Italo Tajo, the shimmering secondary star of both comic and dramatic opera for nearly 30 years before starting the opera department at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, has died of heart failure.
The renowned comprimario (in Italian “with or assisting the principal singer”) whose sonorous basso voice and infectious comic mannerisms were heard and seen on stages ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, was 77. He died Monday in a Cincinnati hospital.
Tajo was part of a centuries-old operatic tradition that defined itself through talent and not the dimension of the singer’s role.
As Times music critic Martin Bernheimer noted after interviewing Tajo in 1987 as he was rehearsing for “La Boheme” at Opera Pacific in Orange County, “some small roles are, of course, bigger than others.”
Tajo, born in Italy, was in the tradition of the Metropolitan’s George Cehanovsky and Salvatore Baccaloni, whose abilities to steal scenes from better-known singing actors were legendary.
He may have represented the end of that tradition as cost-conscious opera companies increasingly turn to new, inexperienced and lesser-paid singers for the roles once assigned seasoned veterans.
Many of the character roles he sang in such romantic operas as “Tosca” and “Manon Lescaut” were performed concurrently with lead parts in “Mefistofele” and “Don Giovanni.”
For many years in the 1950s and ‘60s he was considered heir apparent to Ezio Pinza, whose roles at the Met he inherited after Pinza went on to musical comedy fame in “South Pacific.”
Tajo said he just enjoyed singing and was not averse to lesser roles other stars might have shunned.
That attitude also took him to musical comedy, where he enjoyed enviable notices in a touring production of “Fanny” in 1957.
He told Bernheimer he liked both low comedy and high tragedy and his repertoire reflected that.
He made his professional debut in Milan in 1935 and sang Banquo, Ramfis, Figaro, Don Pasquale and Dulcamara. In 1948 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Don Basilio in “The Barber of Seville.”
Tajo (pronounced Tah-yoe) recorded many of the Mozart and Verdi operas, made several opera films in Italy and then began to concentrate more on teaching.
His last Met performance was in 1991 in “Tosca.”