MASTER COMPRIMARIO : Italo Tajo: 'I Just Wanted to Be on the Stage'

Some sage said it long ago: There are no small roles, only small performers. Chances are, the sage in question was a comprimario .

A comprimario , in case your Italian could stand a little brushing, is a singer who takes on secondary roles. As the term literally implies, he (or she, if she is a comprimaria ) is "with the principal."

The comprimario can be the hero's friend, the heroine's father, the villain's henchman, the resident servant, anybody's brother-in-law, the ominous messenger, the much-needed comic relief. . . .

It isn't always a rewarding job, but someone has to do it. Few people, these days, are doing it well.

In the good old days, comprimarios plied a coveted and respected trade. Beloved experts such as Alessio de Paolis and George Cehanovsky at the Metropolitan Opera devoted their lives to defining a character and delineating a dramatic situation with a few deft, polished, individual strokes.

They knew that they had little time in which to convey a great deal. They knew how to assert themselves by the way they stood and moved, the way they dressed and applied their make-up, the way they colored their voices and inflected the text.

When a De Paolis was on the stage, Goro, the quirky and slightly sleazy marriage broker in "Madama Butterfly," became a major force. When a Cehanovsky was on duty, one suddenly noticed the crusty dignity of Prince Yamadori.

Some small roles are, of course, bigger than others. And some celebrated artists don't mind taking on modest assignments on occasion.

Salvatore Baccaloni, the great buffo and inveterate scene-stealer, sang the incidental part of the Sacristan in "Tosca" far more often than he undertook the title role in "Gianni Schicchi." Hans Hotter, the definitive Wotan of our time, was never averse to imparting majesty to the isolated measures of the High Priest in "Die Zauberfloete." (In the process, he inadvertently reduced Sarastro--the central basso--to a comparative wimp, but that is a matter for another time.)

The comprimario has fallen on bad times. These days, companies often draft young, bland and inexperienced upstarts--would-be heroes--for duties that used to be reserved for old pros. Sometimes, impresarios content themselves with inexpensive nonentities. In either case, the secondary characters fade awkwardly into the canvas woodwork, and the piece is thrown off balance.

Once in a while, however, the old standards prevail. This week, for instance, opera lovers in Orange County can savor object lessons from Italo Tajo, a singing actor par excellence who is illuminating two minor roles in "La Boheme" at the Performing Arts Center. (Pronounce his name " Tah -yoe.")

Returning to Southern California after an absence of nearly 30 years and celebrating the 52nd anniversary of his debut, he is portraying Benoit, the befuddled landlord, and Alcindoro, the thwarted sugar-daddy, on behalf of the Opera Pacific.

Tajo obviously is going strong--and delighted to be doing so--on the eve of his 72nd birthday. Being a comprimario is something relatively new for him, however. In his estimable prime, he was a basso cantante of such authority and flair that many an aficionado proclaimed him the logical successor to Ezio Pinza, whose roles he inherited at the Met in 1948.

But Tajo didn't like being typecast, and, unlike Pinza, he was happy to explore comic as well as heroic challenges. From the start, he sang the funny con-man Dulcamara as well as the elegantly evil Mephistopheles, Mozart's lowly Leporello as well as the aristocratic and sinister Don Giovanni.

One one occasion in San Francisco, he actually played servant to Pinza's master. Reminiscing over al dentissimo fettucine in the restaurant of his Costa Mesa hotel, he admits that this did not turn out to be a happy encounter.

"It was in 1948. I was taking over Leporello from my dear friend Baccaloni. Pinza agreed, perhaps against his wishes, to come in for a brief rehearsal on the day of the performance. He was not pleasant. He didn't look at me, didn't want his picture taken with me. Perhaps he resented comparisons between us that had appeared in magazines. Perhaps he didn't like the publicity surrounding my debut.

"I was disappointed. He had been one of my great idols, along with (Tancredi) Pasero and (Nazareno) de Angelis."

