.  Anybody that has a gift, a talent, has a responsibility to make use of that talent, and the pleasure that can be derived is wonderful.  Rossini said it best, “Music is a wonderful art, but an ugly profession.”  We all love the part of it that is the art.  It’s a thrill.  But when it comes to the business end, it’s pretty grim.

BD:    Thank you for spending this time with me.

GT:    I appreciate the call, and I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

*     *     *     *     *

Bruce Duffie continues his work with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and also being the voice for Classical Collections aboard all flights on United Airlines.  Those programs are also included aboard Air Force One, the President’s Aircraft.  Next time in Wagner News, another bass:  Kurt Moll on his 50th birthday; and in the summer, Christopher Keene, conductor of the Artpark Ring.  [See my Interview with Christopher Keene.]  Then in the fall, director August Everding on his 60th birthday.  [See my Interview with August Everding.]

Giorgio Tozzi, Esteemed Bass at the Met, Is Dead at 88

Published June 2, 2011 The New York Times [with slight corrections, and the addition of links]

Giorgio Tozzi, a distinguished bass who spent two decades with the Metropolitan Opera and also appeared on film, television and Broadway, died on Monday in Bloomington, Ind. He was 88.

The cause was a heart attack, his son, Eric, said.

At his death, Mr. Tozzi (pronounced TOT-zee) was a distinguished professor emeritus at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he had taught since 1991. He was previously on the Juilliard School faculty.

Esteemed for his warm, smooth voice; skillful acting; pinpoint diction; and authoritative stage presence — he was 6 foot 2 in his prime — Mr. Tozzi sang 528 performances with the Met. He was so ubiquitous there for so long that The New York Times was later moved to describe him (admiringly) as “inescapable.”

Mr. Tozzi made his Met debut as Alvise in “La Gioconda,” by Amilcare Ponchielli, in 1955. Reviewing the performance, The New York Post wrote that he “proved to have a voice of beautiful quality,” adding, “It was rich in texture and expertly handled both as to characterization and technique.”

His most famous performances at the Met include the title roles in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”; Ramfis in Verdi’s “Aïda”; Don Basilio in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”; Philip II in Verdi’s “Don Carlo”; and Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Meistersinger von Nürnberg.”

He originated the role of the Doctor in Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” which had its world premiere at the Met in 1958. Conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, the production also starred Eleanor Steber and Nicolai Gedda.

Mr. Tozzi’s last performance with the Met was in 1975, as Colline in Puccini’s “La Bohème.”

He also sang with the San Francisco Opera, La Scala and other companies and appeared as a soloist with major symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Europe.

On film Mr. Tozzi dubbed the singing voice of the actor Rossano Brazzi in the role of Emile de Becque in “South Pacific” (1958), directed by Joshua Logan. (Mr. Tozzi had played the role himself, opposite Mary Martin, in a West Coast production of the musical the year before.)

On the small screen he sang King Melchior in the 1978 television film of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” also starring Teresa Stratas.  [See Bruce Duffie’s Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.] 

On Broadway he received a Tony nomination for the role of the lonely California grape farmer Tony Esposito in the 1979 revival of Frank Loesser’s operatic musical comedy “The Most Happy Fella.” (The award went to Jim Dale for “Barnum.”)

Mr. Tozzi was sometimes asked from what part of Italy he hailed. The answer was Chicago, where he was born George John Tozzi on Jan. 8, 1923. He began singing as a teenager but entered DePaul University planning to major in biology. He soon returned to music, studying with Rosa Raisa, Giacomo Rimini and John Daggett Howell.

After Army service in World War II Mr. Tozzi began his vocal life as a baritone. He made his debut (as George Tozzi) in 1948, singing Tarquinius in Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Rape of Lucretia.” Staged at the Ziegfeld Theater on Broadway, the production also starred Kitty Carlisle.

Mr. Tozzi later moved to Milan for vocal study with Giulio Lorandi, an experience that cost him — literally — the shirt off his back. Money from the G.I. Bill earmarked for his lessons was delayed for nine months. First, Mr. Tozzi pawned his cameras. Then he pawned his suitcases. Finally, he pawned his clothes.

The act was prophetic. In his many outings as Colline, the threadbare philosopher in “La Bohème,” Mr. Tozzi would sing “Vecchia Zimarra,” an aria about pawning his coat.

Mr. Tozzi emerged from Milan a bass. Soon afterward, at the suggestion of RCA Victor, for whom he made some of his early recordings, he became Giorgio Tozzi, with its fittingly operatic overtones.

As an actor Mr. Tozzi had guest roles on several television series of the 1970s and ’80s, including “The Odd Couple,” “Baretta,” “Kojak” and “Knight Rider.”

Mr. Tozzi’s first wife, the former Catherine Dieringer, a singer, died in 1963. His survivors include his wife, Monte Amundsen, also a singer, whom he married in 1967; their children, Eric Tozzi and Jennifer Tozzi Hauser; and three grandchildren.

He received three Grammy Awards, for a “Figaro,” released in 1959, and a “Turandot” (1960), both conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, and an “Aïda” (1962) conducted by Georg Solti.  [See Bruce Duffie’s Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf, and his Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]

In an interview with The Times in 1961, Mr. Tozzi waxed philosophical about the peculiar onus of being an operatic bass.

“We have to sing short roles as well as long ones, unlike other leading singers,” he said. “I don’t mind short roles — they can be challenging. But sing them once, and someone says to you:   ‘You were great! When are you going to sing a big role?’ ”

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on January 17, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  The transcript was published in Wagner News in March, 1988.  It was re-edited, photos and links were added, and it was posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.