Tajo is generous in comments about his own contemporaries and successors. The snub from Pinza obviously haunts his memory. He volunteers only kind words for Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Boris Christoff and Cesare Siepi, lavish praise for Giulio Neri. Then he squints, sighs and speaks nostalgically of an American.

"One of the greatest basses who ever existed was Norman Treigle. He was incredible, especially as Boito's Mefistofele. When he was beginning his career, I once sang Masetto in 'Don Giovanni' while he sang the Commendatore. I will never forget that huge, black sound coming from that small, frail body. He was unique."

Tajo eventually followed Pinza into musical comedy. Civic Light Opera aficionados in Los Angeles may remember his 1957 stint in Harold Rome's "Fanny."

He also made his mark as a voice teacher. Building a formidable workshop empire at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory, he helped develop such talents as Kathleen Battle and Barbara Daniels.

"It was an unbelievable experience," he says, the basso tones still rolling opulently. "I found out what I knew, what I had learned in 30 years on the stage. I tried to make my knowledge serve the students, to bring them understanding of a broad repertory, to make them appreciate and understand a variety of periods and styles."

Most observers assumed that academia's gain had been opera's loss. In the mid-1970s, however, Tajo was persuaded to return to scenes of his earlier triumphs. After a hiatus of 26 years, the Metropolitan Opera invited him to illuminate relatively minor roles in such works as "Boheme," "Tosca," "Gianni Schicchi," "Manon Lescaut" and "Falstaff." This, however, did not preclude an occasional major assignment such as Don Pasquale.

"I didn't care if the roles were big or small," he recalls. "I just wanted to be on the stage."

Italo Tajo made his operatic debut as, of all things, a Wagnerian giant. He sang Fafner, in Italian, in a Turin "Anello" on March 19, 1935. Although the heavy Germanic repertory represented something of an artistic cul-de-sac for the young basso, it did yield certain dividends. The conductor, Fritz Busch, took him from Turin to Glyndebourne, where he sang in the chorus.

Tajo did not see this as a comedown. "Busch thought Italians should sing the Italian Mozart operas, and I was eager for the experience. I learned to lighten my voice, to make the music speak with the words. What's more, I got to work with Carl Ebert, a very nice man and an excellent stage director. Those were formative times."

When he returned for a second British summer, Tajo was called upon to sing the Vengeance Aria of Dr. Bartolo--not the whole role, just the aria--in the premiere recording of "Le Nozze di Figaro." The historic set is still available on various LP reissues.

"I was still in the chorus at the time. I really don't know why Busch wanted me to substitute for the British singer (Norman Allin) who sang the rest of the opera. Perhaps the maestro found my Italianita more congenial for the patter. In any case, I was happy for the opportunity, and I was prepared."

Preparation would seem to be a Tajo Leitmotif.

"A few years later, they needed someone in Rome to sing Baron Ochs in 'Der Rosenkavalier.' I had never sung in that opera, but I had studied it, researched the character as an actor, not just as a singer. I even had assembled my costumes and prepared my make-up for the role.

"I knew what I wanted to do with it, and what I could do. When the invitation came, I was ready.

"It has often been like that. At the beginning, I always prepared by myself. If a role interested me, I studied it for no special reason. I knew the engagements would eventually come. I wanted to be ready.

"I was old-fashioned. I made my career the old way."

Tajo's ability to play low comedy as well as high tragedy was no fluke. "I always wanted to be an actor," he says. "I learned to use, not abuse, the voice. I learned to act with the voice. The important thing, whether being serious or funny, was to humanize the character, to avoid exaggeration and cliche.

" 'Don't make people laugh just for a laugh,' I always tell my students. That is too easy."

Tajo did not confine his singing to the stage. In the 1940s, he made several successful opera films in Italy. Then, as was almost inevitable in the wake of national Pinza-worship, his Latin charm and obvious theatrical skills attracted some attention in Hollywood.

"I liked the idea of being a movie star. I actually did a test, and MGM offered me a seven-year contract. It was very flattering. Then I looked around. I saw Rossano Brazzi, and he was getting no work. I worried about what kind of roles I might play, if any. I decided to stick to what I was already doing.

"It was OK."

An understatement.

The opera workshop at Cal State Fullerton is preparing a production of Rossini's "Cinderella," a.k.a. "Cenerentola." Tajo agrees to take time out between his own "Boheme" rehearsals for some coaching.

The students, very young, rather green and emphatically eager to please, look a bit awed by their illustrious guest.

Tajo strips off his jacket, puts on his glasses, places a piano-vocal score on a music stand in front of the stage and gets down to work. He allows an able neophyte to begin Don Magnifico's tirade to his two silly daughters. The junior basso makes beautiful sounds.

"No, no, no," interrupts Tajo. "The words are more important than the music. If you give dramatic expression to the words, the voice will respond better. Think more about the words. The lighter you make the voice, the better it is."

The scene progresses a few measures.

"Don't look at me," Tajo interjects. "I am just an old idiot. Think about what you are saying."

Now the tall, silver-haired grand seigneur turns to the piano accompanist.

"What does it say here? Allegro pomposo? You know what means pomposo ?" He sings the accompaniment with an inflated bounce to illustrate the point. The pianist almost gets it.

"You look so static," he tells a singer. "There must be animation in your features. Are you happy about what you are saying?"

The singer nods gravely.

"Then give us a good smile, a symbol of jolly."

Tajo gets a bit impatient when he sees the singers going through motions as if by rote.

"You must assimilate the music to the words at home. You must have your own interpretation in your blood if you are to call yourself an artist. Then, when you see the director, you can adapt to his wishes."

The student basso seems understandably intimidated, but he is brave. He proceeds with the prescribed blocking. He executes cutesy choreography. Tajo interrupts.

"The legs are important. You must know how to sit. You are Don Magnifico, not a peasant. Nothing in Rossini is vulgar. Always think of your body. You must find the character in your physique."

The daughterly sopranos attending the basso respond to his words only when properly cued. Tajo disapproves.

"This is mechanical. You must listen to him. Listening is one of the arts of acting. In order to answer, you must first listen. We must see it."

Virtuosically, he mimes two roles at once. Then, seeing that he has has amused his captive audience, he offers a bilingual quasi-apology.

" E molto difficile . It is very difficult."

A new character enters. Tajo finds the walk and the accompanying gestures unconvincing.

"What is happening here? Who are you? What are you doing here? How do you come into a room? Do you right away look at the ceiling? No. You must ask yourself these things."

It is time for the big tenor aria. The young college hero produces a wealth of pearly tones. Tajo registers mixed feelings.

"Very beautiful. But stop telling us you are a tenor. We know that. There is a drama going on for this poor guy here."

The singer gets the message, to a degree, then embarks on his first coloratura flight.

"The florid passages in Rossini," Tajo declares, "are expressions of emotion. They are not just an opportunity to show how well you can sing fast notes."

Tajo hums and gurgles a few agitated measures an octave lower than Rossini intended, sotto voce , in an ardent, husky, croaking basso. Nevertheless, the princely message is delivered. The filigree becomes urgent, not just pretty.

Tajo beams sheepishly. His temporary charges applaud. Suddenly, it all makes sense.

"It is important also to know more than the score. You must know about the libretto and the librettist. You must know the composer's life. What was he doing when he wrote this? Where was he?"

The Leitmotif returns.

"Be prepared.

"If you can sing Rodolfo in 'La Boheme,' do not wait until some one asks you. Already know the music. Already know what was happening in Paris in 1835."

The nice students look a bit stunned. Tajo has just begun to fight.

"You must bring humanity to every challenge. You must control your actions. There must be technique. Study the psychology. Bring to the stage a character who is alive."

He stresses the last word as if it were sacred.

"You must analyze, not just your part but the whole opera. You are never alone. You must learn everything in the piece to know how you can relate to it."

This comprimario knows his business, and his art. He is a master.

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